Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Big Menu Moves for Cheese Six ways to maximize the popularity and versatility of cheese

Cheese is a big driver of premium sides on Outback Steakhouse's menu, including mac and cheese with creamy cheddar and smoked Gouda.
PHOTO CREDIT: Outback Steakhouse

Chefs understand the power of cheese on menus—it’s got craveability locked up. Today, the smart focus is on finding the right cheeses for on-trend menu items. It’s about using cheeses to enhance the flavor experience of those dishes, driven by both culinary innovation and consumer exploration.

Cheese, through serendipity or strategy, fits into a number of broader menu trends. These undercurrents help propel cheese’s influence across the menu.

Datassential points to four overarching movements that can help inform menu development around cheese

  • an even greater focus on transparency
  • rising demand for artisan ingredients
  • the continuing appeal of feel-good food
  • the popularity of bolder preparations.

Global influences continue to shape menus, too, resulting in the proliferation of lesser-known cheese varieties, such as halloumi, Danish blue cheese, and Jarlsberg. Mexican cheeses are also moving deeper into menus—with more sightings of queso fresco, Cotija, Chihuahua and asadero.

Not only do these exotic cheeses lend their distinctive flavors, they build memorable narratives. Consumers today want a story behind their food, and these cheeses give them both a sense of place and a connection to craftsmanship.

With so many more consumers embracing bold flavors and spicy dishes, an exploration into more distinct, flavorful cheeses makes a lot of sense. So, products like smoked cheese, aged cheese, strong blue cheese, tangy goat cheese, and beer cheese serve up opportunity. In addition, America’s craving for spicy items is driving growth for varieties like jalapeño cheddar and ghost pepper cheese.

We’ve pinpointed six areas where cheese makes the difference—whether it’s as a high-impact flavor finish, a built-in component or an unexpected twist.

1: Appetizers & Bar Bites

Bar bites and shareables equate to more than the appetizer category. They represent a mega trend, a shift in how many consumers want to experience food in a restaurant setting. Cheese has earned a place in this all-important space. Menu differentiation lies in optimal use, whether as a component of a charcuterie/cheese board, for instance, a premium element on artisanal toast, or a way to dial up craveability on a veg-centric snack.

On-trend cheeses serve up fantastic opportunity: fresh burrata, maybe over garlic bread; pimento cheese dip; and cheese curds, perhaps deep-fried and served with a signature sauce.

“Cheese improves everything, especially bar food,” says Jacob Coronado, executive chef of Red Herring Cocktail Lounge, a new craft cocktail bar in Louisville, Ky., that keeps its patrons happy with a selection of elevated bar foods.“I like to take a simple idea and make it more whimsical, with locally sourced ingredients and housemade special touches,” he says.

Case in point is the Buffalo Poutine, combining two classics in the form of fries, bourbon barrel-aged hot sauce, melted blue cheese and fresh herbs. Or the House Mozzarella, a more inventive spin on the cheese plate, garnished with farmers’ market vegetables such as English peas and shaved heirloom radishes, plus flatbread and toasted pine nuts, with the balsamic vinaigrette encapsulated by Isomalt sugar in an “olive oil bonbon” that splashes open when the server drops it from tweezers.

The surprise hit, however, has been The Grilled Cheese, combining mozzarella, cream cheese and local Kenny’s Farmhouse Saint Jerome, which Coronado describes as creamy, buttery and better than Havarti. “I didn’t see the popularity of that one coming,” he admits.

In the Buffalo Poutine at Red Herring in Louisville, Ky., bourbon barrel-aged hot sauce contrasts nicely with the tangy-sweet melted blue cheese.Jolea Brown

In the Buffalo Poutine at Red Herring in Louisville, Ky., bourbon barrel-aged hot sauce contrasts nicely with the tangy-sweet melted
blue cheese.

  • Tempura Bacon Wrapped Cheese Curds with sweet potato, trio of dipping sauces
    Heritage Tavern, Madison, Wis.
  • Beet Tartine: Bellegarde sourdough, Fourme d’Ambert Blue cheese, pecan
    Cure, New Orleans
  • Warm Kale & Bacon Dip with caramelized onions, Gruyère, bacon jam, toasted sourdough
    Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill, Austin, Texas
  • Smoked Cheddar Fritters with harissa aïoli
    Michael’s on the Hill, Waterbury Center, Vt.

2: Cheese as Entertainment

“Good evening and welcome to Mozzarella Theater.” So begins the spiel that Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s Italian Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., gives to customers who ask for the restaurant’s pulled-to-order Tableside Caprese Salad.

Served only during the local tomato season, the signature item involves a tableside cart, a bowl of locally sourced cheese curds, boiling water, and a five-minute crash course in cheesemaking and artisanal foods. Mirabile, or another family member, stretches and pulls the cheese and assembles the salad—a ritual that boosts business during the April-to-October season by as much as 35 percent, according to the chef/owner.

The leftover whey is used to make ricotta, while unused curd produces burrata. Mirabile thinks Jasper’s may be the only restaurant in the country that does all that. “It was one of the ways for us to reinvent this 65-year-old restaurant after my dad [Jasper’s founder] died.”

Tableside mozzarella makes cheese sexy, and relays those crucial cues of artisanship and freshness to boot. Other cheesy experiences are on the rise, including the tableside scraping of giant cheese wheels and the resurgence of cheese fondues. Instagrammable, memorable and fun, cheese-centric spectator sport offers up new opportunities to capture audiences.

Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. pulls mozzarella tableside at Jasper’s Italian Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo.Jasper’s Italian Restaurant

Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. pulls mozzarella tableside at Jasper’s Italian Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo.

  • Salute Signature Pasta: Strozzapreti arrabbiata, garlic, chiles, tomatoes, flamed with vodka and served tableside in a pecorino cheese wheel
    Salute Trattoria Italiana, Las Vegas
  • Raclettes: Rack-mounted Alpine cheese scraped tableside (French raw-milk raclette; truffle raclette; white-wine washed-rind raclette; seasonal specialty raclette) with roasted new potatoes, cornichons, pickled white pearl onions and optional charcuterie and cured meat selections
    Raclette, New York
  • Four Cheese Fondue: Emmentaler, Gruyère, Surchoix and Fontina
    La Fondue, Saratoga, Calif.

3: Veg-centric + Cheese

It’s no secret that menu makers are upping their game with vegetable preps—to create more craveable vegetarian options, add value to à la carte side dishes, and leverage the growing veg-centric food trend.

At Butchertown Grocery in Louisville, Ky., the focus might be on fresh and cured meats, but the vegetables get lots of attention through the smart use of specialty cheeses. Charred broccolini is garnished with crunchy sunflower seeds, pickled Fresno chiles, dressed with apple cider vinaigrette, and enhanced with the salty pop of ricotta salata.

Heirloom carrots get signature stature with orzo, pistachio nuts, Anasazi beans and chickpeas, carrot-top pesto, parsley and Grana Padano cheese. Spaghetti squash becomes a study in contrasting flavors, colors and textures with pepitas, quinoa, arugula-pecan pesto, Marcona almonds, grapes and goat cheese.

Charred Broccolini || sunflower seeds, ricotta salata, pickled fresno chiles, apple cider vinaigrette from Butchertown GroceryButchertown Grocery

Charred Broccolini || sunflower seeds, ricotta salata, pickled fresno chiles, apple cider vinaigrette from Butchertown Grocery

  • Sautéed broccoli rabe, portobello mushrooms, truffle toast, fried egg, aged Asiago
    Traif, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Fried Cauliflower with ras el hanout, chickpeas, feta, herbs
    Central Provisions, Portland, Maine

4: Bowls & Salads Say Cheese

Bowls and modern salads represent a new kind of mindful build, where each layer brings its A-game, with flavor play and textural interest top of mind. Cheeses of all types are indispensable for adding flavor, value, texture, protein and premium appeal. In both modern bowls and salads, strategic use of cheese adds a high-impact finish.

At Crisp Salad Company, for instance, a small chain of fast-casual shops in the Dallas area, an array of different cheeses are the tie that binds in such “Signature Salads” as the N.Y. Steakhouse Salad (steak, spinach, romaine, onion, basil, hearts of palm, croutons, truffle dressing and goat cheese) and the Street Taco Salad (spicy chicken, romaine, grape tomatoes, grilled sweet corn, bacon, tortilla chips and jalapeño ranch with Texas Cotija). In each taste, a distinctive cheese adds luxurious texture and a jolt of salty flavor, as well as an artisanal feel.

On-trend grain and rice bowls are another venue where cheeses have the opportunity to shine, with the extra appeal of adding a protein punch to vegetarian offerings. The Sorrel Pesto Rice Bowl at Sqirl, a hip café in Los Angeles, stars Kokuho Rose brown rice, sorrel pesto, preserved Meyer lemon, lacto-fermented hot sauce, watermelon radish and a poached egg with creamy-tangy French sheep feta.

And Sweetgreen’s seasonal Mexican Corn Elote Bowl evokes the popular street-food snack with warm quinoa, organic arugula, roasted corn and peppers, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, local goat cheese, spicy sunflower seeds and lime-cilantro-jalapeño vinaigrette.

Strategic use of cheese adds flavor, value, texture, protein and impact to the modern salad build.

Strategic use of cheese adds flavor, value, texture, protein and impact to the modern salad build.

  • Salad of baby lettuces, cider vinaigrette, molasses croutons, Tome
    Moxy, Portsmouth, N.H.
  • Summer Salad: Baby kale, Bibb, roasted ricotta salata, porcini salt, peaches
    Sportello, Boston
  • Border Bowl: Chicken, steak, shrimp or portobello, grilled over mesquite wood and brushed with lime-cilantro chimichurri, with cilantro-lime rice, black beans, bell peppers, queso fresco, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo and sliced avocado
    On the Border, multiple locations

5: Cheese Spreads for the Win

Modern cheese spreads deserve a separate category, even though they could easily live in shareables and bar bites. Chefs are menuing cold spreads, perhaps as part of a charcuterie plate, with dippables like toasted naan and vegetables, or using them on sandwiches and burgers. Success here lies in elevating the experience.

Pimento cheese leads the pack, but other cheese spreads worth exploring include labneh and cheese-spiked artichoke dips. Hot cheese dishes perfect for dipping include queso and queso fundido.

James Petrakis, chef and co-owner of The Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder, and Swine & Sons in the Orlando, Fla., area, has a passion for Southern food with contemporary touches, and few things are as Southern as pimento cheese. “We wanted to frill up our pimento cheese and also make it more unique.”

For the popular Pimento Cheese starter with ham jam and pretzel bread, cheddar cheese is mixed with cottage cheese for a more spreadable consistency, as well as Peppadew and roasted red peppers, hot sauce, paprika and herbs. The cheese is then layered under a “ham jam” made with chopped, melted-down scraps from the restaurant’s house-cured country ham, so the customer spoons up both when topping the pretzel-bread crostini (which is made from spent grains from Cask & Larder’s brewery).

The cheese is so popular—and the texture works so well—that it’s also used as a sauce on mac and cheese, and in specialties like hushpuppies, croquettes and in sandwiches at Swine & Sons. “It’s a real versatile thing, and we always have it around,” says Petrakis.

The Queso Fundido at Tacology in Miami is a good-and-gooey chance to dip into a signature blend of cheeses.Tacology

The Queso Fundido at Tacology in Miami is a good-and-gooey chance to dip into a signature blend of cheeses.

  • Queso Fundido: Blend of manchego, Gouda and Oaxaca cheeses, served plain or topped with chorizo, huitlacoche or mushrooms
    Tacology, Miami
  • Artichoke Dip: Gouda, cheddar, Parmesan, artichoke hearts, tortilla chips
    The Queens Kickshaw, Astoria, N.Y.
  • Labneh and marinated cucumbers with tandoor bread or raw veggies
    Nix, New York

6: Unexpected but Welcome

Cheese on pizza, cheese in sandwiches, cheese in sushi and gyoza? Why not? Cheese can provide flavor and functionality in foods of all kinds, particularly given the current fascination with cross-cultural mash-up menus. The opportunity here is born from consumers’ love of cheese and their modern willingness—eagerness—to try new flavor combinations.

“Cheese definitely plays a role in creating texture and adding umami to our food,” says José Mendín, founding partner and chef of the Pubbelly Group in Miami, with concepts ranging from Pubbelly Noodle Bar and Pubbelly Sushi to PB Station and Pawn Broker.

For instance, the PB Station menu features French Onion Soup Dumplings that fuse Mendín’s childhood-favorite soup and trending Asian buns in a format that fits the gastropub theme, with braised short rib, Gruyère and brioche croutons in the wrapper. “We also add in mascarpone to keep the consistency, and, once steamed, it all melts down, creating the soup dumpling effect.”

Pubbelly Sushi features the same short rib in a gyoza that also stars yellow corn soy, Parmesan and black truffle. “We use the trimmings from a short rib entrée to make the dumplings. It’s an unorthodox method, but it works. Once the meat is braised after being steamed and seared, it becomes very moist inside the wrapper.”

Cheese helps knit the flavors together. “We even use mozzarella in one of our sushi rolls, which mimics the texture of tofu, but has more flavor.”

The Pubbelly short rib dumplings get an extra dose of umami from the inclusion of Gruyère cheese.Juan Fernando-Ayora

The Pubbelly short rib dumplings get an extra dose of umami from the inclusion of Gruyère cheese.Food by Chef Jose Mendin
Photography by Juan Fernando Ayora @thetravelerslife

  • Grilled Nectarine: Hand-dipped ricotta, porcini-morel relish, pine nut, vadouvan curry
    Taylor Railworks, Portland, Ore.
  • Goat cheese and red cherries ice cream
    Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, multiple locations
  • Fried Chicken Sandwich: Napa kimchi, iceberg, mayonnaise, American cheese
    The Honey Paw, Portland, Maine


About The Author


A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.