Food loomed large in the national consciousness last year - and, whichever way you cut it, will affect all of our lives in 2021. From campaigns to end hunger to attempts to save the restaurant trade, Sophie Morris serves up her predictions for the coming months
It is impossible to look forward without acknowledging the tremendous impact that 2020 will have on the coming years. Within the food and hospitality industry - everyone from dairy farmers to supermarket employees, kitchen porters to millionaire chefs, and factory packers to artisan chocolate makers - the ramifications of the pandemic already run deep: restaurant owners are veterans of the “pivot”, our shopping habits have changed for good, and we are getting the cooking lessons that many of us were denied at school.
Each year, I ask tastemakers to predict their top trends for the coming year, perhaps special occasion splurges or investment gadgets. This year is different, of course, but some good has emerged from the crisis. There is a newfound respect for our food producers and suppliers and, it seems, a renewed interest in making our own food - even if we didn’t by choice transform from a nation eating half of our meals outside the home into thrifty baking evangelists.
Feed the world
Footballer Marcus Rashford MBE is now as well known for his campaigns against food poverty as he is for scoring goals. The 23-year-old Manchester United striker protested against the UK Government’s shortcomings on school meals provision last year and is the figurehead for the Child Food Poverty Task Force, which counts among its members all of the big retailers and organisations such as the Food Foundation and FareShare. Hungry children do not thrive. Find ways to help at endchildfoodpoverty.org.
Rashford is just one of millions of people who donate time, money and effort to those in need. There are countless charities and food banks such as the Felix Project and Hospitality for Heroes, while restaurants which have been denied their own customer bases have occupied staff by feeding frontline workers and vulnerable people. This solidarity between food businesses - from supermarkets to tiny cafés - and local communities is set to flourish in 2021.
We will be shopping less, staying local and using tech over cash where possible. According to the Waitrose Food & Drink Report 2021, 25 per cent of Britons shopped online for the first time last year, 10 per cent have changed their weekly shop to once a fortnight, and 30 per cent of us are reducing car use by shopping locally. On UK-wide social media, searches for “buy local” are up by 39 per cent, while those for “local shops” are up 179 per cent.
“We know local makes sense,” says Alex Beckett, the global food and drink analyst at the market researcher Mintel. “It has been essential for consumers during the pandemic, but affordability and value for money will be even more crucial in 2021.”
Brands are finding us in new ways, he explains, through Amazon or even via WhatsApp. This new behaviour is known as “conversational commerce” - the junction where shopping meets messaging apps. If you have ordered a takeaway via Instagram or joined a WhatsApp group to find out when a local shop is getting a drop of flour, you are already part of this wave.
Will we forget all this as soon as shopping becomes safe again? “Our daily rituals and the way we shop have been fundamentally reshaped,” says the executive director of Waitrose, James Bailey.
The organisers of Veganuary might say that more people than ever (almost half a million) are committing to the month of vegan eating, but another group of environment-conscious food lovers is promoting Regenuary, a month of eating foods produced consciously, and following regenerative farming practices. If you pile into branded plant-based meals this month, you could easily be eating genetically modified soybeans grown on tracts of dead Amazon rainforest. Need to know: grazing animals are part of a diverse food system and necessary for soil health. Eating avocados will not save the planet.
Home cooking At the beginning of last year, Britons were eating a quarter of their calories outside the home. We embraced the sudden shift to home cooking partly as a way to kill time, but we have become more creative and resourceful cooks. With more time to plan and experiment, almost half of us (and 60 per cent of 18- to 24-yearolds) have tried out new recipes, ingredients or cooking techniques. Lakeland is selling far more appliances, with sales of bread makers and pizza ovens (inset) rising by 130 per cent and 68 per cent, respectively. And 28 per cent of us are cooking from scratch every day, which is a big leap from last year. According to Waitrose, cooking has evolved into the “new commute”, with 74 per cent of us getting our aprons out to delineate the space between work and leisure time.
We don’t need Nigella Lawson’s fish finger bhorta recipe to turn to comforting frozen staples, but it helps. The mantra that only fresh food is healthy is being broken down by batch cooking, a winning approach for time-pressed cooks who want home-cooked food.
The freezer departments of supermarkets are expanding to meet demand for frozen fruits, vegetables and herbs. Freezeronly shops offer speciality frozen meals and ingredients. Or you can subscribe to frozen meal delivery services such as Allplants, Potage, Mindful Chef and newcomer Root Kitchen.
For 2021, there is an added focus on using our freezers responsibly to fight food waste: 27 per cent of us are already freezing in reusable containers, reports Lakeland, and 50 per cent have wasted less food this year thanks to their judicious freezer skills.
There is still a long way to go, but 2020 helped us to find solidarity and respect for those working in food services and hospitality. Waitrose claims that 70 per cent of us value supermarket employees more than we did pre-pandemic. One of its sales assistants, Anisa Omar, even appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine in July.
But jobs in hospitality remain notoriously low paid and unstable. Chef and writer Ravneet Gill is coming to our screens as a new judge on Channel 4’s Junior Bake Off on Monday and she also runs Counter Talk, a jobs and networking service which promotes ethical practices, such as proper breaks and paid overtime. She removed the jobs board with the first lockdown, but got so many enquiries that she is coming back bigger and better for 2021.
“Restaurants want to focus on having good staff,” she says, “and staff have looked at whether their employers looked after them during lockdown.”
Over 2021 many thousands of these jobs will disappear. Last year there was a 163 per cent rise in restaurant job losses, around 30,000 staff. The charity Hospitality Action has supported these workers for more than 150 years and its Invisible Chips campaign allows you to order phantom food as a tasty way of donating.
The online campaign group Seat at the Table is calling for a Minister for Hospitality to give the industry, Britain’s third largest employer, a voice in government, which will be debated in Parliament on Monday. Another action group, HospoDemo, has been lobbying Boris Johnson for support and hopes to hold its biggest protest yet in Parliament Square during the debate.
The murder by US police of George Floyd and the advance of the global Black Lives Matter movement have forced all industries to examine themselves. Britain’s food landscape is notable for its lack of prominent black voices, as well as food and food knowledge from black and African cultures. An essay condemning this, “Black Erasure in the British Food Industry” by food writer and activist Melissa Thompson (@fowlmouthsfood), was published by the newsletter Vittles and widely shared on social media.
Some progress is coming.
Reviewer Jimi Famurewa has just landed a coveted job as chief restaurant critic for London’s Evening Standard newspaper. A group of women in the industry, including chef Zoe Adjonyoh, has founded Black Book, “a global representation platform for black and non-white people working within hospitality and food media”.
When it became apparent that black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) people were suffering disproportionately from Covid-19, the writer Riaz Phillips brought together recipes from 100 big names to publish Community Comfort, a unique charity cookbook full of “recipes from the diaspora”.
When I ask him how the Black Lives Matter movement has affected his industry, he is insistent that people higher up, those with hiring power and economic clout, are the ones to answer these questions.
Of Famurewa’s appointment, Phillips says: “It’s great. The trouble, however, with celebrating one person of a minority in an esteemed position is the assumption that that person is representative of all minorities. Sometimes it puts a smokescreen over problems that still exist. What about the people who hire the critics and those above them? When there is diversity in those places is when we will see real change.”
The epic evolution in the delivery market will continue, whatever happens with Covid. We were already well into this trend with Deliveroo, UberEats and meal kit deliveries from Gousto, HelloFresh and the rest. Now we can pre-order Sunday roasts from our local pubs or “finish at home” kits ranging from fresh pasta and ramen to Michelin-starred feasts which arrive with table settings and after-dinner entertainment. New ordering platforms and delivery services are springing up to support the rush.
Winner winner, chicken dinner According to trade magazine The Grocer, 7pm on a Sunday is “Nando’s o’clock”. One in five of us ordered from the peri peri chicken chain last year, and in September it doubled to 360 its number of outlets offering Deliveroo services.
Chicken’s reputation as a comfort food bears out in publishing: recent cookbooks include Wings and Things by Wingmans’ Ben Ford and David Turofsky, The Chicken Soup Manifesto by Jenn Louis and The Whole Chicken from Carl Clarke of Chick ‘n’ Sours, for “beak to tail” recipes.
We will be stocking our own store cupboards with more diverse foods, which pack flavour and are used in cooking that we consider healthy, such as Japanese. “Our feelings of confinement and frustrated wanderlust make us more amenable to virtual tourism via food and drink,” says Beckett at Mintel. “We will be really honing in on regional ethnic foods, like Japan, Korea, Burma and Nepal.”
The food consultancy Harris and Hayes calls this “premium pantry” and points to restaurant ranges from Leon, Tonkotsu and, in the US, Momofuku, along with posh ketchup in chilli, balsamic and harissa flavour from Belazu.
At Waitrose, sales of Japanese miso seasoning, the Korean red chilli paste gochujang and Indonesian sambal oelek chilli pastes (inset) and black limes are in line with the latest book, Flavour, by the Israeli-English chef-restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi.
Co-written with innovator extraordinaire Ixta Belfrage, it shows how to extract incredible flavours from everyday veg through cooking techniques and pairing wizardry. I would happily eat her sweet and sour sprouts all year.
Smart drinks I have struggled to justify the £20-plus price tag of much of the alcohol-free spirit market, but Jukes Cordialities, which fall closer to wine, are a refreshing new product based on apple cider vinegar. Other companies are focusing on “low” over “no”, such as Small Beer, which brews ales and lagers with alcohol by volume measurements of less than 2.8 per cent.
In the US, consumers want more than just the alcohol-free tag. “All our data show that customers are looking for new ways of relaxing,” says Beckett. “Soft drinks are positioning themselves as wellness spirits and often contain relaxing botanicals such as lavender, ashwagandha, or proven functional ingredients such as melatonin and magnesium. But consumers have to be convinced that the premium price is worth it.”
Last month, PepsiCo launched Driftwell, a drink containing magnesium marketed as a sleep aid, in the US.
Still fancy an actual tipple? Hard seltzers, premium rums, whiskies and tequilas are flooding the market. Grape-wise, Spanish and Portuguese Albariño and Italian Primitivo varieties are in favour, while homegrown wines promise another great year. “The quality of the 2019 vintage of English and Welsh wines is the best we have ever seen,” says Jamie Matthewson, the wine buying manager at Waitrose.
At the beginning of last year, Charlie Carroll was filling tables up to five times a night at his Flat Iron affordable steak restaurants. He even opened a new branch in December, but weeks later closed eight locations across London.
“It’s hard not to be insensitive,” he says. “Many won’t make it and there are all sorts of personal stories of hardship and tragedy in the industry. But I’m naturally an optimist and I’m looking to Easter and beyond. People fundamentally love coming together and sharing food and socialising.”
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, has described the industry as being in “intensive care” having lost about 20 per cent of its 3.2 million jobs. But at the same time, Brexit will lead to a lack of trained staff.
The Michelin-starred chef Chris Galvin and his family own seven restaurants. He describes Brexit and Covid as a “perfect storm”, leaving Britain with a shortfall of good employees and camouflaging price increases.
“You do worry if people will come back, and I’m pretty sure the old fine dining has gone,” he says, “but when you see them having fun around a table you remember it’s the last bastion of civilisation, the last place we really talk, and we need that. Our culture needs that.”