To trend or not to trend

From Story Act 2, 2016

In an age of quick bites – and bytes – food trends are the order of the day. Desta Cullen questions whether it’s worth the likes, or better being on the outside.

Food as attraction, food as art and extravaganza, and food as community centrepiece are not new concepts. Since the proverbial forbidden fruit was plucked from the tree, food has served as the antidote to the drudgery of daily life.

Increasingly though, food sits at the very heart of our experiences, inextricably linked to the concept of culture. Being a 'foodie' has become a social currency of sorts. It’s a pseudo-noun that is ascribed to the pursuit of culinary and gastronomic endeavours – a kind of modern nobility that’s part subculture, part life’s purpose.

Of course, the obsession – and its proliferation – is due in no small part to the rise of social media; Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, the digital stage in a spectacle of instant information and gratification.

What was once seasonal is now swipe-able in two seconds. Hot or not, double tap this, viral that; the transition from fad to trend to mainstream is quicker than ever.

Now 'to trend' has become a synonym for success. The zenith of relevance and the pinnacle of cultural credential. If Hamlet had been a chef or restaurateur in the social media age, I’ll wager ‘to trend or not to trend’ would have been the question.

Following trends, in an artistic sense, has long been seen as anathema to true creativity; a vicious cycle to avoid at all costs. But often, in a food scene moving at breakneck speed, it becomes a fallback formula. A safe haven for a creativity that must be commodified.

“At some point, the time and moment will be over, and devotees will have moved onto a shiny new thing (a cronut, a maxed-out milkshake, [insert crazy frankenfood mashup here]).”

To trend is an easy path to consider. In illustrating the subtle, but important difference between fads and trends, modern-day marketing philosopher Seth Godin makes a valuable point about the power of trends: choosing to trend is a thoroughly human desire. 'We enjoy a fad because our peers are into it as well. A trend, on the other hand, satisfies a different human need. A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it’s a tool, a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to engaging in it,' he says.

But at some point, the time and moment will be over, and devotees will have moved onto a shiny new thing (a cronut, a maxed-out milkshake, [insert crazy frankenfood mashup here]).

And so, the existential sentiment of Hamlet’s dilemma comes into sharp focus in the modern gastronomic landscape; how does a business, brand or an institution stay relevant in a world constantly hungry for the next trend?

QPAC – a public place with massive cultural significance – sits at the confluence of food, art, culture and community. This position carries with it the weight of expectation – and the ongoing challenge of creative reinvention, which is an inherently risky business.

In a wider context of technology and creativity, the role that food plays in defining a place, is another interesting question too.

When chef and social media golden boy, David Chang brought his famed Momofuku concept to Sydney in 2011, in the form of Momofuku Seiōbo, it was just the tip of the 'food as drawcard' iceberg.

Culinary tourism was a growing sector – fans were flocking to Spain’s El Bulli and Denmark’s Noma – and celebrity chef-dom had reached a fever pitch. So it made sense that the galleries and cultural attractions of the world would follow suit, looking at how best to weave this gourmet magic into their destinations.

For QPAC, whose multifaceted identity has been part of the Brisbane psyche for more than 30 years, it’s a somewhat tricky proposition. Food had always been in the wings, but served a predominantly functional purpose. So then, to and 'food destination' to its roster of offerings was (and is) a matter of cautious evolution.

Places can be as symbolic as they are physical, commanding space, and feelings of ownership, in the collective mind of a city. So the question remains: to challenge the visitor and audience (at risk of alienation), or satisfy the need for social capital by being of the moment? To trend or not to trend?

Those that do fall prey to the whims of the crowd – attempting to satiate a cynical, overexposed and fickle audience – oft find themselves adrift in a sea of discarded fads before too long; share plates, American super-sized dishes oozing excess, or the pan-Asian bites are the flotsam and jetsam in the current ocean. Again, the test lies in treading the line between reinvention and relevance, and maintaining identity, legacy and providence. In other words, remaining genuine while simultaneously resisting the charade of paying lip service to the mood of the moment – and leaving enough room for playful interpretation.

Trends (inherently more reflective of a certain time period) are dangerous catalysts for reinvention, particularly for a cultural institution. So the physical environment becomes the base for inspiration.

Luckily Queensland, although historically bereft of a foodie scene like that of our southern siblings, makes for a great muse brimming with bountiful produce and alfresco living as it is.

Indeed, the typically insouciant nature of our lifestyle extends to our approach to culture and food, which in turn lends itself to the establishment of a food identity and style that’s authentic and real.

A true identity is borne not of mimicry, rather, it is found in showing deference to the heritage of a place. And when the world is awash with trends, refusing to be swept away by the current takes on a refreshingly provocative timbre.

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Desta Cullen

After experiencing her first career setback at the age of five when she realised she couldn't, in fact, jump through the TV screen to become Pippi Longstockings' sassy sidekick, Desta resolved to spend her days telling stories. Fiction sorted from non-fiction, and with a fresh journalism degree from the University of Queensland tucked under her arm, she spent a little time dabbling in sideline pursuits (PR, events, marketing), before realising that storytelling isn't all inverted pyramids, grammar rules, or online quizzes. Following six years spent creating content for some of Australia's best lifestyle publications, she took her solo show on the road as freelance writer, editor and digital content manager.

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