Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Trend-Spotting: Ahead of the Game Commodity boards help keep an eye on ever-evolving trends

Grapes gain deeper flavor when roasted, making them a new favorite topping for on-trend flatbread, pizza or toast.

Apples become a refreshing fusion element in global dishes like the Fuji Apple Shoyu Ramen at UniDeli in Minneapolis. If there’s one thing the foodservice world can agree on, it’s that the pressure is on to keep bringing culinary creativity to new heights, while also pulling it back to explore comforting basics. Commodity boards watch the changes in diners’ behavior and palates like it’s their job—because it is. They provide an excellent resource for chefs looking to tap into trends and explore new cuisines, ingredient usage ideas or flavor combinations.

We reached out to several boards and asked them to identify a next-level trend they’re seeing with their respective commodity. From  nuts being used in non-dairy alternatives to an increase of spicy honey sauces, trends abound among the boards.

Smoked Grapes & Savory Cheeses
“We are seeing more grapes used on pizzas and flatbread,” says Courtney Romano, foodservice consultant for the California Table Grape Commission. “It’s a natural extension of the classic cheese and grape pairing.” At The Urban Oven in Los Angeles, chef Scott Tremonti’s sweet, salty and seasonal Prosciutto Grape wood-fired pizza has five ingredients: olive oil, Fontina, prosciutto crudo, red grapes and rosemary.

“Grapes are a great flavor vehicle, and can be roasted, smoked or used fresh,” explains Romano. Roasting grapes deepens and concentrates their sweetness and flavor, and they can be used as a toast-topper with ricotta or added to a cheese plate. Chef Trent Pierce of Block + Tackle Oyster Bar in Portland, Ore., tops pan-roasted black cod with smoked grapes, celery root, citrus-ginger mayo and tarragon sauce vierge.

Apples as a global gateway
“Apples will always be all-American, but the concept of the all-American dish is really seeing some exciting changes,” says Wendy Brannen, director of consumer health and public relations for the U.S. Apple Association. The group is watching an increasing interest in apples as a key ingredient in global menu items. “Fusion-focused restaurants are continuing to grow in popularity, and many of these chefs like to turn to the very basic, loved and practical apple as a ‘gateway’ ingredient to attract diners to a dish.” One example is the Fuji Apple Shoyu Ramen, served as a menu special on Ramen Mondays at UniDeli in Minneapolis. Apples are used in the ramen stock, as is done in Japan, and the dish is topped with thinly sliced apples. “This is such a great intersection of a heartland-favorite food with a trending Asian dish,” she says.

Spreading the Peanut love
“We love several of the menu trends we’ve noticed recently that incorporate peanuts and peanut butter,” says Ryan Lepicier, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the National Peanut Board. One example is the Boiled Peanut Hummus, a twist on a Southern favorite at the Omni Hotel in Dallas. Applebee’s is playing with Asian flavors in its new Buffalo wings and pot stickers—both star a Thai peanut sauce

Consumers are also growing more comfortable with gluten-free powdered peanut butter and peanut flour in packaged foods. “This translates to foodservice uses like smoothies, soups, baked goods and more,” adds Lepicier.

Avocado Fries are a top seller at Cabo Flats in Florida, where they’re served with a smoky cilantro-lime aïoli.

Avocados across the menu
“Avocados have most definitely become the emerging trend on menus across the country as a way to elevate menus and increase price points for operators,” says Mark Garcia, director of foodservice marketing for Avocados From Mexico. “Technomic data reports a continued increase in avocado menu incidence, and operators report a growth opportunity of avocado as a center-of-the-plate item,” he adds. The wildly trending avocado toast can be found on breakfast, brunch, bar and snack/small plate menus nationwide. Littleneck Outpost in Brooklyn, N.Y., offers a perfected version: a thick-cut artisan slice of bread with ripe smashed avocado, roasted tomatoes and a perfectly poached egg.

Avocados are also making it onto the grill and into the fryer. “The practice of cooking with avocados is spreading rapidly,” says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission (CAC). The CAC recommends that for grilling, baking, frying, or sautéing fresh avocado in chunks, slices or dices, chefs should use slightly under-ripe fruit and add it just before applying heat. “The pieces hold their shape better, and, when cooked, develop a mellow, rich flavor,” she notes.

When South Florida chain Cabo Flats Cantina & Tequila Bar added Avocado Fries to the menu last year, the appetizer became an instant smash. “It’s now the No. 1 selling appetizer across the board at every location,” says Adam Robin, director of operations. The avocado slices are egg-washed, coated in seasoned bread crumbs and deep fried. A cilantro lime aïoli with honey, roasted garlic and chipotle adobo purée brings a sweet, smoky heat and next-level flavor to the dish.

Blueberries Beyond Breakfast
Blueberry mentions on menus have increased a staggering 97 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to a Technomic survey of Top 500 chain restaurant menus. “We’re seeing increased use of blueberries beyond just breakfast and dessert,” says Mark Villata, executive director of U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

Villata says the most noticeable trend here is blueberries’ presence in savory applications. M.E.A.T. Eatery & Tap Room in Boca Raton, Fla., takes the combo to the next level with a Duck and Pickled Blueberry Sausage, which is topped with jalapeño, apricot and shallot relish. Bata’s in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pairs a blueberry compote with jalapeño atop a hamburger, along with bacon and goat cheese in a sweet brioche bun.

More Sophisticated Meals for Kids
“Developing healthier and more sophisticated choices on the kids’ menu is becoming a top priority for many restaurants,” says Gina Jones, the Produce Marketing Association’s vice president of research and development. “Growing trends on kids’ menus are more bold, global flavors and healthy, smaller versions of items from the adult menu, featuring whole grains, vegetables, oven-baked items and entrée salads.”

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro’s Baby Buddha’s Feast features steamed or stir-fried snap peas, carrots and broccoli while Yard House’s Spaghetti & Meatballs is made with multi-grain pasta and housemade turkey meatballs. Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Va., has a Petit Gourmand tasting menu targeted at “foodies 14 and under” that includes fried arancini, horseradish-crusted organic salmon, and bunny apples with caramel dipping sauce for dessert.

At Graze, chef Tory Miller’s Korean BBQ Pork Sandwich includes pepper Jack cheese alongside kimchi coleslaw.

Lobster Goes Fast Casual
“Maine lobster has been enjoying a resurgence on restaurant menus, from high end to fast casual. On the more accessible side, we’re seeing a tremendous increase in lobster rolls and lobster mac and cheese,” says Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “The richness of lobster is a perfect pairing with mac and cheese, and research from Technomic indicates that lobster is the third most popular protein added to today’s trendy gourmet mac and cheese—behind bacon and chicken.” Sweet, delicate lobster pairs easily with cheeses as simple as soft Boursin or burrata, to rich Goudas and cheddars, and umami-loaded Romano and Gruyère. At the Tipsy Boar in Hollywood, Fla., chef Craig Lavalley elevates Lobster Mac & Cheese to a decadent guilty pleasure with housemade béchamel and a brandy cream sauce.

Asian Cuisine Gets Cheesy
“One flavor component that is so often thought of in Asian cuisine, umami, is also prevalent in cheeses,” says Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “They complement each other.” Technomic’s MenuMonitor shows mentions of cheese at Asian/noodle restaurants up by almost 7 percent in the last two years. Engwall sees two differing schools in the use of cheese in Asian dishes: First, big-flavored aged cheeses are used to enhance the flavors of fermented foods; and second, cheese is used to contrast or balance the more intense flavors.

At his pan-Asian concept, Sujeo, in Madison, Wis., executive chef and co-owner Tory Miller uses Parmesan rinds in congee (Asian rice porridge) in place of the traditional MSG flavoring. “It has a really great saltiness, nuttiness and everything you love in a Parmesan.” He also uses the rinds in one of his noodle bowls—a double stock of duck and pork fat, seasoned with fish sauce, Parmesan, Thai basil, garlic, chives and scallions. “The cheese and the herbs all work together with the fats to make a really great noodle bowl. The cheese gives it a rich, almost creamy fattiness.”

Low-Octane Beverages
The rise of refreshing, housemade juice beverages and daytime drinks has swept raspberries along for the ride. “Fueled by influential Italian aperitifs and craft soda programs, the trend has the same craft-cocktail attention to detail,” says Thomas Krugman, executive director of the National Processed Raspberry Council. “It’s primed for growth among consumers new to the notion of lower-proof alternatives.” Bartenders mixing raspberries with a combination of ingredients—such as cucumber, apple, grapes, ginger, lemon and sparkling water—create results that are sweet, savory and surprising. The Black Raspberry Cream mocktail at Vie in Western Springs, Ill., is velvety smooth thanks to the addition of egg whites, and the flavor bounces back and forth between sweet and tart with black raspberry jam and fresh lemon juice.

Sriracha and honey bring sweet heat to Pizza Hut’s new menu star.

Piquant Honey Sauces
“We are seeing a lot of innovation in ‘sweet and heat,’ where honey is being used to create the perfect balance in applications ranging from sauces to beverages,” says Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board. Chefs in the big restaurant chains are tapping into younger generations’ drive for more heat, and turning to the sweeter burn of spicy honey sauces. Ghost pepper, jalapeño, habanero, ginger-lime, Sriracha, chipotle—the mellow sweetness of honey brings the peppers’ heat down to approachable levels for many diners.

Pizza Hut’s recently launched honey-Sriracha sauce is cross-utilized as a base pizza sauce, topping drizzle and a brush-on crust flavor. Global Executive Chef Wiley Bates III says “it taps into the trend of heat and flavor fusion through the authentic bold, hot and tangy combination of red chiles, garlic and just the right acidity—and blended with the flavor of honey. The result is a sauce that lends itself to pizza, wings, breadsticks and dipping sauce.”

Smothered Fries
Smothered fries are riding the wave of poutine and chile fries, says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. Smothered, dirty, call ’em what you will, fries with toppings are getting next-level upgrades. “It gives adults permission to play with their food and just dive in and get messy,” Odiorne explains. “Craveable is important here, but shareable is key to its instant success when translated to a sit-down dining experience. The Ooey Gooey Fries at Roy Choi’s Chego are the bomb.” They are a monstrous mess—beer-battered fries sopping with sour cream sambal, Monterey Jack, cheddar and Cotija cheeses, chiles, cilantro and pickled garlic. For something a little closer to down-home,

San Francisco’s Smothered Fries food truck features a menu loaded with poutine and “stuff on fries” including The Southern: fries topped with chunks of hand-breaded popcorn chicken and a housemade country gravy. While no lighter in calories, the Mediterranean-inspired Street Cart Fries at Spitz Little Tokyo in Los Angeles are a riot of flavor and color. The crispy fries are topped with aïoli, feta, onion, green pepper, tomato, olives, pepperoncini and chile sauce.

I Can’t Believe it’s Nut Cheese
“Walnuts deliver appealing nutty flavor and creamy thickness in non-dairy applications like cheeses, creams, and milks,” says Jennifer Olmstead, marketing director of the California Walnut Board. “These items are simple to make, very versatile and contain the heart-healthy nutrition of California walnuts. Recently, we’ve been excited to see chefs using walnuts in creative ways across their menus, such as using a dollop of walnut cream as a garnish for soups, or serving walnuts in a lavender-flavored milk format alongside cookies.”

As dairy-free alternatives and vegan diets continue to gain traction, some chefs are using a mix of nutritional yeast, water and shaved walnuts to create tangy vegan cheeses. Chef Tal Ronnen at Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles crumbles it over Bolognese-style pasta and salads. The yeast adds the fermented notes needed to create a cheesy experience across the taste buds.

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Amanda M. Westbrooks

Amanda M. Westbrooks, Flavor & The Menu’s Digital Content Manager, knows her way around all things tech, enjoys working on farms, cleans her own fish, and sometimes wins writing awards.