These days, it seems like almost everything is served with a splash of sriracha or a side of pickles -- funky, spicy, tangy, bold flavors are taking over. But what are these flavors doing to the American palate? Kate Krader, restaurant editor at Food & Wine, talks about her story, "Are Big Flavors Destroying the American Palate?"
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What sparked the idea?
Kate Krader: I go out to eat a lot; it's my job. Everywhere I went I started to see pickles on the table; every restaurant has a starter that has pickles on it. So many restaurants make their own hot sauces now. Every chef in America seemed to be freaking out on not just spicy, but also fermented, funky flavors.
I started to realize that I was craving them all the time. If I thought a dish wasn't seasoned enough, I would ask for hot sauce even in a place where it didn't seem like they would have hot sauce. They would produce hot sauce for me. I thought, "I think I've gotten addicted to these big, big flavors."
LRK: Chiles are everywhere. I also wonder about the pork belly thing and bacon.
KK: The pork belly, it's part of the big flavors. Bacon is its own separate universe. But it's true: Pork belly is probably arguably the most popular protein in the country, or it's probably one that people see more than they see almost anything else now. Chefs love it. It's so fatty, it's so over the top, and it speaks to this totally over-the-top food sensibility that so many people have now.
LRK: I have a theory about this: I think that those bold flavors, they became popular because of some very talented cooks, but also they are a great cover-up for sloppy cooking.
KK: I think that's a very, very smart observation. I do think that if you have a really hot sauce and your rice isn't perfectly cooked -- if you're doing some kind of a stir fry -- you definitely won't notice that the rice is a little mushy or that you put too much bacon in it or not enough bacon because the hot sauce is shouting louder than every other ingredient on the plate. I think if you're going to make perfectly a beautiful omelet or if you're going to braise a piece of meat or make a stew that doesn't have a lot of big flavors in it, there's nowhere to hide.
LRK: Who is doing this kind of cooking brilliantly and what kinds of things are they doing?
KK: I think that there are a lot of different chefs. There is definitely a new vanguard. At Food & Wine we do something called Best New Chefs every year where we highlight chefs -- a lot of them signal it.
There are so many roots. I think all the people from around the world who work in kitchens are huge. Someone will come in with their cousin's chiles or chile paste, and the chef will taste it and they'll say, "I need to put this on my menu."
It's really amazing. People don't really look enough into the whole hierarchy of the kitchen or everybody who plays a part in getting food on your table in the dining room. It's so much more of a team effort than anybody would think.
It could be a dishwasher from somewhere in Africa who brought a hot sauce or brought some chiles; something from Latin America, that's huge; Asia, those flavors have become so popular here. That kind of cooking, people are having so much fun exploring it.
Now people in America are eating so much better than they used to; the quality of food has gotten so high.
Americans are also very competitive. I think if someone eats a chile sauce that's triple X -- XXX -- then someone else has to have the chile sauce that's XXXX. I think that's definitely part of our DNA as well.
LRK: Is the American palate actually changing or is this just a passing fad?
KK: When I wrote this story a couple of months ago, I knew that my palate had changed. I went to a quiet Chinese restaurant and they had a dish with tofu in nasturtium broth. I thought it was the most boring thing I'd ever eaten. I'm embarrassed to say it, but I was really wishing that I could ask for some chile flakes or something -- which I knew I couldn't do because it wasn't that kind of restaurant.
But here in New York City, a bunch of French restaurants have been opening recently. It's the trend here. It's a return to a little more subdued cooking. I have to say I'm not freaking out. I feel maybe my palate is evolving and I'm coming back to quieter flavors.
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.