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Produce as a Premium

At The Pearl in Columbus, Ohio, seared arctic char is served with roasted cauliflower and cauliflower purée, keeping the dish balanced and offering two textures. Photo courtesy of cameron mitchell restaurants. Produce is a given on most menus, but with just a few flavor and menu cues, it can help deliver premium values

By Rob Benes

The culinary world has rid itself of over-steamed broccoli florets and flavorless mixed vegetables as its ubiquitous sides. They added no perceived value and no one ever enjoyed eating them. Value is everything in today’s foodservice landscape. And that value goes beyond the protein on the plate. Fresh produce plays an important role in enhancing value to recipes and plate presentation, but it’s more than a perceived value — produce adds new flavors and textures, bold and vibrant colors, a fresh image and an overall appeal to a meal.

Fresh produce has a more purpose-driven goal today than ever before and, at times, is even the focal point on the plate.

Produce’s Upward Mobility
The rise in popularity and prominence fresh produce is experiencing cannot be credited to a single event, but rather an industry-wide collaboration in five areas.

The quality of produce has dramatically improved over the past five years because of the public’s demand for it. The industry is listening. There’s an open dialogue between growers, suppliers and chefs to source the best looking and most flavorful items, and find new varieties.

The emergence of local farmers and overnight shipping has helped chefs expand menu items by elevating their ingredient list with freshly picked produce on a daily basis.

While the price of all proteins continues to skyrocket, fresh produce prices have not risen as dramatically.

New-world culinary trends continue to influence recipe creation. Cuisine in the United States used to be driven by middle European cooking. Inspiration now comes from Latin American, Asian and Southern Mediterranean cuisines — to name a few — that tend to be more abundant in the variety of produce and the manner in which it is used.

There has also been the strong influence of celebrity chefs and a myriad of cooking shows that transport people to unique places featuring new and interesting produce, which people then expect to see on menus.

Diners make a natural connection between eating fresh produce and healthy living. The challenge for chefs is to choose the best cooking methods to maintain the integrity of produce and convey those wholesome attributes. At 1500° in Miami Beach, Fla., Executive Chef Paula DaSilva’s menu is peppered with adjectives on how vegetables are cooked: roasted, puréed, confit, braised, pickled, grilled, smoked, creamed. “We want people to know how we’re preparing each component of a dish,” she says, “not just the protein.”

Examples abound: Charred Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, garnished with mustard and crème fraîche; zucchini purée and roasted tomatoes are paired with grilled octopus; pickled eggplant confit is served alongside roasted wild grouper and paired with Swank Farms vegetables and a coconut curry sauce.

McDonald’s used fresh blueberries in its oatmeal to boost a premium value perception. “This is a great example of a product that nobody was using in the QSR segment in a substantial volume,” says Bryan Silbermann, president/CEO of the Produce Marketing Association. “McDonald’s picked up on an item that has great consumer awareness, given the fact that so many reports purport the health benefits of consuming blueberries.”

The catch of the day at The Pearl in Columbus, Ohio, a Cameron Mitchell Restaurants concept, challenges cooks to pair different fresh vegetables. For example, in spring when seared king salmon is served, rather than arriving with a pile of mashed potatoes, it’s paired with a bright green pea purée made from fresh English peas. To further complement the recipe, a three-bean salad is added as a side, made from kidney beans, garbanzos, pickled green beans, cucumber, pickled red onions, herbs and mustard vinaigrette.

“This is a good example of utilizing different vegetables in what might be thought of as a traditional vegetable medley,” says Ian Rough, regional chef for Cameron Mitchell. The Pearl also showcases one vegetable prepared two ways on a single plate. Seared arctic char is served with roasted cauliflower and cauliflower purée. “Presenting the same vegetable in different styles keeps the dish balanced,” Rough says, “while allowing people to experience two unique textures.” It also conveys culinary craftsmanship — a value held in high esteem by today’s consumer.

Quartino in Chicago relies on broiling, which is among the simplest cooking techniques to char vegetables. “This translates into savory smokiness for dishes, as well as a texture contrast,” says partner/chef John Coletta. Since broiling is a quick cooking method, the outsides of the veggies soften while the insides stay relatively crisp, depending on what’s being prepared. And again, “charred” adds a housemade expertise that resonates with diners.

Yale University’s dining program has made a commitment to increase plant-based foods. One example is the salad bar, which is the No. 1 area in cafeterias where produce and proteins can be found. “Traditional salad bars are organized in a way that actually confuses guests because there are too many items to choose from without a means of creating a meaningful plate of food,” says Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining. During a year-and-a-half deconstruction process of its salad bar, Yale Dining decided to create a bar with composed salads, such as grain-based, legume-based and roasted vegetable-based, which changes daily. Students also find a deconstructed leafy-based salad, like Caesar, with the option to add a composed salad on the side to still “make it my way,” he says. “We saw a 25 percent increase in use of the salad bar because now people see a complete meal can be had instead of a plate of random items tied together with an all-too-creamy dressing,” Taherian says.

Taking a step beyond preparation and presentation, Sage Restaurant Group educates its servers about the origin of produce, preparation technique and flavor profiles so that they can have a dialogue with guests. “We want to do more than just put descriptive language on the menu,” explains Michael Carr-Turnbough, executive chef/vice president, culinary operations. Indeed, servers are an operation’s greatest orators of premium value. Arming them with the back story and culinary language increases the effectiveness of a brand’s narrative.

“If I didn’t have tomatoes on my menu in January, I would not have happy customers,” says chef John Coletta at Chicago’s Quartino. He alters his sourcing during the year to ensure a year-round supply. Photo courtesy of quartino.
Tomatoes are at their peak in the months of July, August, September and maybe the first week of October, but consumers want to eat them year round. For some chefs, getting fresh, locally grown tomatoes in the dead of winter is virtually impossible.

“If I didn’t have tomatoes on my menu in January, I would not have happy customers,” Quartino’s Coletta says. To ensure consistency of products and flavor 365 days a year, Coletta changes his producers by the season. During the local growing season, which is realistically four months out of the year, he sources products from Illinois and Michigan. “As soon as I’m told they will not be able to meet my demand because of climatic changes, I’ll start sourcing products from Florida, California, Arizona and Texas until the local farmers tell me they will start supplying again,” he says. The downside to using products not in season and having to source from distant locations is that a premium price is paid, “because now it’s viewed by producers and suppliers as an extravagant item.”

Even though 1500° is in a climate that may be thought of as a year-round growing season, Florida experiences similar issues as northern states. Rather than cold weather, extreme hot weather makes it impossible for some items to grow, forcing some farms to close during the summer months. DaSilva’s solution is to switch to northern-based producers, such as The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio.

Sage Restaurant Group uses ripening shelves year round to help produce achieve maximum flavor and color. “The shelves play a big part when products are out of season, because those items come from far distances and sometimes are shipped underripe, such as tomatoes, melons and other fruits,” Carr-Turnbough says.

People are paying more attention to where their food comes from, which is causing a rise in interest in locally grown produce. A 2012 Mintel survey of 2,000 adults found that more than half (52 percent) of U.S. consumers say it’s more important to buy local produce than organic options. Most produce travels some 1,500 miles from where it is grown to where it’s consumed.

Many chefs already have a great amount of knowledge about fresh produce, but there’s an opportunity for chefs to be engaged more actively with the supply side of the produce industry. “It behooves chefs to make their needs known to suppliers rather than complain about what they can’t get,” says Silbermann. This type of engagement involves pulling in new products from the demand side rather than waiting for the supplier to make suggestions on what chefs need to buy.

All of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s locally grown produce comes from within 350 miles of the restaurants where it’ll be served. The chain plans to serve more than 15 million pounds of locally grown produce in its restaurants this year, up from its 2012 goal of 10 million pounds. It works with a network of more than 70 local, family-owned farms to provide bell peppers, red onions, jalapeños, oregano and romaine lettuce for its restaurants. Its restaurants in Florida and California also serve locally grown tomatoes, as well as lemons and avocados in California. Chipotle’s use of locally grown produce is rooted in its core value that local produce arrives at its restaurants closer to the time it is harvested and results in better tasting food. Supporting local farms also creates and sustains opportunities for family farms in rural communities around the country.

Yale Dining has seen a 25 percent increase in use of its salad bar after adding composed salads, such as grain-based, legume-based and roasted vegetable-based options. photo courtesy of bill wilson for yale dining.
It’s the responsibility of growers and suppliers to innovate, foster premiumization of produce and introduce new and better products to the marketplace. Take, for example, purple cauliflower, honeydew melon, Tuscan cantaloupe, yellow carrots — to name a few. The different colors alone give a perception of something new and will be accepted at a premium price.

“We need to have an expectation of innovation and creativity resulting in better flavors and better profiles of produce from growers and suppliers,” says Yale Dining’s Taherian.

Sage Restaurant Group wants to make its vegetarian and vegan dishes so enticing that they appeal to everyone — not just vegetarians and vegans. At Kachina, a Southwestern Grill unit in Westminster, Colo., the Three Sisters recipe is the answer. The recipe focuses on the three main agricultural crops of Native Americans — corn, beans and squash. The recipe features those ingredients in some format, such as calabacitas stuffed ancho relleno, huitlacoche tamale with a blue cheese chipotle crema. All of Sage Restaurant Group’s units also feature Meatless Mondays to help promote produce. Going further, 50 percent of the group’s restaurants have separate vegan and vegetarian menus.

At the fine-dining Departure Restaurant + Lounge in Portland, Ore., chef de cuisine Gregory Gourdet expanded his vegan and gluten-free options. His dishes are Asian influenced with fresh, bold flavors, such as kale and radish salad with pistachio and wild ginger and local rhubarb paired with spring salmon. In 2011, Gourdet, along with other chefs, hosted an Asian-inspired vegan dinner that celebrated the end of summer and the freshness of fall ingredients. Five dynamic courses were served focusing on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, aromatics and spices, such as sweet corn custard and grilled runner beans with local sea greens and pickled shallot-sesame dressing; tempura figs, roasted grapes, candied walnuts, spicy mustard greens with ginger vinaigrette; and a coconut-crusted pistachio tart. It’s evidence that produce certainly can be elevated to premium status.

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