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The rise and rise of foodie-ism

Food is life and a huge part of the prevailing culture in today’s society - and a great lens through which to observe social changes, says TRA's Amber Coulter.

I have a secret confession to make. I am a huge Nigella Lawson fan and by fan I mean a Nigella obsessive, owning the complete set of her ten cookbooks and having read the captivating ‘Nigella Lawson: A Biography’ by my bedside lamp into the early hours of the morning.

For me it’s not the sex pot image that appeals, or the idealised image of feminine domesticity that she represents. Rather, how she manages to cleverly weave culture into how she writes about food in a very intelligent way (yes, she did go to Oxford boys).

“It’s the culture, the place is full of culture, chockers” in the infamous words of The Castle, expressing the fact that culture is all around us and, unquestionably, omnipresent in our everyday lives. Cultural currents (a little different from ‘trends’, currents represent the way the mega trend is playing out in any particular society – navigating the unique context of that country or sub group) in the marketing and business landscape are increasingly the driver of change in society and business.

Humans are social animals, we herd, and increasingly we herd around the cultural currents that ebb and flow in society today. These are increasingly reshaping our world and the people within it and creating even greater change than ever before, all due to the light speed with which technology now communicates new ideas and drives cultural change. Brexit, Donald Trump, Miley Cyrus, Bitcoin, kale – not surprising if you understand the cultural context from which they all emerged.

Food is life and a huge part of the prevailing culture in today’s society. We see it as demonstrative of one of the key emerging cultural currents we refer to at TRA as ‘Beyond’ – the shift to a post-materialist, experience-oriented culture, where people are increasingly seeking more meaningful ways to live their lives in a full, rich way.

“Is this grammable?”

In a post-material world, people are increasingly seeking out experiences as a badge of honour – it’s what you do, not what you own that is now important. When it comes to food, for many dining in itself is no longer enough on its own, without a layer of experience wrapped in a neat bow around it.

Globally and locally people are increasingly seeking out experientialism in the food they consume and the cult of foodie-ism continues to advance at breakneck speed.

Foodies seek new food experiences and unique dining experiences that are out of the ordinary as a hobby, rather than simply eating out of functional need, convenience or just pure hunger. The icing on the cake, so to speak, is to be able to share this experience with others on social media.

“Is this grammable?” is an increasingly key consideration for people – particularly in emerging demographic groups such as Millennials or Gen Z – in choosing where and how they eat.

This can be attributed to the kind of sensory deprivation we now experience in our modern lives. We are so accustomed to sitting in front of a screen all day, we now want something that’s tangible, that we can see, feel, smell and taste, to fulfil our need for sensory pleasure (for more on this, refer to the article in this issue on the cultural movement towards physical stationery).

In Berlin 10 years ago I recall stumbling into a restaurant, sitting down to peruse the menu and discovering no prices on the menu. At the end of the meal you simply paid what you thought the meal was worth, based on your own value judgement. It was a mind blowing experience at the time – unfortunately social media had not yet been invented to allow me to share this.

The global food scene is innovating and expanding its cultural reach

In the hot-bed of innovation in food and beverage that is New York, a plethora of unique dining experiences exist for foodies to seek out within the grid. One example, the Damon Baehrel bistro, is located in the basement of Damon and his wife's house, where he forages and creates all of the ingredients used in his restaurant (including flour, spices, cheese and more) directly from the 12-acre property. The 16-seat restaurant has one chef (Damon), 3 Michelin stars, a (supposedly – there is some debate around this) 10 year waiting list to 2027 and is lauded as one of the most exclusive restaurant in America.

In London, Bompass & Parr use food art, specifically jelly moulds, to make edible decorations shaped like buildings and other architectural structures, to create immersive, multi-sensorial culinary events. They have created Willy Wonka gum that changes flavour as you chew and an ancient monastery pop up named Alcoholic Architecture, where visitors were able to enjoy alcohol in a new way by experiencing a fully immersive, multi-sensory alcohol environment. They did this by filling the monastery full of vapourised alcohol that allowed guests to consume the equivalent of one drink through their skin, eyes and lungs, heralding a new future around alcohol vaping which we are likely to see emerge.

And let’s not forget the Cereal Killer Café in London, a colourful, nostalgic eatery with more than 120 cereals, plus a selection of milk and toppings. Sure it suffered from some bad press around gentrification from class war activists, but it continues to deliver a unique dining experience to patrons all the same.

Closer to home, restaurants such as Orphan’s Kitchen with its own seasonal produce and on-roof beehive, and Pasture, a small 25 seat intellectual ‘fine dining but not as we know it’ restaurant, serve 6 seasonal courses which are largely cooked on the central open fire. There’s no question that Kiwi chefs are leading the global charge around experimentation and creativity to deliver to the rise of foodie-ism.

How Nigella plans to get into the experience game remains to be seen, but ensuring a ‘grammable’ element to any dining experience in the future will be essential for brands looking to maintain relevance and stay ‘on’ rather than ‘off’ cultural code and harness commercial growth from the wave of foodie-ism.

Amber Coulter is a co-founder and partner at TRA.
This article first appeared in Issue 02 of TRA’s Frame magazineTo subscribe to the future issues of the magazine, please email subscribe@tra.co.nz.