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Feel Good Produce

Tofu curry gets a “flavor punch” at True Food Kitchen, where chef Michael Stebner maximizes the impact of produce via different cooking techniques. Photo courtesy of true food kitchen. Fruits and vegetables offer vast textural diversity to enhance the sensory experience

By Deborah Grossman

Texture in food is a chopped salad of personal preference, nostalgia and excitement. Everyone loves crunch, says John Suley, corporate chef with Celebrity Cruises. “Think of a kid with Cap’n Crunch or Rice Krispies in the bowl. You add milk, and the cereal goes ‘snap, crackle and pop.’ We translate these nostalgic, textural elements to the onboard gourmet setting.”

The cereal-imprinted words “snap, crackle and pop” may not come to mind when eating a raw celery stick, but texture in produce is crucial to diner satisfaction.

As director of Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University professor Brian Wansink studies how people’s taste and evaluation of food is highly suggestive.

“If you say ‘fresh,’ customers look forward to freshness. That’s the powerful advantage of menu engineering to set taste expectations,” says Wansink, author of Mindless Eating. He recently studied the impact of changing a menu description from corn to “creamy corn.” The results were impressive. Diners would pay 28 percent more for “creamy corn.” They rated the overall food as tasting better, believed the restaurant was trendier, and thought the chef had more culinary training. Diners linked the word “creamy” to “fancy.”

Chefs should keep in mind the importance of conveying texture not only in their cooking, but in the menu descriptions of their dishes, says Wansink.

“Don’t forget the sounds that accompany food. Produce descriptions need to be positive and sound good whether ‘creamy’ corn or ‘snappy’ green beans. You don’t need to be a poet to write good menus. But the words as well as the flavor and texture matter tremendously.”

As executive chef at Red Star Tavern  (one of 67 restaurants and bars in the Kimpton Hotels portfolio) in Portland, Ore., Kyle Rourke considers the role of texture in any menu that he engineers. “Texture gives me the opportunity to create balance and tie everything together. The last thing I want is a pile of mush on a plate.”

Rourke feeds locals and road warriors wanting hearty meals and healthy options with interesting texture. His balsamic marinated quail entrée features celery root three ways: puréed for the base layer, roasted and diced as a side, and raw, shaved celery root as a salad with Fuji apple and grilled winter chicories. Grilling the bitter chicories imparts a smoky char flavor and another element of textural surprise, he says.

At Red Owl Tavern in Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia,  Executive Chef Guillermo Tellez ensures that each plate has a sauce, some sweetness, acidity and interesting texture or “body.” Tellez is a fan of pickled items. “If you put pickles on a salad, they combine sweetness, acidity and crunch.”

Chef Clint Davies at Fish Story, a venue of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group in Napa, Calif., brightens his Dungeness crab cake with a round of pickled shallots and shaved raw fennel. To add depth to a trout entrée, he slices and roasts Bartlett pears with Aleppo pepper. He then reheats them in a gastrique of honey, Sherry vinegar and butter. The richly colored, savory, yet firm pears contrast with the soft, flaky fish.

Corporate Chef James Cassidy at The Ram Restaurant Group in Washington, Oregon and the Midwest, believes that texture strongly impacts how a guest perceives and tastes something. In the burger arena, Cassidy adds onion crisps to complete the build for his Fabergé burger, named for the famous eggs. The top two layers of this “burger d’art” are fried egg and onion crisps; the soft egg against the onions produces pleasing contrasting textures. Cassidy also plays with texture in his seared sirloin steak salad with pickled cucumbers and onions.

A mélange of textures and flavors combine in The Ram Restaurant & Brewery’s Veggie Burger, which includes bulgur wheat, rolled oats and pinto beans, and is stacked with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, avocado and daikon radish sprouts. Photo courtesy of ben toombs / the ram. TEXTURALLY PLEASING TECHNIQUES
Distribution networks like Nicholas & Co.,  headquartered in Salt Lake City, service accounts across five states — and they’re hungry for produce. Scott Albert, specialist and produce manager, understands the pressure to source produce that’s in season and on trend. When Albert noticed chefs cooking Brussels sprouts with multiple techniques, he advocated for and helped implement new packaging for the cleaned and prepped produce.

“Chefs no longer want to cook the color out of produce or serve it limp.” Albert pan roasts Brussels sprouts and adds prosciutto and pomegranate with a dash of apple cider as a chef recipe for clients.

Plain steamed vegetables are indeed losing out to more texturally pleasing flavor-forward techniques. “You can’t just steam vegetables and call the dish ‘healthy,’” says chef Michael Stebner of True Food Kitchen, the growing six-unit concept co-owned by author Dr. Andrew Weil. “You need flavor punch from various cooking methods — and not simply by adding a beurre blanc.”

Stebner will steam vegetables for 30 seconds to get the rawness out, and then wok them. His favorite technique to acquire texture is high-heat roasting. He roasts Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and butternut squash in a pizza oven at 575 degrees F and then tosses them in salads or center-plate items such as ravioli.

Rather than grill vegetables, which turn limp if held too long, Stebner prefers to broil them. After roasting spaghetti squash, he places the squash and cheese under the broiler to toast the top squash bits and melt the cheese.

Stebner — who allocates more of his budget to produce than the combined cost of meat, fish, poultry, dry goods and dairy — sums up his interest in produce as, “Let a carrot be a carrot.” Labeling himself as a “revolutionary” of the craze for raw kale, his Tuscan kale salad with lemon, Parmesan and breadcrumbs at True Food Kitchen garnered early public and media attention.

Celebrity Cruises’ Suley favors carrots and asparagus shaved lengthwise to add visual and textural interest to salads. Another of Suley’s simple, raw preparations is shaved celery and leaves dotted with hazelnut oil. The chef says that raw radish complements seafood, and that whole leaves of parsley and cilantro impart a special textural element.

Suley also favors high-heat roasting for smoked paprika garlic fries, polenta fries and diced potatoes. To create crunch and a “Wow!” factor, Suley substitutes the crispy, diced potatoes for breadcrumbs. He also likes to use crispy shallots in place of fried onions for more contrast and intrigue.

Avocado’s silkiness is a smooth complement to the diced chicken and quinoa in this California Avocado Chicken Pita Pocket with yogurt-mint dressing. Photo courtesy of california avocado commission. COLOR AND CRUNCH
Red Owl Tavern’s Tellez is a believer in the “less is more approach” when it comes to applying texture. His braised beef short rib is accompanied by a simple topping of diced, roasted peppers which yield color and a charred bite to the dish, while a spicy and chunky tomato chutney accompanies a lamb shank.

In Celebrity Cruises’ main dining rooms, Suley emphasizes local seafood paired with complementary vegetable sides. His cedar-planked cobia is accompanied by yellow corn mashed potatoes. The crunchy, colorful kernels deliver textural surprise, and also link the smoky, barbecue notes of the cobia with corn, a traditional barbecue accompaniment. At Murano, Celebrity’s high-end restaurant, Suley presents an eggplant mélange vegetarian entrée with strips of roasted eggplant, fried cubes of eggplant and a side of eggplant caviar.

One of the most popular dishes at True Food Kitchen is grilled steelhead salmon with red quinoa, beets and preserved lemon salad. Roasted, diced beets are mixed with parsley, scallion, lemon and olive oil, and added to the quinoa tabbouleh-style. Stebner tops the fish with preserved lemon zest strings and raw watercress.

Red Star Tavern’s Rourke offers a panoply of flavor and texture with his tempura matsutake mushroom entrée. As a “pillow” for the mushroom, Rourke creates a chestnut and leek purée. He adds caramelized onions that are finished with a few drops of maple syrup and Bourbon, and then layers on Brussels sprout leaves quickly sautéed to impart a firm and crunchy mouthfeel. The mushrooms, dipped in tempura batter and fried, finish the multitextured dish.

Salads confer star status to vegetables of all description and texture. The Olympus salad at The Ram restaurants elevates texture with standard produce: spinach, artichoke hearts, red peppers, avocado, grilled onions, and puréed raw garlic in the creamy artichoke dressing.

Nicholas & Co.’s Albert has observed that butter lettuce is re-emerging as an American favorite. The soft, tender leaves pair well with nuts, cheese and seeds. The large outer leaves are the base for lettuce wraps at many multi-unit concepts. Romaine, he adds, is pushing out iceberg as the entry point for lettuce. Romaine in shredded form is used for better color and texture in tacos at Mexican-themed restaurants. To meet the growing interest in heirloom varieties, Nicholas & Co. now distributes heirloom red and purple spinach. Chefs apply the colorful, velvety textural dimension of the baby-leafed spinach to green salads.

Fruit is always a popular fit in desserts, representing another opportunity for chefs to optimize textural elements with produce. Celebrity Cruises’ Suley tops many fruited desserts with apple or pineapple “chips.” At Red Owl, Tellez makes seasonal tarts such as blueberry and lemon, adding a silky element by briefly soaking the berries in simple syrup before topping the vanilla and lemon pastry shell.

True Food Kitchen serves an almond-olive-oil cake with Greek yogurt, citrus and sea-buckthorn, an orange berry-like fruit and healthy favorite of Dr. Weil.

The chef’s toolkit holds countless ways to create textural diversity with produce, supporting the interest in new, traditional and healthier menu items. From alluring small plates, sides and salads to entrées, sandwiches and desserts, vegetables and fruit bring sensation to the menu.


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