Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Patricia Fitzgerald
February 7, 2024

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Colin Mills

Colin Mills
Senior Recipe Developer

Kitchen Collaborative is a recipe-development initiative formed by Summit F&B and Flavor & The Menu. To fuel flavor innovation, a group of talented chefs partnered with sponsor brands and commodity boards to create recipes that showcase the passion and potential of our industry.

A passport filled with stamps from more than 25 countries is ample evidence of Colin Mills’ passion for touring the globe, informing his palate and his professional expertise in equal measure. “I believe the best way to experience a culture is to eat their food. As a chef, this is important not only for inspiration, but to benchmark your idea and experience of a particular dish against where it originated,” says Mills, Senior Recipe Developer for HelloFresh.

Travel reveals more than local favorites and traditional preparations, Mills has discovered. One unforgettable taste experience was a dinner shared with his parents at a Michelin-starred restaurant on the west coast of Ireland. “One of the dishes on a tasting menu was made entirely out of carrots: steamed, grilled, shaved, pickled, powdered, puréed and sautéed in multiple colors and shapes. They put all of their technical abilities on display, while still balancing flavor,” he recounts. “This dish really resonated with me because it follows how I imagine ingredients and all of the tangential directions in technique that you can apply to them.”

Mills applies a variety of techniques and ingredient pairings to coax maximum flavor in his recipes for Kitchen Collaborative: Harissa Honey Naan Flatbread, Japanese Chicken and Okonomiyaki Waffles, and Walnut-Crusted Chocolate Banana Bread Cake Pops.

Harissa Honey Naan Flatbread

Photo: National Honey Board

Mills gives the hot honey trend intriguing new dimension in his Harissa Honey Naan Flatbread. “Harissa has been keeping steady within the macro trend of sweet and heat over the past few years,” he notes. “I love that it is spicy while still having a complicated flavor of its own.” It serves as the complex finish for a flavor-forward dish that stars turmeric-seasoned cauliflower, along with labneh and arugula dressed with a mix of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic powder, plus a garnish of rough chopped pistachios, all topping a piece of puffy naan.

Mills selected each ingredient in the build with care. “Cauliflower is an often overlooked vegetable, since it doesn’t have much flavor of its own,” he acknowledges. “But I see it as a perfect blank canvas that is very receptive to whatever seasoning is used. In this case, turmeric provides great flavor and a vibrant color.” The turmeric and harissa are robust choices indeed. “They both bring a heavily spiced and spicy flavor that is balanced by the sweetness of the honey,” Mills continues. “The lemon dressing on the arugula and the subtle tang of the creamy labneh bring balance to the spicy sweetness of the harissa honey. Finally, the pistachios deliver crunch, along with a flavor that aligns with the overall Middle Eastern profile.”

While Mills doesn’t specify a particular honey varietal for this dish, he notes that floral-leaning options are well-suited to the flavor build here. “Floral honey provides more depth to the sweetness of honey,” he explains. “A more citrus-forward honey also might work, but also could get lost in the acidity of the dressing.” Mills’ choice of a premade naan is a savvy move to address the delicate balance between food quality and operational efficiency. “With advancements in food technology, premade naan can now be a part of that equation without needing a tandoor or compromising your culinary standards.”

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Japanese Chicken and Okonomiyaki Waffles

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

Okonomiyaki, the savory Japanese pancake, is an inspired option for incorporating vegetable or meat “odds and ends that you might have left over after a busy week,” notes Mills. He admits that his introduction to this global comfort food is fairly recent, not having even heard of the dish until he was assigned to create it at work. “I did some benchmarking at a local Japanese restaurant, and I loved the concept right away.”

Mills applies his newfound passion to this Japanese Chicken and Okonomiyaki Waffles dish, a deliberate riff on the Southern classic. “Japan, just like the American South, has a culinary tradition of crispy fried chicken. And okonomiyaki starts with a batter, just like waffles. So, the format works, because it’s still a fried chicken over a waffle, just with flavors that bring the Japanese influence forward.” Mills hones these fusion sensibilities by making the chicken a hero ingredient. “Karaage, Japanese fried chicken, is traditionally served as a snack or appetizer that is dipped in sauce, rather than being incorporated into a larger dish,” he explains.

In his dish, Mills starts by marinating boneless, skinless chicken thighs in a mix of grated garlic, grated ginger, Kikkoman® Soy Sauce, sake, Kikkoman® No Preservatives Added Non-GMO Toasted Sesame Oil, Kikkoman® Rice Vinegar, sugar and salt. “All of these ingredients have been traditionally used together for centuries, because they each bring a unique flavor dimension to the final chicken taste,” says Mills. “In addition, the salt and soy sauce act as a brine, increasing the osmotic pressure to allow more water into the cells of the chicken for a juicier result. The sugar balances out the salinity and provides more browning when frying.”

The okonomiyaki batter showcases a few less-familiar ingredients—among them beni-shoga (pickled red ginger) and katsuobushi (smoked, fermented skipjack tuna flakes). “These may be new to the Western palate, but they bring excitement to menus and pack a lot of flavor,” he notes. Green cabbage and scallions are additional flavor boosts. At service, the okonomiyaki waffle is topped with fried chicken, which gets a generous drizzle of both Japanese mayonnaise and Kikkoman® Unagi Sushi Sauce, along with a garnish of aonori, plus more scallions and katsuobushi.

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Walnut-Crusted Chocolate Banana Bread Cake Pops

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

“Banana bread was a frequent flier in my house growing up, and it holds that magical property of taking me back to a specific time and place,” says Mills. As a chef, he relishes opportunities to tap into the power of nostalgia in culinary applications. “I love taking old recipes and reimagining how different forms, flavors and experiences can bring new life to classic dishes.” Presented with Ghirardelli® Dark Chocolate Coating Wafers for his recipe ideation, Mills developed a next-level iteration of his childhood favorite in his inventive Walnut-Crusted Chocolate Banana Bread Cake Pops.

Some might be surprised that cake pops have endured beyond a short-term novelty. Mills attributes their ongoing popularity largely to the elemental appeal of “food on a stick,” which can be found in almost every cuisine, he notes. “I think it’s just something fundamental to being human.” Plus, cake pops offer inherent portability and merchandising advantages that still carry value.

After preparing the banana bread and forming it into small balls, Mills melts the Coating Wafers and uses the melted chocolate to cover the banana bread balls, gently shaking off any chocolate before rolling in them in finely chopped walnuts. The Wafers offer chefs the ability to create dips and coatings without needing to temper the chocolate. This would be a huge benefit to high-volume commercial operations, Mills affirms. The result is a textural explosion—doughy interior, chocolate coating, crunchy nuts—while still carrying flavor forward. “I always try to match flavor with function when it comes to creating the perfect texture for dishes,” he explains. “For example, the pops could be rolled in panko bread crumbs for texture, but that wouldn’t deliver the flavor that complements the chocolate and the banana like walnuts do.”

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Project Management: Summit F&B
Photography: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

About The Author

Patricia Fitzgerald

Patricia Fitzgerald is Contributing Editor of Flavor & The Menu, and a writer and content editor for a wide range of clients and media outlets. [email protected]