We live in fast-changing times, and today’s diners have an evolved set of expectations. Many seek healthier options, others want ethically sourced ingredients, and then there are those with dietary concerns for whom produce is becoming the center-plate star. But for all of these diners, flavor is still the top priority. The strategy for satisfying all of the above: Provide high-quality protein options—and make sure that they offer plenty of flavor and perceived value per bite. Today, quality trumps quantity.
“Consumers are creating ways to find new balance without sacrifice,” says Colleen McClellan, director of foodservice research firm Datassential. “They don’t want less of the same steak at a higher price. They are asking, ‘How do I find a way to sacrifice less?’”
She says the answer can be found in proteins that offer high-impact preparation, greater sourcing and transparency, and more customization and choice. Addressing these factors—with flavor at the forefront—makes it possible to deliver protein that’s satisfying and appealing to diners, whether they are concerned with health, wellness or ethical issues.
“Increasingly, people are becoming flexitarian, where they may think about their protein choices meal by meal, day by day or week by week. When they have protein, it’s not just a calorie spend, it’s a lifestyle spend. So they want it to be worth it,” says Pam Smith, nutritionist, culinary consultant and chair of The Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. “It’s making it count.”
No matter the portion size, protein that offers maximum flavor will satisfy the palate. It’s a formula that has long been understood around the world. Other cultures often feature smaller portions of meat—historically because meat simply was not affordable or available—and they surround the meat with abundant seasonings, sauces and boldly flavored ingredients.
At Frontera Restaurants—including Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco Grill—Andres Padilla, culinary director, prioritizes the complex sauces that distinguish Mexican cuisine. “People are changing their mentality. The protein is not usually the first thing people think about—it’s usually our sauce,” he says. “We can entice them with a black mole, like with our carne asada.”
The dry-aged flank steak is wood-grilled and served with a Oaxacan black mole that’s made from 20 ingredients. “It takes two days to make—there’s a lot of complexity,” says Padilla.
With the right, flavor-enhancing sauce, protein can come in the form of smaller pieces or portions of meat, and it can gain better-for-you attributes as well. “We are cooking cuisine where the sauces don’t use cream and butter,” says Padilla. “We use toasted pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds to create sauces with creamy texture and a rich flavor—it’s a way to add this indulgent flavor while essentially eating really healthy.”
With Asian food, it’s part of the cultural heritage to take advantage of seasonings and accompanying ingredients to make the less-dominant protein elements appealing. Datassential’s McClellan cites pho, for example: “It’s highly flavorful from beef stock, even though the quantity of meat is not huge. The dish itself has complex flavor—maybe from intensive condiments, chile oil, pickled vegetables, heat from hot sauce.” She says the same effect comes with other world cuisines, like tacos or stir-fries or curries. These satisfy the consumer who is seeking to get something out of their protein consumption, as well as looking to experiment. “They are willing to pay for an $8 taco or bowl of ramen because there is value to the inside of that dish—it’s authentic, and it’s not something they can make at home.”
The Balancing Act
Part of the successful transformation of protein from “center of plate” to what Pam Smith calls “the guiding star of the plate” is in how the chef balances the other elements into an enticing whole.
“Five or even 10 years ago, people would choose a beautiful beef tenderloin, and with it were other things that just filled the plate,” says Smith. “Now, the focus is to have that beef be part of the whole plate, where there’s a reason for every element to be there.” She sees a shift in the R&D process around menu development, where operators move beyond thinking of what sides go with the protein, and instead think holistically about building an integrated flavor experience. “You also want to avoid palate fatigue. You’re not eating your way through a 12-oz. piece of meat. The balance has shifted. How do you populate the plate so that every bite plays into the integrated food experience?”
In Portland, Maine, Damian Sansonetti, chef/owner of Piccolo, looks to seasonality to lead the way in creating a balanced dish. “I love a juicy, ribeye steak, but I’m also a big believer in vegetables. All of my dishes are more vegetable-based. The protein might be something very rich, so I’ll use an awesome vegetable or starch to complement and balance it out. You want everything to shine.” If he has cauliflower or zucchini in season, for example, he will build from there, perhaps using extra-virgin olive oil and some acidity with citrus and capers. “I might take a beautiful roasted cauliflower to give the base some funkiness and have it play off the primal flavors of meat, with some toasted pine nuts as well.”
Another dish, the Pasta Fatta en Casa, features lamb neck ragù with eggplant and orange on cavatelli pasta. The quantity of lamb is small, but the sauce takes four days to make and is a luxurious blend of textures and intense flavor. “You don’t need a pile of meat,” says Sansonetti. Not only does the sauce do the work, but the pasta is high in egg yolk content, which he says helps to add more protein to the dish and bring in richness so that less meat is needed to provide the diner satisfaction.
Frontera’s Padilla also leads with seasonality in the pursuit of a holistic plate. “If it’s the heart of summer, I might use corn, wild greens, squash blossoms—maybe baby corn with black bean purée, some red chile for spiciness. Then I think: ‘What protein might complement that the best? Wild Alaskan halibut?” Finally, Padilla considers the protein treatment, whether it’s a brine for fish or sous vide or a char. “It’s all about balance.”
Simply Good Technique
Cliff Pleau, vice president of R&D of Bonefish Grill, is a believer in the power of simplicity. His preferred mode is to keep the protein preparation clean and simple at the 200-plus-unit fish and seafood concept—usually involving wood-firing, and bringing bright flavors and textures in with sauces or accompaniments. “My style is to let it shine on its own. Let a quality piece of chicken or fish do the work. Then I like doing different things with it to promote interest: special sauces from natural juices, like with tomatillo, or tossing a piece of wood-fired salmon into fresh-chopped herbs right when it’s done. The herbs stick to the meat, and you taste them in every bite.”
This philosophy is reflected in Bonefish Grill’s entrées, where high-quality proteins are prepared so that they stand out and are well integrated with the rest of the plate. “We have dayboat scallops that are super-fresh, accompanied by a satisfying creamy corn risotto.” The dish is topped with crispy bacon, lemon butter drizzle and green beans. A Bonefish Grill special, Grouper & Shrimp features local Florida grouper, fresh from the Gulf, wood-grilled, blackened and topped with three jumbo shrimp and a fresh citrus aïoli.
Celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan—whose Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville melds Indian, global and Southern cuisines—says that thoughtful protein treatment is central to generating appeal to diners. “One of the best examples on my menu is the Garam Masala Pork Belly. It’s a smaller portion because pork belly is so rich, and the garam masala adds to the bold flavor,” she says. “In my book, it’s the perfect balance: a small portion of protein with impactful flavor and texture.”
Chauhan emphasizes the importance of every step, from preparation to plating. “It’s the perfect balance of how you cut the protein, how it is treated in terms of marinating and cooking, the spices used and what it is served with.”
Her pork belly dish gets a dry rub of garam masala and brown sugar. Next, it’s braised in duck fat, cooled, cut into cubes and then fried. To finish, it’s tossed in a gastrique and served with a frisée and Granny Smith apple salad.
Pam Smith sums up the approach that best appeals to the raised expectations of today’s diner: “Rethink the strategy toward protein. The protein co-stars with all of the grain and produce on the plate. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so think about the plate holistically. Use contrast in every way—temperature, spiciness, color, texture,” she says. “Use every tool in your flavor toolbox to give guests a craveable, integrated flavor experience.