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2015: The Ultimate Flavor Experience Flavor forecasts, consumer insights and trending tastes

A multi-generational panel of consumers shared flavor preferences and objective insights.

The 11th annual Flavor Experience, held this August in Newport Beach, Calif., was a celebration of food, ideas and camaraderie. Hosted by BSI Conferences, Inc., in partnership with Flavor & The Menu magazine, the three-day event kicked off with Jet Tila delivering a memorable keynote. The chef, a familiar fixture on The Food Network and an expert in Asian flavor mash-ups, set the tone for the conference, addressing a consumer shift in demand from meal occasion to sense memory. “Your diners want more than sustenance. They want ROI [return on investment]. Is it delicious and craveable?”

Hundreds of foodservice professionals enjoyed the packed agenda, representing high-volume restaurants, hotels, resorts and non-commercial segments. They participated in lively roundtable discussions and small-group toolbox sessions. They also enjoyed insightful presentations on flavor trends and consumer behavior. Tying it all together was memorable, forward-thinking food and beverage.

Forecasts and Insights
With wit, grace and foodservice savvy, Tila opened the conference with his ideas on the next big flavor trends. Veg-centric cuisine was one of his callouts, reinforcing the notion that when vegetables are amplified with flavor and technique, they steal the show. “The new movement of veg-centric is popping,” he said, urging attendees to check out Beyond Sushi in New York for stunning interpretations of the trend. Tila also honed in on restorative and responsibly sourced foods as a trend that’s here to stay. His overarching message, though, was about the experience: the sense memory. “Umami is not a flavor; it’s an experience. It’s cold beer on a hot day. If you can create that, they’ll come back because they’re in love.”

Attendees did a deep dive into the psyche of Gen Z, the generation that follows Millennials and accounts for 25 percent of the population. Born after 1992, Gen Z holds a collective purchasing power of $250 billion, say CCD Innovation’s Marc Halperin and T.J. Williams. “They celebrate and crave healthy food,” says Williams. “They’re very suspect of processed food.” In fact, Business Week coined Gen Z “Generation Salad.” CCD Innovation presented Technomic research that points to this young group craving natural sweetness, sour and spice. They seek authenticity in flavor and experience, and they love to share. “The Internet is their birthright,” says Williams. “They act on their issues. Sustainability draws them in and engages them.”

Cathy Nash Holley, publisher and editor-in-chief of Flavor & The Menu, reflected back on a decade of trend forecasting, highlighting those that were called out years ago yet are still having impact. She then moved into a sneak peek at trends for 2016, with Maeve Webster, senior director for Datassential, providing industry insight and evidence.

Technomic’s Melissa Wilson hosted a lively “Voice of the Consumer” panel representing four generations (Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z). Their frank, honest opinions on restaurant dining, flavor preferences, eating habits and pet peeves brought to life generational similarities and differences.

Steven Goldstein of The Culinary Edge delivered a thought-provoking presentation on design thinking, which he says is a brand strategy that is “human-centered, not product-centered.” It requires five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. “Emotional connection is the most important thing. ‘How can we make a better burger?’ should be turned into ‘How can we make a better burger experience?,’” he said. The key is turning transactions into interactions, guided by open exploration, humility, trial and error.

Attendees then took a trip around the world for the next global flavor trends with Chris Koetke, vice president of Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. In his slideshow of dishes from Malaysia, Ecuador, Mexico and beyond, he discussed the potential of foods on a stick, like roasted corn with a brushed batter, or Mexican paletas flavored with mango and chile. He also discussed the world of chiles beyond what we menu here. Another global phenomenon ready for adoption is tea, says Koetke. “Tea is now following the coffee model for details on execution.”

Technomic’s Darren Tristano and Donna Hood Crecca presented “Bull’s Eye—Targeting the Occasion,” where they shared research and insights around generational and life stage trends, discussing probable food and beverage preferences through 2020. Data impacting the future includes the growth of the Millennial demographic—in 15 years they will outnumber Boomers by more than 20 million. Also, by 2042, racial minority groups will make up the majority of the U.S. population.

Ben Salisbury of Salisbury Creative Group looked at how technology is influencing diners’ flavor experiences. Key drivers are convenience, speed of service, conscious consumption and culinary curiosity. He said the way to manage flavor in the future is as tied to precision, speed and efficiency as it is to freshness and origin.

In the final address of the conference, Gordon Food Service consulting chef Gerry Ludwig took attendees on an energetic cross-country trends-tracking tour, showcasing dozens of restaurant dishes that demonstrate menu growth opportunity. Highlighted trends included veg-centric dishes, like those found at Gjelina in Los Angeles and Dimes in New York. “Cauliflower and carrots are the hottest vegetables today,” said Ludwig. Savory porridge, acai bowls and bone broth were other trends explored in this popular session.

Unpacking Flavor Strategies
Interactive toolbox sessions and intimate roundtables are among the most anticipated on the agenda at The Flavor Experience. Attendees are encouraged to delve deeper into hot-button topics, drilling down into their unique business needs. Datassential’s Maeve Webster led a toolbox on “Marketing the Menu: Maximizing Flavor and Profits.” She covered the opportunity with enhancers, like flavored butters, as well as a look at modern menu categorization, where divisions fall under flavor profiles, from “light and crisp” to “big and bold.”

David Commer of Commer Beverage Consulting led a toolbox session on nonalcoholic beverage trends, where attendees got to customize iced teas, lemonades, handcrafted sodas and water with ingredients like fruit purées, syrups, tapioca pearls, chia seeds and fresh herbs.

A team of foodservice professionals (Kim Kennedy, Rick Perez, Anisha Mandol, Pam Smith, Steven Sturm, Kurt Kulzer, Todd Seyfarth and Steve Solomon) led a productive discussion on cleaner, healthier menus. How do you deliver flavor while keeping better-for-you in the forefront? Ingredients highlighted here included meaty mushrooms and naturally sweet plum juice concentrates.

Chef Robert Danhi led attendees through a romp of Southeast Asian flavors and techniques. He handed out bakkwa, a fragrant, salty and delicious jerky that he says has menu potential on salads, stir fries and sandwiches. Danhi also extolled the virtues of kinilaw (also called kilawin), a Filipino ceviche marked by calamansi and ginger.

“Millennials at the Bar: Myths and Realities,” by Technomic’s senior director Donna Hood Crecca, revealed research on this generation’s current flavor preferences, decision drivers and attitudes. One interesting insight: 54 percent of Millennials drink flavored whiskey at least once a month (on premise). Also, next-level flavor influencers for them include: ethnic herbs, vegetables and natural sweeteners.

Ryan Baxter and Barbara Schranz, both with Nestle Professional Culinary, led a fascinating flavor pairing exercise, where attendees got to delve into flavor mapping and tasting. In one combination, a potato chip was topped with Gruyère, coffee and vanilla. Strawberry, cilantro and sugar was another pleasing match. Baxter also demonstrated the power of the miracle berry: Attendees consumed these berries, then sucked on a lemon. The miracle berry cancelled out the sour, leaving the palate to experience sweet lemonade.

Another chef panel (Gerry Ludwig, Piada Italian Street Food’s Matt Harding and Chandon Clenard of Stanford University) addressed the issue of making healthier foods craveable. They explored the potential of grass-fed beef, whole-grain pastas and veg-centric cookery. In “Desserts Plus,” co-moderators Ken Chan, executive corporate chef of Azar Nut Co., and Sharon Fratilla of Across the Board Resource, led a panel discussion on how to bring innovation to high-volume desserts. Meanwhile, Todd Seyfarth, culinary nutrition director for Johnson & Wales University led a discussion centered on simplifying and clarifying the latest evidence-based science around healthy eating, and addressed the barriers that often prevent its seamless integration into menu development and food production.

The next day’s toolbox sessions featured Chris Koetke moderating a panel titled “International Flavors & Techniques: American Application Innovation.” The panel—Bob Gallagher (Romacorp), Marshall Scarborough (Wendy’s), David Goldstein (Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill) and Mac Gregory (Saint Marc USA)—shared their strategies and insights on the implementation of global menu trends. Guest loyalty was the session topic of Linda Duke of Duke Marketing’s toolbox. In it, she shared case studies on how to successfully “build the flavor moment” to motivate loyal fans and brand ambassadors. David Commer led an interactive discussion on what makes a beverage program successful, pointing out that “failing to learn” is an important part of beverage innovation.

Kathy Casey of Kathy Casey Food Studios & Liquid Kitchen teamed up with Datassential’s Webster to explore how flavor and freshness lead the charge in adult beverages. They also pinpointed on-trend cocktails, including ones made with Calvados, hard cider, mezcal and aquavit. Cathy Nash Holley led her annual roundtable on flavor trends, where participants shared their thoughts on modern trends taking shape and taking hold.

In Salisbury’s follow-up to his general session on technology, participants shared information on where technology is taking their businesses. Rob Corliss of ATE (All Things Epicurean) presented “Capitalizing on Craveability,” in which he broke down the building blocks of craveability into messaging cues, menu verbiage, visual appeal and flavor drivers. In her session on “Modern Sauces,” Flavor & The Menu’s Katie Ayoub had attendees rotate between chef demonstrations and tastings of four modern sauces with great menu potential: cheese sauces, fresh herb sauces, chile pepper sauces and tropical fruit sauces. In a “front-burner topic” toolbox, Renate DeGeorge (HMS Host), David Cox (Norms Restaurants) and Michelle Eche (National Pasteurized Eggs) discussed the challenges with and outlook for the current egg crisis. Finally, Goldstein led a more intimate, interactive follow-up discussion from his general session on design thinking.

Trending Tastes
The Flavor Experience has a reputation for flavor- and trend-forward food and beverage, thanks to a quality roster of food and beverage sponsors. At the helm was the Flavor Experience culinary team, led by chefs T.J. Delle Donne and Valeria Molinelli, in collaboration with sponsor chefs and bartenders.

Registration nibbles included Chocolate-Dipped Applewood Smoked Bacon (Smithfield Foods) and mini Serrano ham biscuits with Manchego, honey and herb spread (National Honey Board, Lactalis Culinary). At the Meet & Greet Happy Hour, attendees sampled a selection of cheeses, like Brie Fleur de France Imported, Président Spreadable Feta and Société Roquefort Imported (Lactalis Culinary). They also enjoyed custom-flavored snacks like Nacho Cheese-Pico de Gallo Pistachios and Gojuchang-Ranch Pecans (Azar Nut Company).

Breakfast in the California sunshine thrilled with on-trend offerings like the Acai Breakfast Bowl, made with hemp seed, goji berries, bee pollen and coconut (National Honey Board). Other highlights included a Breakfast Frittata made with spaghetti and California walnut pesto (Barilla, California Walnut Board) and the “Have It Your Way” Yogurt Parfait Bar, offering attendees inclusions like coconut cashews (Azar Nut Company), fresh strawberries, cinnamon-vanilla granola and watermelon, and served with Monin Peach, Raspberry and Coconut Purées.

A traditional congee bar allowed guests to build on a base of savory chicken-flavored rice porridge and choose from a bevy of toppings, including hot sauces, hot and spicy peanuts, crispy pork belly and honey-roasted and candied walnuts (Azar Nut Company, Texas Pete, California Walnut Board, Smithfield Foods). Other highlights included the California Avocado “Bruffin,” brioche filled and rolled with avocado, bacon, oven-roasted tomato and sharp cheddar (Smithfield Foods, Lactalis Culinary).

Lunchtime was another decadent feast, with table bites, salads and handhelds offering a world of choices. Table bites included Jambalaya Shrimp Fritters, Edamame-Plum Hummus and Jalapeño White Cheddar Fritters with Peppered Bacon Spread. The lunch buffet saw delicious dishes like the Blue Moon Spiced Australian “Lambstrami” Reuben Melt with cumin-cider sauerkraut, 1000 Island dressing and melted Swiss (Meat & Livestock Australia) and trend-forward Barilla pasta dishes like Gnochetti Sardi with Pork Sausage, Fresh Tomatoes and Romano Cheese Sauce, and Whole-Grain Rotini with Smoked Tomatoes, Blue Cheese and Sorrel Sauce (Barilla, Lactalis Culinary). Also on offer were handhelds such as an Alaska Pollock Burger and a Mango-Crab Tostada with Lime Crema. Tempting sweets included a White Chocolate Mousse Crunchy with raspberry-basil compote, candied pistachios and micro basil (Haliburton International Foods, Azar Nut Company).

Tasting stations during the evening events showcased amped-up food and drink presentations, thanks to sponsor chef collaborations. Texas Pete held a clever “tea party” of broths infused with savory tea blends (like Spicy Wild Mushroom Parmesan Tea Bag with Texas Pete Hot Sauce dry seasoning plus a blend of dried herbs, mushrooms and Parmesan rind) and accompanied by a bite-sized tea sandwich. “It’s Steak and Potatoes” consisted of a whipped trinity of vegetable purée and horseradish potatoes topped with pulled beef braised with Dole Mirepoix Vegetable Purée (Dole Packaged Foods). Smithfield Foods showcased Bao Pork-Belly Burnt-End Sliders with raspberry-wasabi mustard and pickled cucumbers.

Pan-Asian Honey Poutine, fries tossed in honey and hot sauce then topped with herbs, toasted peanuts and lime, was expertly paired with a Honey Bee Mai Tai, courtesy of the National Honey Board. Meat & Livestock Australia’s station included a slow-braised short rib rubbed with espresso and served over parsnip-banana purée, fried kale sprouts and Amarena cherries. Lamb Tinga Spanish Flatbread was one of Haliburton International Foods’ creations, with a savory tomato jam, dark-roasted chile de arbol salsa, citrus-pickled red onions, cilantro-cucumber crema and micro pea shoots. And Monin presented a mini hot-dog bar with a variety of flavored sauces like smoky mayo and spicy maple Dijon.

There was no shortage of drink inspirations throughout the event, starting with the morning aguas frescas, juice blends and smoothies, and continuing through the day with inspired refreshments like Strawberry-Basil Soda and Sparkling Matcha Limeade.

Creative, on-trend cocktails ranged from a Pineapple-Habanero Shrub (with Dole Chef-Ready pineapple, clover honey, apple cider vinegar and Pinnacle Habanero) to a Spiced Honey Cold-Brew Coffee Cocktail (with aged rum, light cream and a honey-cinnamon foam) and a Stone-Fruit Whiskey Sour (with Knob Creek Rye Whiskey, Monin Stone Fruit Syrup, fresh lime and egg-white froth), to name just a few.

In all, this year’s Flavor Experience delivered three days of trending topics and tastes. Be sure to mark your calendar for next year’s event, to be held August 8 to 10 in Newport Beach, Calif.



2016 Flavor Experience

Aug 8-10, Newport Beach, Calif.

Marriott Hotel & Spa Newport Beach

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About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.