What Will the Food World Look Like In 2021?


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Spark Firestarter and New York City chef Carolina Santos-Neves weighs in on what the next year will look like for the food and restaurant world, after a 2020 that almost collapsed the entire industry.

As a chef in New York, I can confidently say it’s been a wild year in the restaurant industry. 

Mid-February of 2020,  I was part of a team that opened a West Village spot which had quite the opening. We were lucky in that we had a concept that really got diners to want to come and eat. And then BOOM, 5 weeks later, there was the mandatory shut down for all eateries in the Big Apple. 

In sharing this, I strongly note that I’m not alone in this story, there are thousands of them out there. It’s been devastating, to say the least. Not only because of the closures that happened but the jobs that were lost.

At the same time, the industry’s true colors were revealed. The industry was in fact broken in many ways. Gabrielle Hamilton opening up about the hardships and shuttering of her cult-favorite restaurant Prune was telling tale and a sobering wake up for the industry (if Prune could go under, who else could), while week upon week we heard of mainstay restaurants like Lucky Strike, Uncle Boons, Balthazar, Maison Premiere and so many others having to say goodbye never to return again. 

But one thing that proves to be a fact when it comes to the food industry is that it’s a world of creatives, who are problem solvers, resilient, innovative and no doubt hard workers. We can’t ignore that so many restaurants have had to shutdown with no hopes of reopening, which is quite sad, but I think it’s allowed many to ask themselves whether they want to stay in it, and if so, how? 

The system was broken, how could it get better? Change can take time or what feels like no time at all, I’d like to think that the food industry in 2021 will work on being more inclusive, diverse, more community driven and provide more equal opportunity. In the summer /experienced the U.S. go through the height of the Black Lives Matter movement where it felt like, finally, some REAL very long overdue change was coming. Food publications like Bon Appetit were called out for turning their blind eye to the systemic racism which resided within their company’s’ white-led approach to food coverage, and the underpaying of editors of color. They have since made many changes, but it was too late for many employees and there was a mass exodus of many talented editors and contributors who’d had enough.

As we know, real, uncomfortable, change takes time. But real change, also takes everyone playing their part. 

My 2021 predictions are made up of thoughtful trends that I hope are here to stay, as we hope for better days ahead during this dark time.

Chef’s Popping up in Different Places

It’s been incredible to see chefs be taken in by different restaurants and cafes as part of residency programs where they get to zero-in on their specialties, whether they’re featuring their loaf of bread, vegan pastry or tacos. I think this concept will continue to grow and be the wave of the future. 

…And in Different Ways. 

We’re also seeing the rebirth of meal kit collaborations/delivery subscription models, as well as virtual cooking classes, becoming more available and at more affordable prices. Some chefs are even bottling up their sauces and packaging their lasagnas. Restaurants are becoming part-time specialty shops and specialty vendors are continuing to come out of the woodwork. 

I think this time will also allow for chefs to return to the art of the cookbook, especially as consumers spend more time at home cooking for themselves. 

Supporting Community, Being More Intentional and Going Hyper Local

I strongly believe there will be more of a focus on building out more community gardens and fresh food CSA programs as well as community fridges throughout urban environments and underserved areas which will not only allow for the support of local communities from within but also allow for more volunteering opportunities and for money to stay within a small radius. Examples of such programs and organizations doing this work include Breaking Bread, Camp Power, A Better Life Foundation, and The Friendly Fridge

Consumers will become more thoughtful in how they spend their money (special occasion dining), but also commit to subscriptions in support of their favorite product or restaurant. Take for example Summer Long Supper Club or Imperfect Foods and Cook Unity, and I personally think they’ll turn to their local family-owned stores before going to a big supermarket. They’ll also be focusing on sustainable packaging more than ever, and take into consideration a food company’s moral compass and level of integrity, really asking the questions that matter and that make a difference. At least that is what is being asked of us, and what we should be doing without being probed to do so.

Traveling the World Through Cooking, Storytelling & Learning the Facts

Food is culture and culture is food. Remember, ingredients didn’t just magically show up in our cupboards and fridges one day. They were probably grown thousands of miles away many, sometimes many thousands of years ago, and now we’ve had the privilege to experience it because someone sacrificed themselves for it. 

Lets expand our palates, let’s expand our minds, consider culture, and consider the people who make them up. Thank them, acknowledge them — they have stories and they have so much to share and enrich our lives with. What would life be without food? Where are you getting your information?  Demand publications to be more inclusive and diverse in what they write about; support restaurants, cafes, chefs, food entrepreneurs that don’t look like you and haven’t had the privilege of equal opportunity. We can’t forget that food justice is social justice.