The Year in Food: The Return of the Iconoclast

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Lara Hata
Would Commonwealth's marrow-stuffed squid have played as well five years ago?
Twelve months, ten storylines: It's SFoodie's annual look back at the year in food.

Daniel Patterson's 2005 essay in the New York Times (of all places!) decrying Chez Panisse's stylistic tyranny over Californian cuisine electrified many of us in the Bay Area food world. But it didn't stop minimalist ― i.e., seasonal, local, simply composed ― cooking from intensifying its hold on the area's restaurant scene. For the past 10-15 years, chef after chef has applied the same French-Italian template to the same seasonal vegetables and same fashionable cuts of meat. The pro: Not only has the Bay Area come up with a distinctive regional style, we're mastering it. The con: Market saturation.

In fact, when I moved back to San Francisco from Seattle at the beginning of the year, one of my biggest worries was how I would handle the conformity. After eight years of reviewing restaurants in the East Bay, I'd written quite enough about the same, perfect dishes. But when I set down to write about the best dishes of 2010, I realized that I'd forgotten about those concerns by March. This turned out to be a year full of idiosyncratic chefs spinning off in a hundred different directions.

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star5112/Flickr
James Syhabout of Commis.
Just a few years ago, the avant-garde cooking of Winterland blazed and failed, but restaurants working in the same vein (Commis, Sons + Daughters, Baumé, eVe, Commonwealth, and more) are now thriving. This has been a year of pop-up sandwich shops, tweaked izakayas, and places serving dishes pulled from 1960s copies of Gourmet. Format is just as important as content; I've seen dozens of cooks ― some with a ton of experience, some with less ― develop a tiny roster of dishes they can serve out of a food-truck window or farmers'-market stand. More importantly, California cuisine is expanding to resemble the Bay Area ― all of us ― and not just a couple of European countries Americans used to think had better food than ours.

More and more diners, too, come from a generation raised to seek out niche pleasures, whether they be small bands with devoted followings, limited-release sneakers, or Etsy crafts. For every cooking-school grad who wants to see her name on an embroidered chef's jacket and a Food Network show, there's another who just wants to do something unique, no matter what the size of his business. In the social media era, you don't need a four-star review to succeed ― you need a distinctive point of view, a loyal following, and perhaps a little street cred.

Does all this idiosyncratic experimentation pay off? Hell no. But it's even more fun to cover than I'd hoped.

Other 2010 trends:
- Filipino Finds Its Voice
- Local Media Explodes
- Big-Ticket Dining Surges
- Pizza Pizza Pizza Pizza
- Vegan Goes Mainstream
- Cocktails Get More Respect
- DIY Revolution
- Coffee Seeps Farther
- Street Food Gets Serious

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.
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