I think it must have started with the cookies. Alison Roman’s cookbook, Dining In, had originally hit shelves in late October of 2017, and it was just a few short months later that the cookies had taken the internet by storm. All over Instagram, there they were: the salted butter and shortbread chocolate chip cookies that had inspired countless think pieces and bake-offs, and we deigned to ask why we would consider baking a different cookie ever again.
For once, a major food trend didn’t involve spending $7 on a rainbow latte or $20 on avocado toast. It required preheating an oven. It involved refrigerating dough.
Realistically speaking, the millennial-driven push back into the kitchen didn’t begin with a single recipe; it was something that had been bubbling up over time—and over the course of 2018, it was manifested in the form of several new cooking and dining startups, the wild popularity of one food-driven TV show, and an attitude shirt among the generation that had made Seamless a nearly $700 million business.
It likely had something to do with the proliferation of meal-kit services, the advertisements of which are inescapable if you listen to any podcast. Blue Apron, arguably the most widely known of the crop, launched six years ago in 2012, and over time, competitors both similar and diverse (with vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, keto, and detox versions of easy-to-prepare meals) positioned at-home cooking as something that could be easy and elevated at the same time. This initial shift brought more millennials into the kitchen space and eventually made way for some newer developments that happened in 2018.
“Soon after graduating from recipe cards, like so many of my peers, I started to develop things on my own… from scratch,” says Josephine Finnegan, who cofounded cookware brand Brigade Kitchen with her brother, Shane, in 2017. “We started to notice that we were not alone. No longer were we looking to eat out every meal. It was cool and fun to cook at home.”
Offering just four items (three different pots and pans and a wide-use knife), Brigade is one of the startups specifically targeting young adults who may not, as recently as a year ago, have found themselves in the kitchen very often. With a mission to provide high-quality kitchen staples along with proper education, the company is one of a few new brands looking to reinvent kitchenware.
After all, nicer, more accessible products (with the bonus of extra-nice branding) are precisely what the millennial audience has been drawn to—just look at what Casper did for the bed-in-a-box and what Care/of has done for vitamins.
For Potluck, a cookware brand launched later in 2018, price points and versatility are key—as well as the business model of pretty much any kitchen tool you could foreseeably need (yes, it does include a cheese-grater) for a reasonable cost of $270. “We think that quality kitchen tools can be the difference between cooking often and cooking because you have to,” says cofounder Minsuk Kim. “Our hope is that the right tools at a great price in one place makes it easier for everyone to enjoy cooking. Our products are meant to enable, not determine, what you make at home.”
Additional startups like Made In and Great Jones doubled down on the idea that nice-looking cookware could inspire more cooking by releasing tried-and-true staples—like frying pans and Dutch ovens—in colorful variations without reducing quality. For Material, which largely offers elevated-looking knives and other food-prep accessories, the acknowledgment that appearances make a difference is crucial. “Most of the good-looking stuff is super expensive,” founders Eunice Byun and David Nguyen write on their site, “and most of the affordable stuff isn’t so good-looking. So we decided to create a new category of tasteful kitchenware, designed and curated for modern home cooks like us.”
This process of redefining cookware and kitchen staples has also included a “back to basics” approach that’s elevated the ordinary into something that feels special. “2018 revolved around simplicity, coziness, and celebrating the home,” says Aishwarya Iyer, founder of olive oil brand Brightland. “Brightland’s mission is to inspire and create more analog moments at home and bring some excitement into a forgotten foundation of our food: olive oil. We wholeheartedly believe in the beauty of simple, everyday moments and not taking ourselves too seriously.” Sold in beautiful, well-designed vessels, Brightland’s olive oil also happens to look especially eye-catching on a kitchen countertop.
The emphasis by these companies on appearances doesn’t necessarily point to vanity or superficiality: It’s a result of the changing face of self-care in a world filled with toxicity both emotional and physical. Simply put, nice-looking things can offer at least a little respite from the uglier aspects of deeper, more nuanced issues of the world at large.
In February of this year, the reboot of Queer Eye delivered a wholesome tear-inducing makeover show unto the world and, while it did work hard to address the cultural and emotional backstories and troubles of its “heroes,” it also addressed the fact that sometimes, appearances are a by-product of a deeper issue at hand. Other times, a change in appearance can even work to fix that issue.
That’s not to say that pretty cookware has emerged to battle emotional traumas or provide full stress relief from the troubles of everyday life, but it does nod to the fact that ultimately, your environment influences how you feel and how you go about your life. And jokes about the questionability of Fab Five member Antoni Porowski’s cooking abilities aside, the show stresses the importance of a home-cooked meal (even an appetizer!) as an easy way to take better care of yourself.
In newer kitchen brands, there’s a definitive pattern of language: These new kitchen essentials have been developed for food lovers—for home cooks instead of experts. They celebrate the joy of cooking and eating and imply that the consumer deserves the best. This is how self-care has become coded into cookware, which isn’t to say that the link between the two is a bad thing. In fact, the stress on home cooking over professional use can feel like a relief for consumers who hardly consider their cooking skills to be top-notch.
Now there seems to be less pressure on perfectionism and more of an emphasis on simply trying out a new recipe every now and then. Just look at the success of Netflix’s baking competition show, Nailed It, which wholly celebrates the joy that can arise from a recipe gone totally wrong. In 2018, we’ve stepped away from Gordon Ramsay and moved to a place where it’s fine to be a beginner. It’s fine to be in the first stages of learning a new skill.
One show in particular, though, bridged the gap between fine dining and at-home cooking in a way that hadn’t really been done before. With just four episodes in the mini-series, Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, hosted by chef and food writer Samin Nosrat (who published the cookbook of the same name in April of 2017), presented simple elements of cooking through expert interviews, travel, and simple home dining.
While the late, great chef Anthony Bourdain made his mark exploring food through travel (all without hinging on any form of appropriation, belittlement, or exoticism), Nosrat adds an unexpected element to this successful equation: In her documentary series, she embraces typically unseen domestic moments, interviewing grandmothers and home cooks who have perfected their own recipes, though not in a traditional professional sense.
Though some of the things she makes might be harder for a home cook to replicate, a large portion of it (things like miso eggs and fresh focaccia) is totally accessible. The best part of each episode happens in the last few moments when all the prepped food is made for a special dinner party, where each expert has a seat at the table.
The show’s impression on home cooking is inarguable, given its abundance of easily adaptable cooking tips (like how much you really need to be salting your water for pasta), but it’s the dinner party scene that stands out as something special. Sure, the food displayed is more elevated than a beginner home cook might be able to make, but the attitude of sharing is one that has also propelled a quiet revolution in the dinnerware industry.
“With so much going on in the world, the desire to dine and entertain at home has increased over the past few years,” says Kathryn Duryea, founder and CEO of dishware brand Year & Day. “People are looking for genuine opportunities to connect in person. In-home dining fosters an intimacy that is different from dining out and showcases the distinct style and personal story of the host.”
Offering simple ceramic sets that toe the line between kitchen cabinets and dining room curios, Year & Day emphasizes mealtime as a crucial moment to connect with loved ones. By constructing its offerings in a versatile and high-quality way, the startup aims to make hosting less stressful so it can become more of a common occurrence.
For another buzzy dinnerware brand, Asheville’s East Fork, hosting is something that has long needed to be redefined. “The dinner party as an institution has always been marketed to a pretty specific demographic: upper-middle class, college-educated women, and couples ages 30 to 50,” says Connie Matisse, cofounder and chief creative officer of East Fork Pottery. “The formality that surrounds throwing a dinner party in the traditional sense can feel so inaccessible to many who just want to make and share in a good meal for their loved ones. As conversations around food and food culture become more intersectional, I think we’ll see new approaches to entertaining in one’s home. We’re on a mission to spread the message that a meal doesn’t need to be fancy to feel special or festive.”
It seems then, that the cultivation of 2018’s push back into the kitchen is this: A meal doesn’t have to contain a specific, expensive ingredient to feel special, and your most-loved dishes can suit your everyday meals and larger get-togethers. Cooking at home, with more information available, ingredients accessible, and tools comprehendible, is an easy step to nourish mind and body alike, and if a nicer pot or pan encourages you to try your hand at a recipe, it’s a worthy investment
The kitchen, after all, is a place for experimentation, nurturement, and discovery—so if there’s anything to bring from this year into the next, it’s the empowerment to look at this room in a whole new light. Those cookies, after all, aren’t going to bake themselves.
More trends to watch: