In August, The Flavor Experience marked its 10th anniversary in Newport Beach, Calif. Hosted by BSI Conferences, Inc., in partnership with Flavor & The Menu magazine, this year’s three-day event showcased flavor exploration both on and off the plate. Hundreds of foodservice professionals from high-volume restaurants, hotels, resorts and non-commercial segments enjoyed the cutting-edge presentations, intimate toolbox sessions and roundtables, and fantastic flavor-forward food and beverage. A common theme weaved its way through all of the activities, roundtables, keynotes, networking breaks, meals and snacking occasions: Our business revolves around flavor. The conference succeeded in presenting workable strategies, consumer insights and menu trends that propel us forward while keeping flavor firmly in the crosshairs.
Sharp Analysis and Predictions
This year’s first keynote opened up our world outside of foodservice—Dr. Mitchell Perry, a human performance expert, boiled down human behavior into best business practices to help improve the bottom line. He says we can draw from one of two fuel tanks: weakness or strength. The latter builds on a brand’s trust factor while promoting productivity.
Next up, Technomic’s Darren Tristano and Datassential’s Maeve Webster teamed up for a breakdown on demographics, demonstrating where purchasing power lies. Technomic data revealed what drives different choices for the three cohorts: Millennials want to customize, they want food and beverages that answer cravings, and they look for unique flavors; Generation X seeks a fun atmosphere and a good selection of preferred beverages; Boomers are value-driven, they seek accurate service and a variety of appealing healthy options. Datassential pointed to four crucial markers that are driving trend acceleration: ethnic population, acculturation, urbanization, food culture and mobile tech. Webster said that the trend cycle that used to flow from “emerging” to “ubiquity” over 12 years has been halved—it’s now about six years and continuing to shrink. The implication: It’s imperative to stay on top of trends and create a nimble R&D cycle for menu innovation.
Kathy Casey of Kathy Casey Food Studios & Liquid Innovation co-presented “Drink Nation” with Beam Suntory’s Philip Raimondo, taking an on-the-money look at 25 beverage trends. They called out tea infusions, zebra lemons and calamansi, the rise of Tiki bar culture, and ginger everything (craft ginger beer, candied ginger, mules, ginger bitters).
Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides mesmerized the audience with an analysis of consumer influencers that include forces from government, health, technology and travel. One overarching trend she touched on was “value, not price,” where today’s consumers measure value through provenance, craftsmanship and quality of ingredients. Emerging cuisines, she said, include Nicaraguan, Brazilian and Puerto Rican, which Badaracco christened “the darling of the Caribbean.”
The Culinary Edge’s Steven Goldstein laid out a timeline of how today’s consumer has evolved from accepting rigid menus and ordering options to expecting democratized food. Customization, choice, connectivity all shape today’s foodservice landscape.
The next session caught attendees up on pending FDA regulations, while also describing how nutritional information on menus affects the consumer mindset. Pamela Smith, RDN, outlined what the restaurant industry is hoping for: reasonable standards; flexibility with combo meals; a longer lead time for implementation; clarity and grace period in enforcement.
Street-food savvy chef Robert Danhi of Chef Danhi & Co. brought together a roundtable of three Southern California-based food-truck chefs who “traded in their toques for baseball hats.” The panel starred Dave Danhi of The Grilled Cheese Truck, which has a fleet of 12 trucks in two states, Antonio Medina of The Gastrobus, and Tim Kilcoyne of Scratch Food Truck. They said that five years ago, Los Angeles’ food trucks numbered 14. Today, there are more than 300. In a discussion about the viability of a chain-branded food truck, the panel weighed in that it was a great avenue for experimentation and extension of a brand’s reach.
Gordon Food Service chef Gerry Ludwig brought the house down with his closing keynote on 2014 Flavor Finds. This conference favorite revealed menu-ready trends through a postcard tour with the analysis and context that only an industry pro like Ludwig can deliver. Highlighted trends included cult-worthy chicken nuggets, biscuit sandwiches and taquitos, as well as scrumpets, burrata and sharing plates on wheels. Which vegetable will wrest the crown from kale? Ludwig says kohlrabi is the heir apparent.
Unpacking Flavor Strategies
One of the most lauded elements of The Flavor Experience is the programming of more intimate, interactive toolbox sessions and roundtables. Here, attendees do a deeper dive into topics that resonate with their business goals. Sharon Olson of Olson Communications, along with Ken Toong from University of Massachusetts, Sally Luck of Hallmark Cards and HMSHost’s Renate DeGeorge, dissected snacking behavior. Chef Charlie Baggs demonstrated how to integrate and improve “new-trition” in your menu. In a session that discussed a reconsideration of classic food and beverage pairings, MarkeTeam’s Glenn Schmitt and Jason Stone teamed up with Lactalis chef Erich Chieca and wine consultant Marian Jansen op de Haar.
Kim Haasarud of Liquid Architecture led a toolbox on how to define and serve “fresh” in your bar program. In “Upscale Gets Down,” Flavor & The Menu’s Cathy Holley teamed up with Datassential’s Maeve Webster to track the continuing path of casualization in food and beverages. Chef Lorenzo Boni from Barilla North America demonstrated how Italian food fits today’s modern landscape, and attendees sampled three of his delicious pasta dishes. In a marketing roundtable, Lori Renzi from Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations led a discussion on how to implement a successful marketing plan that aligns with your kitchen’s interpretation of today’s trends.
Commer Beverage Consulting’s David Commer led a toolbox titled, “Cocktail Success in Casual Dining.” The panel included Matt Durbin from Carlson Restaurants; Mellow Mushroom’s Annica Kreider; Tom Koenigsburg from Cheddar’s Casual Café and Hard Rock Café’s Cindy Busi. In their session, Nestle Professional’s Ryan Baxter and Erin Gilgan demonstrated the principles behind “flavor trees,” where ingredients that seem incompatible actually work well together. Attendees tasted a flight of pairings, which included a genius marriage of fried onions and sea salt with chocolate mousse. How trend-predicting hinges on savvy market research was the topic of a great discussion led by John Koch of Monin Gourmet Flavorings.
In “The Asian Crave Creates Opportunity,” Food IQ’s Mindy Armstrong and Brad Borchardt discussed successful adaptations and universal flavors that help maximize this cuisine. To prove the advantages in wines on tap, Big Canyon Country Club’s Steven Poe, Margie Ferree Jones of The Collins College of Hospitality/Cal Poly-Pomona and Free Flow Wines’ Dan Donahoe led a blind tasting to showcase tapped wines’ flavor and potential. Pamela Smith led a menu-labeling roundtable, where attendees discussed challenges and solutions. Finally, Cathy Holley led an open forum session on trends, where participants shared their thoughts on flavor trends, and discussed how their businesses were interpreting them—both now and in the future.
Serious Flavor Experience
This event is known for its food and beverage, and this year’s offerings did not disappoint. Guiding the flavor exploration was Executive Chef T.J. Delle Donne, in collaboration with the sponsor chefs and bartenders and The Flavor Experience culinary team.
The event kicked off with snacks like Pecans with Cilantro-Lime Chimichurri (Azar Nut Co.) and Crispy Jalapeño Rolled Goat Cheese (Lactalis Culinary).
Breakfast dazzled with a gorgeous array of food, like a Breakfast Frittata starring braised beef cheek, Tuscan kale, tomato and two-year aged cheddar (JBS USA Beef, Lactalis Culinary, Haliburton International Foods, Markon Cooperative Inc.), Braised Lamb Shank Benedict (Nestlé Professional Culinary, Meat & Livestock Australia), Create-Your-Own Crêpes (Haliburton International Foods, Azar Nut Co., Lactalis Culinary) and a Southern Sausage & Sweet Potato Mini Waffle Sandwich (Johnsonville Sausage Co., USA Onions). Daytime drinks refreshed and energized with sips like a hand-crafted Grapefruit Soda with a touch of honey (Natural Brands) and the Raspberry Ninja, a refreshing blend of Dole Chef-Ready Raspberry and Mango Purées with a splash of pineapple shrub, honey and mint.
Lunchtime offerings gave attendees samplings ranging from the Garden Velouté soup of leek, chard, mixed herbs and potato (Nestle Professional Culinary) to the Serrano Ham-Manchego-Roasted Onion Bites (Lactalis Culinary, USA Onions). Other items included a German Brat “Split” Slider with mango-infused stone-ground mustard (Johnsonville Sausage Co., Dole Packaged Foods), Fried Pickles with Texas Pete Sour Cream, Fresh Mango-Beet Salad with goat cheese, crispy onion and micro greens (Markon Cooperative Inc.) and Cheesecake “Slice Pops” and “Ice Cream” Cones in a variety of flavors (The Cheesecake Factory Bakery).
Tuesday evening’s “Pinnacle Partners’ Showcase” wowed with Grilled Octopus Frisée and Arugula Salad with roasted bell-pepper-pesto dressing (Nestlé Professional Culinary) and Bronzed Scallops with a Trio of Sauces (Dole Packaged Foods). Haliburton International Foods showcased Duck Char Siu Bao with crispy shredded duck, char siu glaze, Sriracha pickled vegetables and scallion.
Other tasty bites included Peruvian Fire-Glazed Applewood-Smoked CarveMaster Ham, served with Hawaiian rolls and mustards (Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group) and Texas Pete offered a creative Pierogi Bar, with varieties like Buffalo Bleu, Chimichurri and Smokey Brown Butter, which were glazed in Texas Pete Chipotle Hot Sauce, melted brown butter and finished with crispy pancetta and fried sage leaves. A small bite of Australian Grass-fed Beef Tenderloin sat atop a crispy, layered potato pave with cauliflower purée, and was finished with mustard seed “caviar” and red ribbon sorrel (JBS USA Beef/Meat & Livestock Australia). Gordon Food Service’s Gerry Ludwig served up a Pulled Bacon Parfait and a delectable Coccoli—an Italian puff pastry stuffed with shaved proscuitto, brie and lavender honey.
On tap for creative refreshments were cocktails like the Mango Mule with Ginger “Beer,” featuring Pinnacle Vodka, lime and Monin Mango topped with ginger “beer” hand-crafted with Monin Old-Fashioned Ginger Ale Syrup and Blue Moon Beer, not to mention fine wines and beers.
The final evening’s Ultimate Flavor Festival wowed with fantastic stations and rolling carts of Chef Gerry’s American Dim Sum cart service, featuring Lamb Scrumpets with Mint Aïoli (Meat & Livestock Australia) and Szechuan Charred Corn with crispy pork belly, chiles and Sriracha sunflower seeds (Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group, Azar Nut Co.), among many other trending bites. Other highlights included Whole-Grain Penne tossed with Roasted Chicken Thigh and Herb Ragoût (Barilla America) and Adobo-Braised Pork Cassoulet (Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group, Nestlé Professional Culinary).
With all of the great content, food and drink, this year’s Flavor Experience was one for the record books. See you next year!