Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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World Casual

San Francisco-based chef Dennis Lee garnishes shiitake dumplings with shredded nori at the CIA’s recent Worlds of Flavor conference. Photo courtesy of culinary institute of america. The convergence of global cuisines and dining casualization highlights menu-ready opportunities

By Gerry Ludwig

There may be no more significant trend in foodservice today than dining casualization. From fine-dining restaurants eschewing their white tablecloths to consumers lining up at food trucks to experience their meal curbside, eating styles in virtually all dining segments are becoming increasingly relaxed.

Further validation of the strength of this trend was evident in the theme of the Culinary Institute of America’s most recent Worlds of Flavor conference, held this past fall at the CIA’s Greystone campus in Napa Valley. With no less a title than “World Casual: The Future of American Menus,” the conference focused on opportunities to incorporate the next wave of global flavors into new menu offerings that fit with changing consumer demand for less formality and greater flexibility in dining options and service styles.

Trend tracker Michael Whiteman kicked off the event with an illuminating session that included more than a few bold assertions and predictions, among them the statement that future menu innovation would emanate from lower segments rather than the historical fine-dining trickle-down, a direction he calls “from food trucks to full service.”

Whiteman was also the first of several presenters declaring the death of the term “fusion cuisine,” which he said has gained a negative connotation due to the lack of mainstream acceptance of the cooking style. Instead, new monikers that describe global flavor experimentation included “mash-up,” “mashing” and “smashing.”

He then elaborated on the growing trend in flavor mash-ups, citing huge potential for creating differentiation by treating established menu favorites as “carriers” rather than finished dishes. Hot dogs and burgers, he noted, now serve as carriers of an endless variety of non-traditional and globally inspired ingredients such as kimchee, artisanal cheeses, exotic mushrooms, fried vegetables and eggs. Other dishes having carrier potential include french fries, pizza, egg dishes, grilled and fried vegetables, shrimp and grits, noodle and rice bowls, hummus and guacamole.

Practical examples of the carrier concept were demonstrated in an onstage competition between Los Angeles chef Jet Tila and Chicago chef Bill Kim, as they battled to create the ultimate Asian hot dog. Tila created a Naga Dog, topping an all-beef link with shredded daikon, kimchee, wasabi mayonnaise, teriyaki and katsu sauce. Kim countered with his Belly Dog, topped with crispy egg noodles, shredded green papaya and a mayonnaise flavored with curry, lime, cilantro, spicy sambal and fish sauce.

Incorporating bold new flavors into dishes based on less-costly ingredients is a strategy at play in this new age of casualization. Ground meats and fresh vegetables were two categories of less-expensive products prepared in exciting new ways throughout the conference.

Unique meatball and sausage preparations abounded. Spanish chef Cristina Figueira served a rich and complexly flavored beef, pork and bacon meatball simmered in a meat broth with turnips, potatoes and chickpeas. Chef Musa Dagdeviren prepared both a Turkish-style lamb meatball flavored with garlic, cumin, allspice and mint, and a vegetarian Kurdish meatball made from bulghur and flavored with onion, garlic and basil.

Singaporean chef Willin Low fills his Mee Jiang Kueh griddle cakes with sweet concoctions like dark chocolate and almonds, sugared coconut shreds or, in this case, a black sesame-peanut butter spread. Photo courtesy of culinary institute of america VALUE VEGGIES
Flavorful new dishes based on inexpensive vegetables were standouts at the event. Latin chef Maricel Presilla created a slaw with an Asian-Latino twist, tossing shredded cabbage with julienne Peruvian yellow peppers and a creamy mirin-and-miso-flavored dressing. Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam gave the crowd a taste of two exciting African vegetable dishes: a black-eyed pea salad tossed with tomato, cucumber, scallions and chopped fresh habanero, and a peanut and vegetable stew simmered with Brussels sprouts, yucca, okra, torn herbs and habanero.

The team of Greek chefs wowed attendees with their vegetable creations. Christoforos Peskias served a Med-Asian-inspired salad of charcoal-burnt eggplant topped with wakame salad and a teriyaki-yuzu dressing. Doxis Bekris broke new ground with a salad of romaine lettuce oven-roasted in chicken stock and served over a puree of cucumber and watercress flavored with garlic, thyme, spearmint and sherry vinegar.

Befitting the casual theme, globally flavored deep-fried foods designed to be eaten either while standing or walking were prominently featured. Diminutive vegetarian flavor bombs were served by Indian chef Hemant Mathur in the form of crisp, delicate soybean, spinach and lentil croquettes redolent of cardamom, ginger and garam masala and served with a tomato-chile-lime salsa for dipping. Korean chef Myung Sook Lee had a huge hit with her crispy fried kimchee balls, filled with spicy chopped kimchee, shredded pork neck, minced shrimp and grated Parmesan.

In his keynote address, CIA President Tim Ryan discussed the present and future of the casualization trend. While stating that “fine dining in America is alive and well,” he acknowledged that consumer demand for less formality exists even in the highest dining echelons. He cited Manhattan’s upscale restaurants as evidence, where the number of dining rooms still requiring men to wear a jacket has dwindled to 12.

Ryan predicted that an increasing number of white-tablecloth chefs would be “moving down-market,” opening new concepts in the casual and fast-food segments. He referred to the “trailblazers” of this movement, such as David Chang of Momofuku restaurants in New York and Kogi’s Roy Choi in Los Angeles, whose primary motivation for opening their down-market concepts was to “cook the kinds of food they like to eat.”

Ryan concluded by saying that the ultimate result of the casualization trend would be what he called “food democracy — great food available anywhere, anytime, at any price.”

Chefs Salvatore Denaro and Sara Jenkins created an interesting and indulgent handheld by wrapping Scamorza
cheese in fig leaves and grilling
until toasty and melted. Photo courtesy of culinary institute of america. GLOBAL SANDWICHES
Certainly the most prevalent “anywhere, anytime” food in the U.S. is the sandwich, and the event featured many new and exciting versions served on a variety of ethnic breads.

While several Asian chefs were serving signature versions of the Vietnamese banh mi, the most compelling new flavors were found in sandwiches from the Mediterranean, particularly North Africa.

Mediterranean cuisine authority Paula Wolfert spoke about the mainstream menu potential of sandwiches containing North African flavors, particularly the traditional condiments harissa and charmoula.

North African chef Abderrazak Haouari demonstrated several of these sandwiches, the first a Tunisian vegetable sandwich assembled on a yeast roll with green and black olives, hard-cooked egg, pickled vegetables and a Tunisian salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, onion and bell pepper. The bread was given a generous spread of harissa, which the chef prepared from ground ancho chile, garlic, coriander, cumin, tomato paste, lemon and olive oil. Haouari explained that while harissa is widely available in cans and jars, much of the commercial product is fiery hot, so making your own is not only simple but also allows you to tailor the heat level to suit your customers.

The chef then assembled two pita-based sandwiches incorporating charmoula, made with chopped parsley and cilantro, garlic, paprika, cayenne, lemon and olive oil. He pointed out that charmoula is used as both a marinade and a condiment. His Moroccan tuna sandwich featured chunks of oil-packed tuna topped with celery, onion and red peppers, and finished with a generous drizzle of charmoula-flavored mayonnaise. He then char-grilled a chicken breast that had marinated several hours in charmoula, and tucked it into a pita with roasted red peppers, arugula and harissa-flavored mayonnaise.

Master baker Mark Furstenberg prepared several versions of a unique stuffed sandwich from Southern France that had many attendees buzzing. Called “en Poilâne,” it is a large, round French loaf that is hollowed, stuffed, pressed and oven-baked. In one version, Furstenberg coated the inside of the hollowed loaf with white-bean puree and filled the cavity with chunks of grilled lamb, olives, capers and caramelized onions. Another loaf got an internal coating of avocado spread before being filled with oven-roasted vegetables, spinach and fontina cheese. Once filled, the loaves were wrapped in foil, pressed with a sheet pan weighted with bricks and oven-baked for an hour. The finished loaves were allowed to rest before being cut into portion-sized wedges.

The conference concluded with a session entitled “Culinary insights and strategies for the coming decade.” One point of agreement among the panelists was that the macro-trend of dining casualization will continue to evolve and influence the way Americans access and enjoy their foodservice meals.


About The Author

Gerry Ludwig

Chef Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department for Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.