Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Flavor Foresight

Make good use of flavor-intense ingredients for maximum impact, as chef Ford Fry does with his “Angry” Mussels with peppered bacon, serrano chiles and Vidalia onions, served at JCT. Kitchen & Bar in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Vidalia Onion Committee.
Curbing commodity costs means keeping an eye on long-term strategies

By Robin Schempp

The struggle to stem rising or fluctuating food costs is never-ending. And a chef’s approach is often predictable: Engage in reactive, prescriptive, cost-reduction methods, such as cutting low-profit leaders, reducing portions or lowering quality. These measures — while often providing short-term relief — can have long-term consequences, such as impacting guest loyalty, brand positioning and even overall growth.

Meanwhile, margin-reducing minimization methods in turn diminish our power to provide flavor-forward trends, ingredients and techniques that deliver higher value. Clever culinary menu-crafting strategies that enhance rather than reduce may just stem the tides of ever-rising food costs while amplifying value.

Flavor = value

Au courant flavors can be value equalizers. Highlighting high-impact flavors — such as relatively inexpensive spices and condiments — can easily turn an otherwise banal lower-cost menu item into a modern, craveable concern. Flavors where a little goes a long way provide a profitable edge. Ask yourself, “What is today’s wasabi and tomorrow’s sriracha?” Perhaps plum char-siu, or Spanish paprika, or maybe sour grass or smoked garlic?

> The “BLT”: Applewood-smoked pork belly, gochujang aïoli, cucumber, Asian pear — Cut, Beverly Hills, Calif.
> Angostura-Bourbon Nuts: Cashew, pretzel, caramel corn — Cannon, Seattle

If there is one ingredient that has proven impact and return on investment across menu categories, it is cheese. This is ever more true as Americans now produce some of the world’s best and most diverse cheeses. From ethnic varieties like paneer, halloumi, queso fresco or labneh to Old World varieties such as Gouda and Gruyère, as well as unique new American artisan styles, cheese continuously tops trend lists and implores customers: “Order me!”

> Jive Turkey Burger: Jive spiced ground turkey, tomato-pepper relish, smoked Gouda, lettuce and black-raspberry mayo — Urban Stack, Chattanooga, Tenn.
> Baby Kale with pine nuts, ricotta salata and marinated anchovies — Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles

Sauce is back, and bigger than ever as a value-adding proposition. While classics with a modern twist maintain top slots, housemade or artisan ketchups, relishes, aïolis, salsas, pestos, vinaigrettes and even “dry sauces” (such as gremolata or Mimosa) also tip the scale. They can be traditional — such as a perfect rémoulade — or flavor-forward, such as a celery leaf and green-garlic salsa verde. A little adornment can convert a food nerd into a flavor connoisseur, willing to spend a little more for a dish with special sauce.

> Grilled Octopus with avocado, olive aïoli and olive gremolata — Firefly, Washington, D.C.
> Coach Farm Goat Cheese Ravioli with Five Lilies sauce — Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles

Seek out new combos that feature lesser-known cuts of meat or creative sauces, like this banh mi of oxtail, steeped in a red wine-soy seasoned braise, with pickled cauliflower, jalapeño, grapes, cucumber, cilantro and Brie. Photo courtesy of Kikkoman Sales Usa

Meat matters

While what were once considered secondary cuts like hangers, flat irons and skirts have become ubiquitous, a whole range of subordinated lamb, pork and beef parts have developed a following. Thanks to a wider range of acceptable protein preparation methods and more accepting diners, inexpensive alternative shoulders, short ribs, bellies and butts are being menued as more than substitutes. Difficult-to-find cuts or daunting home-cooking techniques (such as sous vide or plancha) provide value-inducing opportunity for both discerning diners and menu makers.

> French Market Veal Sandwich: Espresso-rubbed veal breast, Creole choucroute, charred chiles and Camembert cheese with crispy leeks and chicory coffee aïoli — Sobou, New Orleans
> Lamb Belly: Eggplant, orange, Moxie — Puritan & Company, Cambridge, Mass.

It has only been a few years since nose-to-tail surfaced as a trend confined primarily to specialty, ethnic or fine-dining restaurants. Now more mainstream diners are becoming accepting of and interested in marrow bones, skins, livers and cheeks. Whether due to more humane ideals (in using the whole animal) or a desire for experimentation, demand for these rarities in restaurants continues to grow. The biggest concern is sourcing — most parts are still inexpensive since they were recently little more than throw-away bits barely worth the money or effort to market.

> Pig Tails: Buffalo style, celery, ranch — Animal, Los Angeles
> Roasted Bone Marrow, Maldon salt, grilled ciabatta and house preserves — Rathbun’s, Atlanta

Ethnic food profusion, sustainability and taste education, availability and expense have all resulted in a desire for more interesting, bolder flavors and have ushered in a bone-in bonanza. Once disregarded and discarded, bone-in thighs are seeing a surge in all segments, from fine dining to food trucks, yet are still enjoying under-the-trend pricing. And it is not all about fried and roasted — bones are booming in dishes ranging from confit to braises to grills and pan roasts.

> Char-Grilled Chicken Thighs: Free-range, crispy, skin-on juicy thighs, simply grilled with MH seasoning — Market House, Oak Ridge, Tenn.
> Sausage-stuffed rabbit saddle, grilled asparagus, sweet potato au gratin, jus — Piedmont, Durham, N.C.

Praisable Platforms

Adding chicken, shrimp or steak isn’t relegated to Caesar salads anymore. Flexitarian menus and dishes are designed to offer the guest everything from vegan to meat options that meet the needs of health and diet devotees and also show the cost/benefit of their choice — enabling the diner to choose where and how to spend their food dollars. Dishes with a vegetarian or vegan base that offer a customizable selection of protein (cheese, eggs, tofu and/or a range of meat and seafood options) are a great way to share the real cost of the food.

> The Close Talker Salad: Chopped romaine lettuce, choice of protein, beans, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, cucumbers and black olives topped with chipotle ranch, Southwest vinaigrette or fat-free salsa vinaigrette dressing. Protein options include 100 percent sirloin grass-fed steak, all-natural chicken breast, grain-fed pulled pork, ground beef or organic tofu — Moe’s Southwest Grill, locations nationwide

Transforming modest ingredients like eggs, pork fat or flour with innovative and interesting cooking methods makes them more worthy of consideration. From a 12-hour soft-boiled egg which is then tempura-fried, a sous-vide braised crispy belly, or the array of new smoked elements — including smoldering flour for baking — these are methods that seem ingenious and unattainable to the home cook. When applied to economical foods, they create additional worth to the ingredients themselves and to the diner’s experience.

> Smoked corn, hominy, black bean salad — Chicago Q, Chicago
> 12-hour Cooked Pork Belly with maitake mushrooms and miso glaze — The Table, San Jose, Calif.

A handful of impact ingredients goes a long way atop bar bites and shareables like this flatbread with seasoned lamb, tomato, toasted almonds and crumbled feta. Photo courtesy of Kassie Borreson for Almond Board of California

Little packages of goodness encased in pastry, pasta, grain, bread or other starch, and eaten out-of-hand have come off the street and onto the plate. An outer layer can add heft and substance to what are legitimate but often meager ingredient mixtures of produce, meat and/or cheese. They can be as simple as all-American pot or hand pies, or take on an ethnic format like the masa-based Latin street foods (antojitos) including: Mexican huaraches, Venezuelan arepas, Puerto Rican pasteles or Salvadoran pupusas.

> Migas Brekky Pie: Pico de gallo, jalapeños, corn tortillas and eggs combined in a golden pastry and topped with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese — Boomerang’s, Austin, Texas
> Crawfish Tamale: Crawfish bathed in a smooth, spicy crawfish sauce enveloped in masa, topped with shredded cheeses and baked — Prejean’s Restaurant, Lafayette, La.

It’s All in the Ingredients

Seasonal, local, sustainable, heritage and heirloom ingredients are so entrenched now that they have become an essential element to menu planning. Any food that connects customers to a place, a state, a locale, a farm or a face increases the inherent worth of a dish, a menu and a brand. Produce puts a postmark on a dish, establishing its seasonality. With or without other high-value ingredients, local and specialty produce says you care enough to use the very best.

> Blistered Shishito Peppers, with spiced lime salt — Ajax Tavern, Aspen, Colo.
> Sweet Sunchoke, Sugar Snap Pea and Shaved Radish Salad with Benton’s Country Ham, mint and roasted cashews — Sage, Las Vegas

We all know offsetting a protein or more-expensive plate cost with a lower-cost starch like potatoes is a surefire strategy, but this is a day and age when the popular potato can take center stage. Sprinkling potatoes with a few precious elements or treating them like we would a steak — defining the variety, season, heritage, farm, color, even the starch or sugar level appropriate to the dish — gets potatoes off the couch.

> Ham Frites with smoked tomato aïoli, cheddar-beer sauce — Girl & The Goat, Chicago
> Rösti Potatoes: Freshly-grated Idaho potatoes mixed with applewood-cured bacon pieces, fresh scallions, minced garlic, sweet onions and fresh parsley, sautéed in sweet cream butter — Hell’s Kitchen, Minneapolis

Good old grains are just that: good and old — and highly attractive to the health-conscious, gluten-sensitive, protein-seeking diner. Non-Western cultures have long valued grains as much more than a side dish — and beyond rice and plain cornmeal. Ancient grains like kamut, spelt, amaranth or old-new corn, rice or wheat varietals used whole or ground for grits or flour can create more than supplemental support.

> Polenta con Ceci e Bietole: Wild-hive polenta with tomato, braised chickpeas and Swiss chard — Eataly, New York
> Smoked Farro — Sea Change, Minneapolis

About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.