Of the handful of trends that drive innovation in foodservice, none has changed the way we eat to a greater degree than “dining casualization.”
What began as the upstreaming trend around the turn of the millennium, where upscale ingredients began to enter the mainstream and trickle into the lower dining segments, casualization has morphed the foodscape into one where fine-dining caliber cuisine is enjoyed at communal tables in cinder-block buildings, consumers are happy to purchase their meals at curbside from a food truck, upscale ingredients have become fast-casual sandwich components, and by my own count, the number of restaurants in New York City that still require a gentleman to wear a jacket has dwindled to nine.
It is against this backdrop that The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., held its most recent Worlds of Flavor conference, entitled “Casual by Design.” The event featured more than 70 chefs from the United States and abroad who are defining the next wave of casual cuisine, and whose demonstrations and tastings provided many clues to the future direction of American menus.
One theme that became evident early in the conference was the ongoing influence of global cuisines on casual menus, both in their authentic forms and in increasingly creative culinary mash-ups.
In his opening address, Singaporean street-food expert KF Seetoh discussed the anticipated arrival of Asian hawker-style street food in the United States via Anthony Bourdain’s upcoming market in New York, and the potential it has to not only transform the way Americans think of street food, but create demand for that style of cuisine across the country.
“Food halls in America pale by comparison,” he said, describing the hawker stalls as a singular experience that combines “live culinary performance art with worry-free dining. No worries—no reservations—not even a menu!”
He explains that each hawker specializes in only one dish, resulting in an uncomplicated ordering process and cooking that is executed at high levels of quality and consistency. Seetoh believes that if Bourdain is able to bring his vision to fruition, hawker cuisine could be a “game-changing influencer” on the future of casual dining in America.