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5 surprises in chefs’ forecast of 2015 trends

In the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot survey released this week, many of the same broad trends reported in recent years popped up again on the Top 10 list, including local sourcing, environmental sustainability and healthful kids’ meals. Peruvian and Southeast Asian made a repeat appearance in the ethnic cuisines category, pickling and fermenting led again in top preparation methods and mini desserts still rule as one of the top five in the dessert arena. So what else is new? Smart operators have been incorporating these trends for several years.

But drilling down a little deeper, I started to shed my “ho hum” attitude. The fact that kale salads and gluten-free cuisine dropped 10 and seven percent respectively since last year was surprising and significant. Maybe these trends are finally tapering off—something I’m sure many restaurateurs would welcome. And there were other surprises in the report that may help operators stay ahead of the curve and move their businesses forward in 2015. Here are five starting points.

1. Onsite barrel-aged drinks (#1 under cocktail trends)

This technique, pioneered by hip mixologists, is a trend that can be adapted to casual restaurants and even fast casuals without a bar. True, the barrels take up valuable floor space, but creating one or two signature batch cocktails that can be easily dispensed is a way to differentiate a drinks list. Some innovators are even barrel aging soft drinks.

2. Underutilized fish (up 12 percent)

Chefs who formerly relied on “elite” species such as halibut, wild salmon and sea bass are no longer turning up their noses at sea robin, bluefish, mackerel, redfish and other lesser-known fish. Underutilized species have two important points in their favor: they are more sustainable and less expensive.  Non-traditional fish (#15 in the Top 20), trending separately, also underscores more open-mindedness on the part of chefs and consumers about center-of-the-plate seafood items. The survey cites branzino, Arctic char and barramundi under this heading.

3. Non-wheat noodles/pasta (#1 in starches and side items)

Quinoa has been as ubiquitous as kale salads on menus, but quinoa noodles may surprise and attract quinoa-weary customers—especially those with gluten sensitivities. Although gluten-free is falling off as a top trend, it isn’t going away. Noodles made of buckwheat, rice, quinoa and sweet potatoes are available commercially and can be served as inventive sides or swapped into recipes. In tandem with this trend, Asian noodles increased by 5 percentage points.

4. Vegetarian appetizers (#1 in the appetizer category and #22 overall)

I was surprised but happy to see that healthier vegetable-based starters came in at number one, pushing sliders, chicken wings and beefy nachos off the list. Appetizers are typically a more innovative section of the menu; a category where chefs can take more risks with ingredients and flavors and try out new ideas. With root vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, fresh beans and peas and grilled vegetables all up 5 percent or more in the survey, the time is right to add more vegetarian appetizers to the menu.

5. Housemade condiments (a new Top Trend for 2015)

Housemade pickles have been a frontrunner for a couple of years, but now restaurants are seeing the value in creating other condiments in-house. A signature hot sauce, fruit chutney, bacon jam or Creole mustard signals handcrafting—a quality consumers favor, according to Chicago-based researcher Technomic. Plus, with a stock of housemade condiments on hand, an operator can instantly upgrade a cheese plate, burger, sandwich or omelet and upsell the item. 

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