Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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The New Rural & Rustic Emerging foodways offer fascinating place-based provenance with refined rusticity

Today’s Hawaiian cuisine shows a renewed connection to the islands’ ingredients in up-to-date fare like this chia flatbread topped with béchamel sauce, arugula, smoked havarti, local Hamakua mushrooms, sweet Maui onion, smoked ahi tuna and a balsamic reduction.

Just as it is no longer acceptable to condense Mediterranean or Southeast Asian gastronomies into broad culinary categories, our own North American cuisines have also become more demarcated and micro-regional. Those broad primary foodways—Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Northwest—don’t adequately describe the terroir, history or culture influencing the provenance of both ingredients and preparations.

Today, culinary awareness, adventure and locavorism are percolating. Chef champions have been ringing the refined regional bell of their culinary meccas recently, including: Jasper White, Patrick O’Connell, Sam Hayward, Peter Hoffman, Greg Higgins, Susan Spicer and Donald Link, Judy Rodgers, Frank Stitt, Sean Brock, Dan Barber and, indeed, Alice Waters. These chefs, along with their organizations (such as Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food, Southern Foodways Alliance and more), have the freedom to turn upscale down with a reverence for less-refined, rural preparations, service and surroundings—giving us permission to do the same.

There’s also the reverse migration of chefs who leave home to learn in metropolitan classrooms and kitchens, only to get the down-home itch. They bring skills and experience and, ironically, the big-city recipe for farm-to-table food sourcing and preparation, back to their rural roots.

What follows is a collection of budding bucolic belts in North America’s foodways, led by a new guard of passionate, regionally driven chefs.

Southern Comfort:
The New-Old South

Southern food is undeniably hot. The quintessential Lowcountry, Creole and Cajun cuisines put Southern food on the radar. Now,  “new” micro-regions of the South are earning culinary recognition beyond their borders.

Piedmont on the Plate
The American Piedmont encompasses the foothills plateau region as far north as the Atlantic coastal plain, through the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, running from Pennsylvania through South Carolina, but concentrated in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina. Here, a group of talented culinarians take home-cooking to the next level, sourcing from within their bountiful region, using techniques that respect those ingredients, and presenting those gems in an atmosphere that belies their high-country roots.

  • Melted Just-Dug Leeks, Edward’s Country Ham, fried bread and Piedmont cheese — Brookville, Charlottesville, Va.
  • Brick Oven Rappahannock Oysters Benton, cornbread, country ham, greens and Dean’s hot sauce — Rhubarb, Asheville, N.C.
  • Buttermilk Pie with local fruit coulis — Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, Cary, N.C.

High South: Ozark
Cuisine represents edible culture in the Ozark region of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. A rustic culinary tradition utilizes locally harvested heirloom produce, nuts and grains and sustainably raised livestock. Flavor profiles are marked by heritage-based recipes and Native American methods, from larder to table.

High South homeboys and girls have gone chef, then have brought their skills home. These include two Bentonville, Ark., chefs: Rob Nelson of Tusk & Trotter sources native ingredients from dozens of local farms and updates family recipes for High South that tastes down home, with twists on favorites like Pig’s Ear Nachos and Arkansas Catfish Pastrami. Meanwhile, the “refined country cooking” at The Hive in the 21c Museum Hotel is where James Beard-finalist Matthew McClure showcases the unique identity of the region’s cuisine, highlighting its most prized native ingredients. Even his salads feature local black walnuts, boiled peanuts, sorghum or local honey vinaigrette.

  • Smoked Pork Belly, fried green tomato, Carolina Gold rice
    — The Hive, Bentonville, Ark.
  • Local Shiitake & Onion Fritters: Sweden Creek shiitake mushrooms and white onions in a chickpea-flour and green-chile batter with fresh mint buttermilk dressing — Eleven, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.
  • Beans & Cornbread: Housemade duck confit, duck pastrami, corn casserole, cassoulet, duck crackling vinaigrette and duck fat dust — Tusk & Trotter, Bentonville, Ark.

Hola & Aloha:
U.S. Islands

Islands, by necessity, were once self-sustaining and resourcefully innovative. Now, locavorism has retaken hold—not in the tourist-driven resorts and white tablecloth affairs, but in roadside cafés, seaside shacks, diners, food trucks and market stands. The new form is not all “countrified,” but draws on rural ingredients, rustic recipes and a lot of ingenuity combining mainland and island heritage.

Puerto Rican Pride
An underground movement elevating Puerto Rican cookery has been burgeoning both stateside and within the atoll. Like New Orleans’ Creole gumbo,  “cocina criolla” includes Euro-Spanish, Cuban, African, Taíno and North American influences, with indigenous seasonings and ingredients. Getting back to its roots, this island fare hits many trend marks: reliant on local agriculture and unfussy (often from a truck or shack), porky and hearty. Even before stateside-trained Puerto Rican chef Jose Enrique was named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” last year (when he was also a James Beard semi-finalist), his restaurant Jose Enrique at La Placita de Santurce personalized daily menus incorporating local products with a focus on traditional Puerto Rican produce. His second restaurant, Capital, is a brasserie with accents of Creole cuisine; his latest venture, Miel café features premium Puerto Rican coffee and honey, demonstrating his dedication to local food culture.

At the acclaimed Pikayo in San Juan, chef Wilo Benet takes classic peasant Puerto Rican ingredients and recipes and deploys more sophisticated tastes and techniques learned at the CIA and in Manhattan’s Le Bernardin and Water Club. He is joined by a new guard representing the resurgence of homegrown cuisine: José Santaella of Santaella was mentored by chefs Ferran Adriá, Eric Ripert and Gary Danko; Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse cultivated Juan José Cuevas at 1919 Restaurant, and CIA grad, French-trained Jeremie Cruz at Eclipse. And now the influence is crisscrossing back over to the mainland.

  • Alcapurrias: Puerto Rican stuffed fritters with white wild-caught crab and herb salad — Eclipse, San Juan, P.R.
  • Chicken Pincho: Cinnamon skewered, guava barbecue, local hydroponic greens, fried plantains — Santaella, Isabela, P.R.
  • Acquerello Risotto, rock shrimp, tocino, chicharrones gremolata — 1919 Restaurant, San Juan, P.R.

Hawaii: Authentic Fusion
Defined by Polynesian, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malay agricultural and street food traditions with a bit of British, North and South American thrown in, Hawaiian food is authentic fusion.

Hawaii is getting its second-time-around resurgence after the ’90s Hawaiian-Asian fusion days of Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong and Sam Choy. A new generation of food pioneers embraces more heritage Hawaiian-islands foods, drawing on tradition in both technique and a new crop of local, sustainable, heirloom ingredients, combined with culinary acumen and accessibility. With an island culture defined by diversity, local gastronauts have dubbed their food “Hawaiian Regional Cuisine.”

Among those local food folks is Mark Noguchi, with his Honolulu restaurant Pili Hawai’i (“pili” means “to cling, connect.”) The mission is to provide “thoughtful” food with place-based resourcing. His casual plate lunch spot He’eia Pier General Store & Deli on Oahu is considered one of Hawaii’s best “restaurants,” though it’s little more than a shack with a blackboard featuring local laid-back surfer fare. But it demonstrates some serious gastronomic prowess with rustic, rural fisher/farmer food.

Likewise, at cheekily downscale Town outside Honolulu, chef Ed Kenney cures and gently cooks local meats and seafood, adorning them only with old-time Hawaiian side dishes made from a bounty of botanicals, roots and shoots from land and sea.

  • O`io Fishcake, limu remoulade, crispy rice musubi, Hawaiian bonefish, limu, grilled rice — Pili Hawai’i, Honolulu
  • Kalua Pig & Cabbage: Pulled pork and cabbage served with rice, mac salad and greens — Onomea, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Frito: Walu brandade, okra, onion, fried pork ribs, malt aïoli —Town, Honolulu

The Dishes of Our Past

Unlimited by regional delineations, Americans have developed a new appetite for the old ways, craving authenticity in foods and beverages. Adapting the pastoral dishes of our past, we embrace ingredient-driven locality. North America is a culinary cornucopia of foods cultivated and collected from farms, forests and waters of each region, cooked by a nation of immigrants with ingenuity and flavor-building techniques. Recipes, amended and redeveloped, have found their ways to summer kitchens, winter larders, village eateries, roadside stands, fish shacks, picnic tables and diner counters with ritual and reverence. With these, we can do the same.

Tasty Little Fried Bits
Delicately hearty fritters, hushpuppies, dumplings, beignets, calas, arepas and fry bread aren’t just for food trucks or roadside stands anymore.

  • Corn Milk Hushpuppies, cane syrup butter — The Optimist, Atlanta
  • Ford’s Savory Shrimp Beignets, served with sugarcane butter — Ford’s Oyster House, Greenville, S.C.
  • Winter Squash Fritters, local honey — Hen of the Wood, Burlington, Vt.

True Grits

All-American comforting corn for quintessential grits encompasses: stoneground, traditionally milled, dried or limed corn in yellow, white or blue for tortillas, Johnny Cakes, corn pudding, posole, pones, tamales, hoe cakes and, of course, cornbread.

  • Skillet Cornbread, bacon honey, churned butter — Black Horse Restaurant, Denver, Pa.
  • Johnny Cakes with mustard-glazed pork butt, pickled cucumber and molasses barbecue sauce — Moxy, Portsmouth, N.H.
  • Jalapeño Corn SpoonBread, whipped butter, local honey — The Pearl, Columbus, Ohio
  • Bacon Scallion Hoecakes with crème fraîche — Hotel Shattuck Plaza, Berkeley, Calif.

Between the Bun
Chains are even incorporating “regional” into the bun, from Ted’s Montana Grill’s Bison Burgers and Sonic’s Coney Dogs to Smashburger’s multi-regional burgers and the McDonald’s Northeast Lobster Roll—taking their cue from local-minded independents.

  • Le Pig Mac: Two all-pork patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onion on sesame bun — Cochon Butcher, New Orleans
  • OP Pork Frankfurter, ketchup, Dijon, relish, onions, housemade sauerkraut, soft bun, barrel-fermented pickle — Olympic Provisions, Portland, Ore.
  • Tin Box Hangover Sammy: House bacon, fried eggs and oysters, avocado, greens and charred tomatoes, smoked jalapeño aïoli, pan de agua — Tin Box, Vieques, P.R.

Piggy Bank
Though some regions are more pork-centric than others, locally raised heritage breeds in modernized folkie recipes utilizing snout to tail are part of the pork economy.

  • Kentuckyaki: Pig’s ear lettuce wraps with sweet vinegar-marinated cucumbers and onions, cilantro — Husk, Charleston, S.C.
  • Tonno Di Maiale: House-cured ham braised in olive oil and wine; grilled bread, pork rinds — Hen of the Wood, Burlington, Vt.
  • Whole Pig Plate: Gascogne-style red-wine beans with Toulouse sausage, rosemary roast pork loin, confit ribs and braised belly — Higgins Restaurant & Bar, Portland, Ore.

Yard Birds: The Chicken and the Egg
Whichever came first, nothing says homestyle like roasted, fried, poached, stewed or braised poultry and eggs.

  • Organic Butcher’s Chicken ’n Waffle, house seasoning, bacon waffle, fried egg, greens, Kim Kim hot sauce, maple syrup — Brookville, Charlottesville, Va.
  • Lemon Herb Brick Chicken, citrus griddled onions, farm-a-roni, veggie succotash — Farmers Fishers Bakers, Washington, D.C.
  • Farm Egg, Josephine bacon, spaetzle, mustard greens, sourdough toast — Josephine, Nashville, Tenn.
  • ESS Farm Egg, maitake, bologna, fried okra, Carolina Gold rice, mushroom purée,  buttermilk dressing — Empire State South, Atlanta

Still Life & Draft Horses
Regional craft breweries, cideries and distilleries, along with locally brewed sodas and drink-making ingredients, bring the richness of our legacy culture to the drink list.

  • Roughing It: Chattanooga 1816 Reserve Whiskey, smoked honey syrup, sassafras and sorghum bitters — Merchants, Nashville, Tenn.
  • New Jersey Cocktail: Carriage House Apple Brandy, sugar cube, Foggy Ridge Cider, bitters; up Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, Cary, N.C.
  • The Berry White: Caledonia Elderberry Cordial, Barr Hill Gin, Reposado Tequila, local honey, lemon, egg white and Urban Moonshine Hibiscus Flower Bitters— Mule Bar, Winooski, Vt. 

Miss American Pie

In the rise and fall of trendy treats, there will always be one constant: pie. Nothing says “country” like a regionally inspired pie.

  • Peach & Blueberry “Ten Dollar” Pie with housemade lemon-buttermilk ice cream — Piedmont, Durham, N.C.
  • Mile-High Banana Cream Pie —  Eighty3 Food & Drink, Memphis, Tenn.
  • Mini Sugar Pie — Mindy’s HotChocolate, Chicago
  • Cheddar Cheese Straw-Crusted Apple Pie — GW Fins, New Orleans

About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.