The Good, the Babka and the Ugly-Delicious: The Food Trends That Defined 2020

Often the discussion revolves around how food trends shaped the year. This is one of those rare occasions where the year shaped the trends. It’s when carb-loading became the unofficial sport, the party came to suburbia and delivery stopped being a dirty word.

Published on 24 November 2020

“How’s 2020 treating you?”

It’s a question I’ve asked those in hospitality throughout the year. More often than not, their answers have been unfit to publish for a family publication such as Broadsheet.

Between the bushfires and Covid-19, Australia’s hospitality sector has had an impossibly challenging 12 months. Arguably its hardest in recent history. Venue capacities were slashed. Supply chains were disrupted. Ambitious projects were delayed, shelved or overhauled. Decisions – creative, business or otherwise – that were once about thinking big and improving the breed suddenly boiled down to dollars and sense. Australia’s annual restaurant award season was quietly and sensibly cancelled. Any operator that managed to keep the doors open deserved a (seated, two-metres-from-the-next-table) round of applause.

Some might find it odd – perhaps even distasteful – for us media types to wheel out these end-of-year reports like the very one you’re currently holding in your palm. We respectfully disagree. Considering the year that was, it’s never been more important to recognise and acknowledge the current state of play as well as all the people that stood up, showed up, put up and changed up when the chips were down.

Having said that, an atypical year warrants an atypical year-that-was meditation. Often the discussion revolves around how food trends shaped the year. 2020 is one of those rare occasions where the year shaped the trends. While this piece will feature plenty of edible content, it will also zero in on how dining out has changed. Some of what happened is good, some of it, not so much. All of it, though, is important, not least when future generations look back at the annals and coo: “Gee, 2020 was a tough year.”

Like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Our Spidey sense tells us that there are going to be some very, very strong operators flexing in 2021 and beyond.

A chicken empadão from Melbourne's Samba Empadas | Photography courtesy of Samba Empadas / Chloe Dann

The year of pivoting dangerously
“Pivot” quickly became the industry’s favourite new word, but was just as quickly deemed passe. The fashion of language aside, in 2020 Australian businesses thought smarter and faster on their feet. Pasta restaurants opened pasta shops. Bars branched into booze delivery. Restaurants levelled up their merch game. Bars and cafes transformed into grocery stores that loyal customers would patiently line up outside at. For some, these dovetails were all about keeping their businesses afloat, supporting suppliers and keeping staff employed. For others, it was about having a distraction from what was happening around them.

The year of pivoting dangerously (part two)
Venues weren’t the only ones constantly changing gears and directions this year: sole traders were also getting in on the action and identifying cool business opportunities. In Sydney, former Merivale chefs launched their own condiments. Melbourne was introduced to the pleasures of the Brazilian empadão. And out-of-work baristas turned garages into makeshift cafes. The hustle, my friends, is alive and well.

The party came to suburbia
Although ambitious inner-city precincts won’t be going away anytime soon, this felt like a year when the ’burbs really got in on the action. From a Scandinavian-inspired cocktail bar out west to a cafe in a Brisbane bowls club launching a takeaway Fijian curry menu, operators were bringing genuinely cool ideas to the neighbourhood. Factor in a climate where more and more people are looking to eat and drink closer to home, and you’re looking at a win-win situation for all.

Skøl, a Scandinavian-influenced cocktail bar in Scarborough, a beachside suburb of Perth | Photography by Emma Pegrum

We saw – and tasted – more of our country
You know all those euros and credit card debt we had set aside for that summer vacation to Europe? We spent it in our regions, and it felt and tasted good (not least because those summer bushfires robbed so many regional businesses of vital income to keep them going through the quieter times of the year). We ate good seafood at beach shacks in Goolwa, criss-crossed our way across wine regions such as Margaret River and the Hunter Valley, and are patiently awaiting the opening of new regional diners from the Coda and Attica crews.

Safety first
Never mind which spoon you’re meant to use for the soup: dining out in these post-Covid times means extra precautions for both eaters and venues alike, including QR code scanning, restricted dining times and wearing masks (this wrap, although specific to Melbourne, is an excellent primer on the current state-of-play). Keeping Covid-19 at bay is, and remains, a team effort.

The discussion around First Nations food got serious
In 2010, the rise of Danish chef Rene Redzepi and his subsequent tour of Australia helped us rethink our attitude towards native ingredients (or, as it was usually derided as at the time, “bush tucker”). One decade on and it feels like we’re finally starting to take it seriously. There are more First Nations voices in food conversations; elders and custodians are being paid for IP that’s been refined over generations; and conscientious eaters are more mindful than ever of buying and supporting Indigenous-owned businesses.

A triple-decker bento box from Melbourne restaurant Ishizuka | Photography courtesy of Ishizuka

Delivery stopped being a dirty word
So did “pick-up”. Pre-cooked food has lost much of its stigma and drive-throughs – or even sail-throughs – are no longer just for fast food franchises. The massive growth in at-home dining meant that some of the best meals Australians ate this year were on the couch at home. While I appreciate the importance of takeaway and delivery to businesses’ bottom lines, the environmentalist in me wonders about the amount of extra packaging entering the waste stream.

Food became our ultimate comfort
Carb-loading: the unofficial sport of 2020? Between the country’s home sourdough-baking experiments, the rise of babka in Melbourne and the nation’s seemingly insatiable appetite for pasta, pizza and lasagne, Australia couldn’t get enough of carby comfort this year. (Considering the circumstances, this is more than understandable).

Indonesian food got its moment in the sun
Finally! While Australia has always had Indonesian food, this year felt like the year the country’s nasi campur (mixed rice) and ayam goreng (fried chicken, yes it’s good) peddlers gained critical mass. Indonesian restaurants, vendors and stalls began popping up with increasing regularity at suburban shopping centres, farmers markets, food festivals, Facebook marketplace and anywhere else money and makan change hands.

Chicken on the grill at  Ayam Goreng, an Indonesian restaurant in Sydney | Photography by Leigh Griffiths

Not all heroes wear toques (chef’s hats)
Traditionally, chefs have enjoyed much of the limelight in the media. This year, we were reminded that many hands are needed to keep the food ecosystem going. Throughout 2020, I was moved by the selflessness shown by so many in helping others, particularly visa holders that didn’t qualify for support. For mine, the efforts of food writer and Broadsheet contributor Dani Valent to look after the community – including running the Attica soup kitchen with Ben Shewry – were truly heroic. Hearing stories of wine producers donating to local community projects was equally heartening.