New Sincerity in Food: Authenticity, Frosted Tips, and the Death of Snark

Wes Anderson films, Cormac McCarthy’s writing, In ‘n’ Out burger, Indie Rock, Anthony Bourdain’s (more recent) writing, and Lady Gaga share a bit of awesomeness best defined by the New Sincerity. All exhibit a style of authenticity unspoiled by snark. I now realize that many of my favorite things, things I just thought were plain great share a definable characteristic which means that I, too, fall into an already well-defined demographic.

Wikipedia defines New Sincerity as “generally describing art or concepts that run against prevailing modes of postmodernist irony or cynicism.” Basically, it’s cool to care. Writing about the New Sincerity is flush with pop-culture metaphors tasked with defining the boundaries of this concept. For me, the Lady Gaga and Madonna comparison from Jonathan D Fitzgerald’s Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Popular Culture for the Better  is the most clean-cut for defining some boundaries of the ethos.

He writes, “While critics often draw comparisons between Gaga and Madonna-particularly early Madonna- and certainly there are similarities, they often miss the vast differences between the two. Early Madonna aimed to shock, to seem larger than life, cool and unapproachable. Lady Gaga, who you might think would be reaching toward the same through her outrageous costumes that harken back to the era of glam rock, actually accomplishes the opposite. By making herself freakish and even ugly, she becomes simultaneously more relatable.”

New Sincerity eschews irony, cynicism, and snark for a more meaningful approach to culture. With this approach, practitioners will seek products or experiences that they view as authentic.

So what about food? It’s my belief that the newly sincere equipped with a lifelong umbilical to the internet and social media presents a new kind of eater. I believe them to be particularly unpersuaded by advertising and more privy to the inner workings of agribusiness, trends in food, and methods of food preparation. Gone are the days of a walled-off back of the house where chefs could truck-in processed ingredients and pass them off as “house-made” with diners being none-the-wiser. From now on, it’s all hanging out there. Restaurants must embrace transparency and above all, ensure that a dining experience is authentic. The tangible wall may remain but virtual windows exist via the Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts of kitchen employees.

Massive brands like McDonalds and Coca Cola initially had few instruments for advertising other than visual messaging via billboards and delivery trucks. Later came radio and television but even then messaging by nature had to be succinct given the costs and time constraints. These massive empires curated their origin via logos and slogans and their practices were largely unavailable for public scrutiny. Since the internet and social media platforms these brands have adapted mostly by filling the void with contrived images of people and food that you’ll never find in an actual in one of their establishments. Content void of authenticity. These larger brands have a big problem if they can’t tell their story authentically. Humans place a lot of importance on the origin of a brand. Countless studies have proved the concept that if people can attach a story to an object they derive more pleasure from it’s use or consumption. The question for new businesses is, if someone wants to learn about your business via a smartphone with this new lens, what will they find?

Restaurateurs should pay notice. Without an understanding of how the next generation perceives what is authentic and what isn’t, restaurateurs could unwittingly be running with a concept that is sure to fail. Need an example? Taco Bell’s new fast casual concept U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Tap Room (I wish I was joking I know) is the worst way to court people that value authenticity unless of course they’re going for that ironic dining subculture. One bright side is that I’m sure the use of sugar skulls and stamped fonts in their marketing materials will prompt graphic designers to drag those tired visual trends straight to their desktop trashcans. Someone needs to tell Taco Bell that imitating something authentic is still very much inauthentic.

For restaurateurs this can be a double edged sword. The focus now is on the food (and the food’s origins), as it should be. Design of a restaurant should be complimentary and familiar as it is ancillary. Conceptually, authenticity rules the day. If you’re plan is to do sushi burritos in a restaurant designed like a space submarine it may be hard to get people to connect. Come to think of it, that sounds pretty cool. I think there’s an authentically bizarre clause. The point is, focus on the food. Make something your grandma and a hipster could happily share. Companies that have less than desirable practices will either have to change those practices or get really good at storytelling. It’s really more like an alibi than a story. If you get caught, you’re screwed. Damage control is a thing of the past.

Joseph Pine digs a lot deeper in his TED Talk about the commoditization of experience which could be found here.

You can see the New Sincerity and its fingerprints all over culinary media. The contrived cooking shows of yesteryear are being replaced by shows like Mind of a Chef, No Reservations, Fresh Off the Boat, and Munchies.  Shows that opt for a less scripted approach and explore far beyond wine regions and vacation destinations. The new pay dirt is authenticity.  Also evident is a trend of general optimism which has supplanted the cynicism of a decade ago. Even Anthony Bourdain’s famously snarky tone has become less venomous in the last few years while his authenticity has endured.

You may be asking, where does Guy Fieri fit into all of this? OK you’re probably not asking, but I think he deserves a mention. An argument can be made that the one redeeming and relatable quality to Guy Fieri is his authenticity. I think that Guy does really like fried foods dripping with donkey sauce. I also think that he believes his restaurants are taking diners on a one way trip to flavortown and aren’t simply overdressed fast food joints hinged on an insipid aesthetic consisting of  loud shirts and frosted tips. I believe he believes that he made no concessions and that his product is authentically good to his tastes.

This is not to say that in order to succeed a restaurant needs to appeal to the savviest foodie. In fact, authenticity can be found in all forms of simple foods provided that they are celebrated for their intrinsic quality or origin. Chef’s now seem to be often reverse engineering culinary staples to investigate why they elicit such passion from diners and by doing so add to their authenticity. Historically basic foods like kimchee, french fries, grits, bread, beer, foods that chefs would have given little heed to 20 years ago are now popular topics. New Sincerity places a premium on origin. It is well known that the origin or pedigree of an object or food can greatly effect the enjoyment that can be gotten from it. Your grandma’s recipe for grits will always taste better than an identical recipe gotten from All Recipes. A great benefit to this sea change in marketing is that the creatives are allowed to do what they do best, create. There is now little need for a marketing budget as businesses now market through actions by default.

New Sincerity is not a new concept I suspect many marketing firms have taken notice. They’ve taken notice but are largely incapable of action as salesmanship is kryptonite. Businesses would behoove themselves to create the best product or experience they can while documenting everything allowing customers to curate their own authentic connection. What I find endearing about the concept is that there has always been companies, products, artists and writers employing/celebrating the tenets of New Sincerity. What excites me is that there is a system in place that celebrates honest and hard work giving recognition where it’s due.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back of the House
Ryan Donahue
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