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Cupcakes, kale and quinoa: 'The Tastemakers' explains how food trends take off

Cupcakes exploded in popularity, thanks to a scene outside Magnolia Bakery in
Cupcakes exploded in popularity, thanks to a scene outside Magnolia Bakery in "Sex and the City."
Photo by sharyn morrow via Flickr Creative Commons

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Ever wonder why some foods become so popular?

Foods like kale, quinoa and cupcakes, the fluffy frosted treats that got a boost thanks to those ladies on "Sex and the City," when Miranda and Carrie sit outside Magnolia Bakery. Carrie takes a bite out of a pink frosted cupcake and it looks delicious.

David Sax wrote a whole book on food trends. It's called "The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue." He explained how the Sept. 11 attacks and the rise of the Internet helped spark the revolution of the cupcake. 


How did a few moments on Sex in the City lead to a cupcake revolution?

It's amazing, right? Because it's a few short moments. They don't mention cupcakes. There's not even an "Mmmm." Carrie does take a bite of the cupcake but that's it. That's the only time cupcakes as far as I know appeared in SITC. It was a cameo, a walk on. So how did that launch 1,000 cupcake shops basically?

That was the cultural touchstone moment but there were a few other factors that went into it that really helped spread this thing into what I like to call the first viral food trend of the 21st century. And one of them was Sept. 11. This episode aired in 2000 or 2001. But after Sept. 11 there was this tremendous movement toward American comfort food. During times of recession or stress we tend to go toward things that are comforting and hold more memories.

But the Internet was the final factor that really changed things. Prior to that, trends were spread organically through word of mouth and maybe dining sections of newspapers and the few magazines that appealed to people who were interested in food. So you had the emergence of cupcake blogs and cupcake bloggers and bakery bloggers and people who would share photos and recipes and trips from places like Magnolia Bakery. And it would inspire other people to open their own bakeries and try their own recipes and post their own cupcakes. It spread virally. So you had people in countries far, far from New York and Los Angeles and other cities where cupcakeries existed who read about these things online and decided to open their own cupcake shops and base their recipes on what they saw on cupcake blogs and designs on what they saw from photos people had taken of these stores.

You write about chefs and their role in this, including Sang Yoon, the LA-based chef you note can be credited for the birth of the gourmet hamburger. Can you talk more about that?

Sang Yoon was cooking at a number of restaurants, a well-trained chef and he opened this restaurant in Santa Monica called Father's Office. Basically he took over a dive bar, started making Spanish-style tapas in the back. His friend said you should make a burger and, being the obsessive chef he was, he went about—I think he had a spreadsheet of like 40 different categories (meatiness, texture, bun size)—until he constructed what he felt was the perfect burger and claimed this was the first gourmet burger. Then Daniel Boulud had his burger in New York stuffed with short rib and foie gras. You had this explosion of a burger bull market of luxury, high-end burgers coast to coast and internationally. That's the influence great chefs and influential chefs can have in starting trends.

But this can be a double-edged sword, right? If you come up with the next big thing in food that can really make a chef's career but it can pigeon-hole you. You talk about this with Roy Choi of Kogi fame.

Roy Choi, for everything that he's done, he's still the Korean taco guy.  That's how he's known. So for someone who has a lot of talent and creativity when you do create a trend you're known by it. It's like being the Steve Miller band standing up on stage playing something from your new album and everyone's like, 'Play The Joker!' And it's frustrating and Roy Choi said eventually he came around to it and owned it and embraced his success. Most chefs would kill for the kind of success and influence that someone like Roy Choi has had around his tacos. It increases the pressure for 'What's the next thing you're going to make?'

You did all sorts of research for this book. You went to a bacon convention and the big Fancy Food Show. Did it affect how you made choices about how you eat?

I don't think so. As I went through the research and writing for the book I came to see that food trends, while they may have moments of overreach and can be somewhat annoying, food trends are a symptom of this wonderful culture of eating and food and innovation that we have. Which has only made our choice of food richer, more varied and more open than ever before. If you think about the flavors and things that we are open to today and are sort of mainstream—things like Kimchi—you realize there's never been a better time to eat. And food trends are the drivers behind that; they are pushing us toward the next thing and next flavor.