Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Patricia Fitzgerald
May 2, 2024

Share on Facebook  Share on X (Twitter)  Share on Pinterest  Share on LinkedIn  Share thru Email  
Matthew McMIllin

Matt McMillin
Chief Culinary Officer
Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants

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.

Today’s most successful and professionally satisfied chefs aren’t content with merely being cooks in the kitchen for one meal service after another. They stay active in customer engagement and hospitality. They educate and mentor future generations. They are constantly innovating to build their business. They develop recipes and hope to direct future trends. Of these various enterprises, is there one that brings Matt McMillin more joy than any other?

“I love it all,” says the chief culinary officer of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants. “I love it all, because to be a great chef and to have a great career, you have to be great at all of it.”

McMillin loves creating new dishes, but “it’s something I don’t get to do enough of these days,” he laments. Projects like Kitchen Collaborative help satisfy that professional craving. He made the most of this opportunity as reflected in three distinctive dishes: Ghirardelli® Double Chocolate Pots de Crème with Salted Caramel and Lemon Shortbread Stix; Whipped Feta Spread with Za’atar, featuring La Brea Bakery® French baguette crostini slices; and Thai Red Curry with Aussie Select Lamb Prime Rib.

Ghirardelli® Double Chocolate Pots de Crème with Salted Caramel and Lemon Shortbread Stix

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

“Rich, intense, pure chocolate flavor.” That was McMillin’s goal in leveraging a range of Ghirardelli® products (including 100 percent cacao unsweetened chocolate wafers, semi-sweet chocolate chips and sea salt caramel sauce) to create a chocoholic’s fever dream of a dessert. His Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Pots de Crème with Salted Caramel and Lemon Shortbread Stix may be a mouthful to pronounce, but a divinely decadent one to consume.

“I wanted to do something different from a cake or pastry to highlight the pure flavor of chocolate,” says McMillin of his decision to put a new spin on an approachable, custard-style dish with the pot de crème. Each portion is topped with salted caramel sauce and whipped cream. The dish is served with lemon shortbread cookies for dipping. “It’s a fun, interactive dessert.”

He found the combination of dark and semi-sweet chocolates produces the best, most intense chocolate flavor, while the custard delivers a rich, dense, creamy mouthfeel. “Whipped cream always lightens up a rich, chocolate dessert,” he notes. McMillin suggests cocoa nibs and strawberry slices as optional finishers for added flavor complexity. Cocoa nibs lend a bit of crunch and an astringent bitterness that provides contrast to the overall sweetness of the dish. “And who doesn’t love strawberries with chocolate? Plus, they provide great color contrast, and fruit always gives a nod to freshness.”

Adding the fun factor of the shortbread “dipsticks” was a high priority for the chef. “I think guests like to interact with food more and more today,” he notes. “Whether it’s making your own tacos or wraps or assembling s’mores, it brings people back to their childhood.”

Get the recipe

Whipped Feta Spread with Za’atar Crostini

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

Presented with La Brea Bakery®’s Large French Baguette, McMillin thought ideating around a sandwich would be taking the easy way out. “I think a sandwich was a total layup. I always try to create things that are different from what people might expect but not go too far off the center of the fairway,” he explains in a mix of sports metaphors. For this Whipped Feta Spread with Za’atar Crostini, baguette slices—oiled and seasoned with za’atar before grilling—serve as crostini to carry the spread.

For the spread, the chef uses a French feta cheese, combining it with cream cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, white pepper plus lemon juice and grated zest. An accompanying sauce drizzle features mild chile crunch, pitted and chopped Medjool dates and extra-virgin olive oil. He leans into a Middle Eastern flavor profile with this dish, especially through a heavy garnish that tops the cheese spread and comprises grape tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, radishes, hand-torn mint, toasted and crushed pistachios, cilantro leaves and more za’atar seasoning.

“These flavors are some of my favorites,” McMillin notes. “The feta—Valbreso feta in particular—is so creamy and well-balanced. It has great character, is soft and lends itself to whipping very well. It’s also less dry and salty than most other brands. It becomes a blank canvas for all the other flavors and textures to sit on.” Among these, “the chile crunch adds some spice, texture and visual appeal,” he says. “Combined with the sweet dates, it comes across a little like spicy honey.”

Get the recipe

Thai Red Curry with Aussie Select Lamb Prime Rib

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

The inherent versatility of curry offers chefs a broad canvas for flavor play, and McMillin enjoys exploring the varying taste experiences that result from different iterations. “Southeast Asian curries are gaining in popularity, as they are more balanced and, in my opinion, more interesting than Indian curries,” he says. “The curries I like to cook are very similar in base ingredients but differentiated by the types of chiles used.” For a yellow curry, he’d boost the turmeric. A green curry sees the addition of Thai green chiles, toasted fennel, clove, nutmeg and lemon peel. A red curry leans into spicy Thai red chiles. It’s all about the spice level, he notes.

For this Thai Red Curry with Aussie Select Lamb Prime Rib, the recipe is a riff on a version McMillin often makes using seafood as the protein. “But a few years ago, I took a lamb bone-in-shoulder, braised it and pulled the meat apart to fold it in at the end. I figured using this roast would be a nice twist on that,” he says, affirming the delicious flavor and ease of use of the Aussie Select product. The lamb pieces and curry are served over jasmine rice and garnished with grape tomato halves, Thai basil and cilantro.

He recommends a few tweaks for prepping the dish in a busy restaurant environment. “The base sauce can be scaled up by sautéing the red peppers and green beans, heating the sauce, adding the lamb and then finishing with the balancing mixture of sugar, fish sauce and lime. Balance is the magic of this dish: a little sweet, sour and salty,” he says. If operators want an extra pop of color, McMillin suggests adding small pieces of eggplant, which also boost the finish of herbs and tomatoes. “Typically I fry pieces of Turkish or Japanese eggplant, hold for service and toss in at pickup.”

Get the recipe


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. With more than 25 years at the helm of School Nutrition magazine, she has made the K-12 foodservice segment a particular niche, but her experience also includes work in many other industries and professions, including telecommunications, packaging, disability advocacy, waste management, community associations, small business retailers and more. [email protected]