- Authentic vs. Inventive
There’s a dichotomy playing out on menus as the road ahead splits in two very different directions: authenticity and simplicity, as defined by market-driven concepts like Sweetgreen and the new-old Jams, where the signature dish is a simple roast chicken; and playful cross-cultural mashups where the kitchen’s creativity is the focus, like the “proudly inauthentic” Talde, in Brroklyn and the soul food/vegan crossover Souley Vegan, in Oakland, CA (Seitan po’ boy, anyone?).
In many ways, it’s a generational thing. Many older, more established chefs are eschewing bells and whistles in search of simpler, more honest cooking—a kind of minimalism that even 11 Madison Park’s Daniel Humm is seeking. Simplicity also works with the sweeping farm-to-table/locavore food movement that has changed the way Americans eat—the focus is on honoring the ingredients and editing food down to its most pure flavor.
Younger chefs, on the other hand, are flexing their creative muscle and creating an entirely new, one-of-a-kind experience for customers and recognition for themselves and their cooking. For Millennials in the kitchen, it’s a passion project of an entirely different kind.
- The Quest for Clean Eating
The concept of eating clean has been gaining traction for several years now, an outgrowth of demand for fresh ingredients and interest in where food comes from. Now it promises to completely change the way many restaurants put menus together.
For chains that are dependent upon prepared products that contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, growth hormones, and any of the above, the impact has already been significant. Ultimately, it means that many industry players will have to make the switch from processed ingredients to fresh.
“Free from” is the new mantra. Free from artificial ingredients and colors, from GMOs, from antibiotics, from gluten and other trigger foods, from unnecessary processing. The trend goes hand-in-glove with the industry’s move to greater transparency and traceability in the food chain, as consumer desire for clean cuisine grows.
- Texture: The Final Frontier
For the past decade or so, flavor has been the big food-trend story, in all its iterations. Bold, spicy, balanced. Chefs and diners discovered the role of sweet/savory contrast, acidity, umami.
Now it’s texture’s turn, time to explore the role that a sophisticated interplay of soft, creamy, crunchy, crispy, firm, and tender play in the craveability of food. Many of these lessons come from Asia, where balance in all things has always been key. Think of classic Vietnamese pho, with its slippery noodles, rich broth, chewy beef and tender meatballs, and then the vivid contrast of crisp beansprouts, crunchy fried shallots, toothsome fresh herbs. These ingredients aren’t just about layered flavors or even contrasting temperatures; they’re about the kinds of different, intriguing textures that always have you wanting another bite.
- Vegetarian + Vegan + 2016 = Veggie-Forward
Forget about outdated notions of consumers who avoid meat (vegetarians) and animal products (vegan). While these groups definitely exist, and comprise about 5% of the populations, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, evenly split between vegetarian and vegans.
That’s not even the point, and it hardly even matters that more Americans than ever before are vegetarian-leaning or inclined to eat less meat. What matters is that restaurant menus are becoming more “veg-centric.” This encompasses interest in plant-based proteins like quinoa and beans, as well as a fake meat revolution that may very well lead to the development of more alt-proteins.
The real kicker, though, is that chefs and guests alike are in love with vegetables and fruits, for reasons of health, seasonality, local sourcing and sustainability, and just plain flavor and signature appeal. And this trend is extending into every menu category, at nearly every price point, from breakfast items and sandwiches to full-on “vegetable-focused” tasting menus.
- The Chefication of Fast Casual
There should be a bumper sticker for high-end chefs: “Honk if You’re Opening a Fast Casual Restaurant.” From Jose Garces with Fast Fish to Daniel Humm of Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park and Made Nice, highly lauded white-tablecloth chefs are rushing to open more accessibly priced concepts that will put their food in more mouths—and no doubt help them reap Danny Meyer/Shake Shack size fortunes.
Here are a few of the latest entries:
- Top Chef Franklin Becker’s The Little Beet
- Michael White alumnus Chris Jaeckle and Uma Temakeria
- Jose Andres of Think Food Group and Beefsteak
- Campton Place’s Bradley Ogden with Funky Chicken
- Dumplings via W-D 50 and Jean-Georges alum Mike Sheerin at Packed
The owners may be high-profile, but the food and concepts follow well-trod pathways of fresh, healthy, customizable fast casual.
- Annals of Competition: The Grocerant
Retailers have long had designs on the lucrative foodservice market, with service details, prepared-foods counters, food bars, custom catering, and even in-house restaurants. But now they’re after those dollars in earnest, with a hybrid food-away-from-home strategy the industry has named the grocerant. And once again, it’s Millennials fueling demand.
Upscale grocery stores appear to be breaking the code. Plum Market, in Old Town Chicago, has a wine bar. Whole Foods in Chicago, Glastonbury, CT, and Fairfax, VA, are home to ramen bars. Eataly has its famous Nutella Bar, for made-to-order crepes, waffles and more. And then there are the meal kit purveyors like Blue Apron and Purple Carrot. Make no mistake that these will be coming soon to a supermarket near you.
- Wine Gets Approachable
We can thank the Millennials for the steam-gathering trend toward easy-to-drink wines and less intimidating lists and service. Not only are fast casual and even fast food brands like Taco Bell offering wine, but the wines that are being made now—some by young winemakers—are more fun, intended to be drunk young, and often contained in boxes, kegs and other trendy forms of packaging. Plus today’s drinkers also have a taste for “bubbles” (sparkling wines) for general drinking, not just celebration.
They also have a taste for obscure wines with interesting back stories and bragging rights (“look what I “discovered”), which has changed the way beverage directors and somms are buying and selling wine. But this may also lead to some clinkers becoming popular according to some experts, including the estimable Lettie Teague.
- Cocktails Trends Follow the Kitchen
Seasonal, foraged ingredients, ingredient-driven, artisanal and housemade. This isn’t the kitchen, though; it’s the bar. The craft cocktail movement continues on exciting and profitable pathways, encompassing a number of developments that mirror what’s going on in the back-of-the-house.
- Seasonal selections
- Foraged cocktail ingredients
- Local, small-batch spirits
- Housemade syrups and mixers
- Artisanal bitters
- High-end garnishes (such as Luxardo cherries)
These trends are already givens in high-end cocktail bars, and will increasingly be seen in multi-unit establishments any day now.
- Sustainable Seafood
Concern about the health of our oceans and its resources has been on the mind of chefs and restaurant operators for a number of years, but now the issue is moving on to guests’ radars. It’s a complex problem, to be sure, with more attendant controversy than just about any other food, but it’s an important one: unlike chicken or beef, wild fish and shellfish are not endlessly renewable. And according to Seafood Watch, 90% of the world’s wild fisheries have already been affected.
More restaurants are calling out sustainability issues on their menus, and moving to educate both staff and guests about why it matters. Many chefs are working to introduce underutilized “trash fish” to customers. (Unfortunately, many once-unfamiliar species such as octopus have become so popular—mentioned as a hot trend by 37% of respondents on the NRA’s What’s Hot list for 2015—that pressure is mounting on them.)
Menuing strategies addressing seafood sustainability are not just at higher price points. Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill promotes MSC-certified Alaska salmon and other sustainable, wild-caught species, including a rotating fish of the day, such as Alaska pollock, explained by informative point-of-sale “fish boards.”
- Pretty as a Picture
The eyes have always had it when it comes to food and appetite, but new visual media platforms have made this more true than ever, completely turning the tables on how consumers and operators alike get information about food. Instagram, in particular, has increased the importance of plating and presentation, in the process ensuring that food and menu trends move with lightning speed across the country. Be aware that anything you serve may end up on social media, and that means the challenge of making your food look good is offset by the opportunity for free publicity. Use it.
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