I’m not sure exactly when I noticed it, but sometime in the last four weeks I realized that my Instagram feed was dominated by two things: 1) sanctimonious parenting-advice reels and 2) puzzling photos of restaurant dishes adorned by what can best be described as poop-emoji swirls.
At Antico Nuovo in Los Angeles, Chad Colby offers ribbons of duck liver as an accompaniment to house-made focaccia.
In New York City, Ignacio Mattos’s crew at Lodi is piping swirls of chicken liver mousse onto crunchy toast ovals. Across the country, there’s the chicken liver mousse at Daytrip, a self-described “party restaurant and bottle shop” in Oakland, California, which boasts chicken mousse piped on top of house-made brioche. Gone are the rustic, nose-to-tail liver spreads smeared onto toasted country bread we saw in the mid-aughts. The ’20s are here, and we’re ordering jaunty poop swoops.
The poop swoop isn’t just for livers — though truly, there’s a real internal-organ synergy there. At Missy Robbins’s Brooklyn restaurant Misi, whipped ricotta is ribboned onto crostini. It’s vaguely reminiscent of soft serve, which itself has dominated restaurant menus for the past half-dozen years as restaurants downsized their pastry teams; but the piping still looks more like cake decoration than something that belongs in a cone or cup. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the iconic, embattled Sqirl toast. But these ricotta swirls don’t telegraph effortless cool. They say loudly and clearly: “A cook stood, hunched over the counter, carefully piping this with a pastry bag.”
The originator of the trend is likely the chocolate hazelnut tart at Wildair, Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra’s groundbreaking small-plates-and-natural-wine destination on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. All of these swirly toasts seem highly indebted to von Hauske Valtierra’s chocolate hazelnut tart, which has been on the Wildair menu in some form since the restaurant opened in 2015. It features a short crust with hazelnut praline (in the early days, sometimes it would be peanuts instead of hazelnuts), and chocolate cremeux. The piping evolved from round…
… to boldly squiggly…
… to what it’s best-known as now — the tightly zig-zagging ribbons.
I sent von Hauske Valtierra a few reference photos of what other restaurants have been up to, then called him up. What did he make of all this?
“I would never say those people you sent me copied ours,” he says right off the bat. “But I know a lot of people follow us… For the longest time, we were very aggressive in putting it out there. My social media was just tart photos for like a year and a half. It was something very specific to the restaurant, and we posted about it like every single day.” It’s true — scroll way back through the Wildair feed and through von Hauske Valtierra’s personal grid, and you’ll find plenty of photos of the tart.
Von Hauske Valtierra calls this style of ribbon piping “swirls or swirlies” — he doesn’t know of a formal name. The acclaimed pastry chef knew from the jump that he wanted to do a chocolate tart with hazelnut praline (“a Ferrero Rocher situation”) and that he wanted a pudding that wasn’t a jelly pudding; he landed on cremeux, and for the first couple months, he and two other cooks would each do the piping in their own style, eventually settling on the ribbony swirl. It’s not terribly difficult, but it does take some skill and precision. “I don’t think this kind of piping is easy. You really need to get someone who feels comfortable with it,” he says. “Savory cooks don’t really learn how to pipe things nicely. It’s a very pastry-person sort of thing.”
While von Hauske Valtierra says you can see elements of the swirl in classic pastries, there wasn’t any one specific pastry he was borrowing from when he devised it. But he does think the look of his tart is part of what has made it such a hit. “When we opened Wildair, it was when restaurants were becoming very visual. Everyone does it now, but [there was a new feeling that] you have to make food that looks good, that makes people take photos of it and talk about it.”
In December 2015, Tejal Rao, then the dining critic for Bloomberg, wrote that the chocolate in the tart “either by accident, or perhaps as a kind of middle finger to fancy restaurant plating, was piped into the approximate shape of a poop emoji.” Von Hauske Valtierra says he never thought of it that way, and the writeup prompted some intense conversations about whether to take the tart off the menu. He didn’t — and now plenty of others have found the joy of the swoop.
“I’ve definitely seen it become a thing this year,” he notes. “People message me and say, ‘This looks like Wildair!’” While the proliferation of this specific piping style was unexpected, von Hauske Valtierra is not surprised by a trend jumping from the pastry menu to the savory side. Many chefs, he says, “look to pastry for visual inspiration. And that doesn’t feel new to me.”
His biggest takeaway, though, is that “you can make an impact with a tiny restaurant.” “I’m surprised by this trend, but I’m happy,” he says. “I think we paved the way to allow people to make food that looks like poop emojis and not feel bad about it.”