It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to know that 2021 is going to be an unusual year. Food predictions of any kind are dubious, yet we can safely say that this year will bring new wrinkles. I don’t mean the rise of some novel root vegetable or the viral resurgence of some ancient mode of cooking. I mean that the long, brutal, warping stretch of the pandemic will likely force us to take some roads untraveled until now.
The year ahead will be tough, but it won’t be bad for the local food scene all the way through. Here are a few possibilities to look out for in 2021.
The Rise of Drive-Thrus, Takeout Windows, and Ghost Kitchens
Recently, I checked out Slice Eat, a new Scottsdale restaurant designed to funnel meals through a drive-thru window. The people behind Slice Eat are the people behind Forno 301, the Gagliano family. The Gaglianos have roots in Italy, home of slow food and the two-hour lunch, a country where riot police have been mobilized against crowds protesting new McDonald’s locations. But the past is history and the future is here. Slice Eat is something of a very-stripped-down Forno 301, built for speed and takeout.
This year, we’re likely to see more new independent eateries specialize in food to-go. Such eating curbs the threat of viral spread relative to dining in. Food designed for takeout and delivery also tends to be less expensive, meaning more economical in a time of unemployment and reduced income.
These models can work. My favorite example might be Authentic Ethio African Spices, an Ethiopian restaurant in central Phoenix that, though it has a nook for dine-in, has functioned chiefly as a ghost kitchen since before the pandemic. To-go pivots are evident up and down our restaurant scene, from Tucson’s Anello smashing its brick wall to construct a takeaway window, to the new takeout-only restaurants from Fox Restaurant Concepts, a group that has proven adept at staying ahead of certain curves.
Indigenous Foods Get More Overdue Attention
The most under-appreciated element of eating in Arizona remains American Indian foods and foodways. This has started to change some in recent years, especially in 2020, with the release of projects like the documentary Gather as well as the increased presence of Indigenous chefs, cooks, food educators, and farmers in local and national media.
Much of the richness of Arizona’s food culture stems from pre-colonial traditions. The planting of tepary beans and squash to flush with monsoons. The harvest and processing of wild cactus fruit. The plump, florid corn varieties from places like Ramona Farms, which make the yellow stuff from the industrial cob or metal can taste as vapid as factory-wrapped candy.
As more people learn about the incredible foods to be had from places like Native Coffee Co. and Red Feather Cafe, as more people learn about activists like Nephi Craig and Twila Cassadore and chefs like Renetto-Mario Etsitty and Jaren Bates, the appetite for local Indigenous foods will continue to increase. Though a brutal year for our food culture, 2020 provided at least one solidly good thing: the heightened recognition of our great local American Indian food leaders.
The pandemic has brought new opportunities for pop-ups. This comes with a glint of excitement. At their best, pop-ups can do things that permanent eateries can’t or don’t, or can but only to a smaller extent (like center preparations less familiar to the general eating public, or like targeting a handful of dishes rather than many).
Out of a community kitchen in downtown Mesa, Phx Lechon Roasters has been cooking Filipino food to-go with a focus on kamayan meals, pandesal, lumpia, and lechon. Offerings rotate. You can comfortably feed three to four people with a family-sized takeout order. Brian and Margita Webb’s specialty is lechon, whole pork roasted on a spit over charcoal until its meat tenderizes and its skin develops a massive crunch. Lom Wong is another top-notch pop-up, preparing regional deep cuts from up and down Thailand.
This year, food professionals will be wading more carefully into opening new restaurants. Pop-ups are one way to gauge interest in an idea before taking the brick-and-mortar plunge. For chefs between gigs, pop-ups are a low-risk way to cook deeply personal food and raise money.
Restaurant Remain in Survival Mode Until a Massive Fall 2021
As we begin month 11 of the pandemic, returning to normalcy for restaurants looks still to be many seasons in the future. This is thanks to the government's abject failings and the seasonal rhythms of our tourism and restaurant scene.
The most recent federal stimulus package provides meager support to restaurants and restaurant workers. The Paycheck Protection Program has been renewed and slightly improved, sure. Unemployment benefits have also been given new life, essential for food professionals out of work, yes. But all said, the package doesn’t do nearly enough to keep restaurants afloat. Without sweeping legislation that more meaningfully addresses the needs of the industry, restaurants will have to keep treading water.
And for months. The vaccine rollout has been sluggish. Most likely, vaccines won’t be widely administered until summer. Summer brings crushing heat and the slow restaurant season in Phoenix. Fall 2021 will likely be the first chance restaurants have to return to full steam.
Climate Change Continues to Haunt Our Food System
As I noted in my story on why I’m not eating in restaurants, the pandemic has brought immense challenges but it isn’t the final boss. That will be climate change, and our food systems continue to be slowly pulverized by its steady upswing.
Surveying its many mounting threats to food feels like running down a list of biblical disasters. Climate change is driving up temperatures, as we saw in July and August, the two hottest months on record. This makes it harder to raise animals outside. This leads to more evaporation, endangering water sources like the Colorado River, where levels at Lake Mead are already so low that Arizona is rationing water to some farmers. More heat also makes it harder for people to work in crop fields.
Paradoxically, on a macro level, our agriculture runs on synthetic fertilizers and fossil fuels, driving feeding us but also change. Paradoxically, the way we grow food threatens our food supply.
Fortunately, the new presidential administration has signaled it will treat climate change with more gravity. Climate change is the biggest issue in the food world this decade and century. At last, it looks like we might finally start seeing some progress.
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