The Rise And Fall Of The American Food Tower

Tall food used to be one of the biggest trends of New American cuisine. Where the heck is it now?

In the late '80s and 1990s, tall food was practically synonymous with upscale American cuisine. Today, a gleaming skyscraper of sculpted crudité seems as dated as Doc Martens and nü-metal. Why has a plating technique that was once employed by everyone from Alfred Portale to Wolfgang Puck virtually disappeared since the early 2000s?

When we talk about tall food, we're not necessarily talking about just a big pile of grub. We're talking about food as gastronomic architecture: a construct of food so improbably vertical that it requires special techniques to construct. For instance, one of the most common tall food tricks is layering the different ingredients of a meal, one after another, by using a soup can as a mold.

But there are many ways to build a tall meal. In her 1999 cookbook Stacks: The Art Of Vertical Food, former restaurateur Deborah Fabricant describes how to use a metal ring to make more than 50 dishes, ranging from a tower of tempura to a pyramid of sushi, rice, avocado, and sprouts. The idea is to use a number of different ingredients and stack them in different strata so that their tastes complement each other when you cut through them.

"It's kind of like making an Oreo cookie of dinner," Fabricant tells me. "The appeal of the stack was that it was different, it was colorful, and it was an easy thing to do even at home to impress your guests without really getting too fancy."

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But at the height of its popularity in the 1990s, tall food wasn't something you necessarily did at home, and it most definitely was fancy. Chefs would dry bread in cylinders to create pillars that could support the weight and height of their constructs. Meanwhile, publications like Gourmet and Bon Appetit would have showdowns in their magazines, pitting American chefs against one another to see who could create the tallest food tower.

If that sounds phallic, it's because it was. "Even at the time, people were laughing at it," says Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation. "You need to keep in mind that at the beginning of New American Cuisine, most of the famous chefs to come out were men. Some styles of cooking are more gendered than others, and that was reflected in tall food. Women chefs at the time would just laugh at it. 'Why are all these guys so obsessed with getting bigger?'"

As a plating fad, Davis says, tall food likely got its start at London's River Café. Opened in 1987, the London-based restaurant was notable for the number of chefs who trained and came out of its kitchens: Jamie Oliver, Tobie Puttock, Theo Randall, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, all of whom went on to take part in the tall food fad in the '90s.

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But the chef who was most famous for tall food was Alfred Portale. The owner of the Gotham Bar and Grill, Portale was synonymous with his vertical creations during the late '80s and '90s—a fact that he seems somewhat abashed about to this day. According to Portale, the reason he started serving his meals tall was simply a matter of efficiency. "The fact that I was trying to do food that I had done in France for 100 guests with 40 cooks, I was trying to do that with, like, 12 cooks, doing 200 guests," Potale told Eater earlier this year. "So I kind of came up with this method: I figured out a way to produce, to prep and to cook or pre-cook and reheat and cut out a lot of the human error so that things could be done fast. That was how the stacking started: Rather than trying to cook a big piece of fish, I'd cut it into two thin pieces and then stack them."

According to the James Beard Foundation's Davis, efficiency wasn't the only goal. "In order to maintain your position in any field, you have to distinguish yourself by doing something different," he says. "Sometimes that's just an ideology, like the way Noma has distinguished itself by only using locally sourced ingredients. But just as often, that's in presentation."

Tall food took over because it was a fun and brash way to distinguish New American Cuisine as a culinary movement of its own. "One of the challenges of creating a new cuisine is in conveying its value to a diner," Davis says. "If you're eating at a fancy French restaurant, people are already conditioned to know that the meal will be expensive. But how do you convey value when you're unknown and doing something totally different? Tall, structural, scaffolded cooking was so obviously complex and not like what you could do at home, a diner could see why a meal is so expensive."

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But tall food was also a thing very much of its time. Within the span of a little over decade, it went from being one of the most defining trends of New American Cuisine to something Anthony Bourdain was slagging off in the pages of Kitchen Confidential. By the time Deborah Fabricant published Stacks in 1999, chefs were already moving on from vertical food, even as home chefs embraced it as a fun technique. And by 2005, the year Stacks went out of print, tall food was virtually dead. In that year, pro food stylist Christopher Styler called "teetering, monumental plates with squiggly sauces" the worst plating trend in dining. By 2006, the only real restaurants keeping tall food alive were fast food chains, which embraced some of the techniques of vertical cuisine (but not its spirit) through grotesque monstrosities like the KFC Famous Bowl and the McShaker, McDonald's attempt to serve salads to the masses by stacking wilted vegetables in a plastic milkshake cup.

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"Food trends are the same as any cultural trends, really," explains Davis. "They become popular among cultural elite, then sift their way down, until they eventually go away."

But could tall food come back? Deborah Fabricant thinks it's not an impossibility: She sees the heritage of stacking in the rise of Mason jar meals. But Davis believes that it's unlikely that tall food will have a resurgence in popularity among restauranteurs any time soon. He says that the dominance of social media and amateur food photography actually works against the notion that the tall food fad might return.

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"So much of what propagates through the food world now has to do with social media," Davis says. "People take photographs of the food they're eating on Facebook or Instagram, and if it's something new and different, it becomes pervasive so much faster, just because chefs are just so much more connected now. But when you're posting a picture of a dish you're eating at a trendy restaurant on Instagram, no one can actually tell how tall it is. The effect just isn't there, which is why restaurants today are going in the opposite direction, and food is going super-flat right now. . . . Maybe when our iPhones all have 3-D cameras in them, tall food will have a point again."

[Top Photo: Chad Baker/Ryan McVay/Getty Images]

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5 Comments

  • Marcus Cher

    Jamie Oliver, Tobie Puttock, Theo Randall, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Tobie Puttock, all of whom went on to take part in the tall food fad in the '90s.

    (I know he is an awesome Aussie, no less we love him because he is Victorian but you wrote Tobie Puttock twice) :)

  • Dw Dunphy

    The unspoken rule when eating an expensive meal is: I just paid a heck of a lot to look chic by ordering this. Don't make me look stupid. Stacked food is impractical in that sense because what looked impressive when it got to the table looks like a mess when you start in on it. Plus, it can make a mess on you while you're eating it.

    That is why "sloppy" foods tend to be casual food, like barbecued ribs where you will get sauce on your face (same goes for Buffalo wings), or corn-on-the-cob where there's no elegant way to eat it. If a tower of food falls the wrong way, or is held together by sauces acting as a glue agent, you can get as messed as if you were digging into a drippy burger.

    I understand the architectural aims of stacked food, but when you plunk down $100+ for a tiny plate, you want to look cool throughout. For many, that's the reason why they came to the restaurant to begin with; above any culinary affectations.

  • Lee-Sean Huang

    The towers of food came down to earth just as the towers came down on 9/11.