All over the world, street food is the ultimate sensory experience, enticing people in through sights, sounds, aromas and, ultimately, flavor. Taking cues from around the world to elevate our sensory experience
By Christopher Koetke
Take a moment to analyze the dining experience from a sensory standpoint. You see the restaurant, its overall décor and the plate of food as it arrives at your table. You hear familiar sounds of chattering guests, order taking, clanking of dishes, clinking of glasses and an occasional escaped sound from the kitchen. You smell the food as it is placed before you or when you pick it up from the counter. And finally, you taste it. From all of these sensory signals, you generate opinions and emotions.
But what if we could raise the level of sensory experience beyond the typical? What if we could expand the sensory impact of dining out, through action-oriented experiences and direct preparation of food? Throughout my international travels, there have been countless times when such experiences tantalized my senses and made an otherwise ordinary meal memorable. And it has been at times like these when I’ve felt that the same experiential concepts could be successfully implemented in the U.S. foodservice market.
Here are a collection of culinary concepts from my global travels that have inspired me to ponder the upgraded sensory impact each might offer an American foodservice operation. With modifications for our consumer base, perhaps these categories can inspire an elevated flavor experience for all.
Freshly carved meat makes diners feel like they are receiving special treatment, boosting the interactive element — and the perceived value. DIPPING AND SCRAPING
Great food is cyclical. Enduring concepts may temporarily fall from favor, but inevitably come back around because they are simply delicious. Fondue fits in this category. It was all the rage in the 1970s, then fell from grace, only to be resurrected a few years ago. When it came back around, many of us were reminded that fondue, whether it be cheese or chocolate, is irresistible. It creates instant ambiance and light-hearted repercussions for dippers that fall from the fork. While fondue is not new, its potential is untapped. There are plenty of ways to vary the classic Swiss cheese or chocolate fondue. For savory fondue, imagine mixing up cheese varieties or adding ingredients like wild mushrooms or chiles. For dessert, the chocolate could be replaced with browned butter caramel. Because fondue is easy to replicate, it can expand beyond fondue restaurants to other foodservice segments, including fast casual and even takeout.
Before moving away from Switzerland, raclette deserves a mention. Raclette is a powerhouse main course made by heating the cut surface of a half wheel of cheese until it starts to liquefy. The molten cheese is then scraped onto a plate where it is consumed with small potatoes and cornichons. The beauty of this dish, aside from its pungent aromas and cheesy decadence, is that it is heated and scraped tableside. The theater of raclette is part of its charm. Raclette has never really made it big in the States, which is unfortunate, since many Americans have embraced flavorful cheese and cheese dishes. Taken out of its original context, raclette could be prepared tableside as part of a more complex dish, a cheese course or on top of a salad. One could experiment with similar (and exceptional) American artisan cheeses to bring it closer to home.
Tortillas have become an integral part of our food experience in the United States. While we consume a lot of tortillas in many different applications, my trips to Mexico have reinforced one important fact: We don’t do tortillas right. Store-bought tortillas are just that — store bought. Think of the difference between bread on the grocery store shelf and that which is made daily in restaurants. We have undergone our bread revolution and it is time for a tortilla revolution.
In restaurants throughout Mexico, tortillas are pressed from masa and griddled on a comal to order. The result is a soft, slightly charred and impressively flavored tortilla. Unlike breads, or even other flatbreads like pita (which are also superb when freshly made), making tortillas is incredibly simple. Authentic tortillas are often made in plain sight of the customer, which adds to the sensory dining experience and could easily be mimicked in the States. Adding a wood-fired comal could further add to the authenticity and aroma of the experience. Taking it one step further, why not bring freshly pressed tortillas and a small comal tableside so that the customers could griddle their own? That would ensure a memorable experience.
MEAT FROM ABOVE
Years ago, when touring the island of Madeira (home of the wine by the same name), I ate in a restaurant that captured my imagination. The restaurant’s concept centered around cooking assorted ingredients — including seafood, meat, poultry and vegetables — on long metal skewers over live fire. While cooking on skewers is not particularly innovative, what happened with the skewers was. Above each table was a series of sturdy iron rods bolted to the ceiling. When the skewers were done cooking, the wait staff brought them to the dining room and hung them by the hook end on the bars above each table. The customers then served themselves by sliding their food down the skewers and onto their plates. It is a great idea that could easily be replicated in American restaurants and would increase the fun, interactive quotient of dining out.
Taking inspiration from sugar shacks of the Northeast and Canada, hot maple syrup and fresh snow or ice make instant candy. WHOLE HOG
Walking through the streets of an expansive outdoor market in Otavalo, Ecuador, I passed several small restaurants where full-sized, well-roasted, mahogany-skinned pigs were displayed prominently at the entrance. Upon closer inspection, the back end of the pigs were progressively disappearing as cooks removed chunks of meat while the orders came in, preserving the decorated head. From the moment I entered the restaurant, I knew what I wanted. Watching the chefs dismantle the whole animal to order was a sensory bonus. From the quality perspective, cooking whole animals, or at least larger chunks of meat, skin-on and bone-in always makes a better, juicier, more flavorful piece of meat.
While a head-on pig may not be universally appreciated in the United States, displaying chunks of perfectly cooked meats which are cut up in the customer’s view makes a great presentation, yields a superior product, and can figure prominently into menu-engineering strategy. This concept is the backbone of Brazilian churrascarias and common to many barbecue restaurants. Beyond chunked pork butt or sliced roasted beef, imagine well-displayed whole pork legs à la Lechón, spits of fragrant rotisserie chicken, and hand-sliced brisket.
FROM POWDER TO PANCAKE
Sitting outside a café in northeastern Brazil, I watched in amazement as a street vendor made a dish called tapioca. While tapioca-based foods are common in Brazil, this dish mystified me. The vendor made the tapioca by sifting a coarse white powder (slightly moistened tapioca starch called polvilho de mandioca) through a mesh strainer into a hot non-stick pan. After 30 seconds over a hot flame, the powder had turned solid enough to flip with the flick of a wrist. This 1/4-inch “pancake” the size of the pan cooked for another minute until it was lightly crunchy and browned on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. The tapiocas were eaten hot with assorted toppings like caramel.
Since that day, I have enjoyed tapiocas as part of a hotel breakfast buffet. There, they were prepared at the buffet and filled with typical omelet fillings like cheese, ham and sautéed vegetables. This is where tapiocas could be imported into our breakfast routines, which tend to be static and often unimaginative. Tapiocas can add appeal when prepared before customers — their preparation is so magical and the end result is so versatile and delicious.
Closer to home, I was inspired by an icy treat in the deep woods of Quebec, in early spring when the maple sap starts to flow. There — at a sugar shack where maple sap is gathered and boiled down to maple syrup — I sampled freshly made maple taffy. Like many rustic preparations, it’s a simple but ingenious idea. Maple syrup is boiled until it reaches the soft ball stage. At that point, a half-inch-wide winding trail of hot, reduced syrup is poured into fresh snow. The snow immediately chills and solidifies the syrup. Taking a lollipop stick, the sticky syrup is rolled up, along with a coating of ice crystals. Why not bring this playful technique to a restaurant setting? I can imagine mini lollipops made tableside as a mignardise — perfect culinary theater.