By Karen Weisberg
Aiming to forecast food, beverage and culinary concept trends at restaurants nationwide, each year the National Restaurant Association (NRA) publishes its What’s Hot survey of chefs. Based upon responses from approximately 650 American Culinary Federation (ACF) members, Hudson Riehle, the NRA’s senior vicepresident of research, said “plant-based alternatives, veggie carb substitutes and globally-inspired menu items — already popular in consumers’ own homes — are now poised to ignite sales at restaurants and foodservice operations.”
More than 69% of chefs said globally-inspired breakfast would be the year’s leading food trend, and the NRA report cited shakshouka as a prime example. The Tunisian/Israeli breakfast item features eggs poached in a cumin-spiced tomato sauce. Connor Thompson, a member of the culinology team at Ingredion Inc., Bridgewater, NJ, recently acquired shakshouka for the group’s communal lunch not once but twice within a month. “He loves these simple ingredients, plus he loves eggs,” said Anh Nguy, project leader, culinology, at Ingredion. Increasingly, both industry experts and consumers view traditional daypart distinctions as interchangable. “Just like shakshouka, fermented yuzo kosho (a Japanese condiment) is not just for breakfast but can be consumed during various dayparts,” said Ms. Nguy. Mike Kostyo, trendologist and senior publications manager at Chicago-based Datassential, agrees rules have gone out the window. “All-day breakfast menus continue to grow and ingredients or dishes that were previously confined to later dayparts, like chicken or cocktails, are now showing up on breakfast menus.” He finds that breakfast can look like dessert, while dessert may boast savory ingredients. “When in doubt, you can always turn a lunch or dinner dish into a breakfast dish by putting an egg on it,” he said. But when it comes to functional ingredient trends, Mr. Kostyo conceded that dayparts are often the driver. For breakfast, consumers seek foods for energy or to keep them satisfied until lunch. “So, that’s where chefs should consider more protein-driven trends like whey or some of the plant-based proteins like the Impossible Burger or Just Eggs,” he said. “In the evening, consumers often want to relax and take their mind off work, so that’s when chefs can consider options like CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabis compound) or Asian whiskeys.”
Making the leap
Mr. Kostyo believes the cannabis, CBD and hemp space is not a passing fad. “Chefs are starting to look more closely at terpenes — the compounds in cannabis responsible for the flavor and aroma — in order to create more culinary-focused dishes and pairings,” he said.
However, other industry analysts including Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer at Foster City, Calif.-based Mattson, say CBD isn’t ready to crossover into food and beverage. “CBD is hot, but it’s a huge unknown at the moment,” Ms. Stuckey said. While there are a lot of people and companies rushing to create CBD-containing products, there are a lot of red flags.” She specifically noted the lack of published data showing the effectiveness of CBD in treating ailments. “The regulatory environment for CBD is still unclear. In California, for example, selling foods and beverages containing CBD is explicitly prohibited,” she said. Health departments in some cities have recently cracked down on restaurants serving foods containing CBD, stating the additive is not yet approved as safe to eat. Mr. Kostyo said other trends may be poised to cross into new categories, as well. With interest in sweet beverages among younger demographics, he suggested chefs incorporate dessert flavors into beverages. “Trending options like churros, affogatos, tres leche cake and mocha could make the leap to beverages.”
Also making the not-so-murky crossover between food and beverages are sea greens. Mr. Thompson said “algae, lichen, seaweed, etc., play well in savory foods and also can be turned to powders to provide a nutritional boost to beverages.”
Globally-inspired “authentic” cuisine continues to grow in popularity, but the cognoscenti voice a few provisos to this trend. As Mr. Kostyo sees it, success boils down to telling a convincing chef story. “In Chicago, for instance, the Korean-Italian restaurant Passerotto tells the story of Chef Jennifer Kim’s Korean heritage, her background in Italian cuisine and location in Chicago and the Midwest. Most customers understand that authenticity may mean different things as long as it comes from a place of respect.”
Ms. Stuckey added, “Trying to do something ethnically authentic is fraught…consumers love to take to social media to excoriate chefs, founders, entrepreneurs and others who are co-opting culture from ethnic populations.”
Looking at authenticity through a psychological lens, Brad Barnes, CMC, director of the Culinary Institute of America’s Consulting and Industry Programs, said “authentic” only matters if you know what “it” is. He sees it as an illusion with most people finding “it” on the internet. “In general, authenticity comes from mom’s hands — that’s who invents all the foundational cuisines…‘authentic’ becomes a perception rather than a reality,” he said.
Consumers indicate they want to eat more plant-based foods. Therefore, chefs have an opportunity “to create dishes that are primarily plant-driven, but use meats or stocks as a complementary flavor instead of the focus,” Mr. Kostyo said. They are still interested in functional foods — not forgetting probiotics and prebiotics — he sees a shift to what he and his Datassential cohorts call Healthy 4.0, which points to a focus on customization and personalization. He sees this as part of the broad interest in and use of DNA testing kits to define one’s individuality.
“Chefs and operators should prepare for consumers to prefer customizing or personalizing their dishes even more than they already do and consider platforms that can easily accommodate those needs,” he said.
Increasingly, consumers want to feel responsible for their own well-being and that of society and the planet. “People are going to consider eating just a bit of animal protein versus plant-based foods, i.e., 35% vs. 65%,” Mr. Barnes said.
Chef Matt Weingarten agrees. As executive chef of the farm-fast, healthy cafeteria chain Dig Inn, he manages the production of 100,000 locally sourced meals per-week across 25 locations, which are primarily in New York City. Mr. Weingarten said traditional fruits and vegetables “that express unique flavor profiles in different parts of the plant will continue to provide a widening flavor palette for chefs to explore and celebrate.”
He suggested using carrot tops for pesto and tomato leaves to flavor sauces. “Also, cook more with immature fruits like green strawberries as well as overripe and fermented produce like the Hoshigaki persimmon.”
From Ms. Stuckey’s perspective at Mattson, there’s a definite trend in consumers “seeking vegetables with more intense flavors, aromas and textures,” she said. “We are seeing all sorts of brassicas, in follow up to kale. In this category is cauliflower which we think is here to stay, as are Brussels sprouts,” she said.
She also sees more turnips, kohlrabi and mustard greens on menus, as well as radicchio and Belgian endive, both being used outside the salad bowl. “Plus, given [the explosion] of vertical farming, we expect to see more microgreens, with their dense micronutrients, start emerging at retail,” she said.
Ms. Nguy believes climate change will be an important reason to consider consuming less animal proteins. “Animals require more water than plants to live and they produce methane gas that destroys the ozone layer,” she explained. It’s a thoughtful addition to top consumer drivers including locally sourced sustainable foods and a desire to eat healthy.