Is a Philly cheese steak sandwich authentic if it uses Swiss cheese? If a chef from Seattle prepares a paella, is it the real deal? Debates about authenticity run as deep as philosophical questions, but at the most basic level, authentic means real and true.
As consumers continue to seek authentic dining experiences, the idea of true-to-you-originality needs to be communicated throughout the restaurant. From décor to food and menu font to server style, every detail should support a brand’s concept and culinary identity.
Take the headline-grabbing “serverless” restaurant Eatsa. This San Francisco area high-tech concept churns out meatless quinoa-based bowls via tablet orders and pick up cubbies, where food is delivered—as if by transporter—from an invisible kitchen. The food centers on an ancient grain with futuristic feeding powers, notes Melina Romero, associate strategist, Trend Practice at CCD Innovation, an Emeryville, California-based food and beverage development firm. Every aspect of the restaurant supports this theme.
For lower-tech, homespun authenticity, Romero points to Canadian fast-casual chain Smoke’s Poutinerie as a concept doing a thorough job staying true to its Canadian roots. The chain recently opened their first U.S.-based location in Berkeley, California, where it’s using web and menu copy, promotional food trucks and special eating contests to spread the gospel of poutine, a traditional Canadian dish that tops French fries with cheese curds and gravy. At Smoke’s, the aesthetic is red and black plaid; the tagline is “You’ll think you’ve died and gone to Canada”—and the potato is the star.
The Perfect Canvas
In fact, as vegetables and grains become the main event, operators are giving them greater attention and original flavor profiles to bring even more authenticity to the menu. Katie Sutton, senior product development chef at Food and Drink Resources (FDR), a Centennial, Colorado-based culinary consultancy, likes how chefs are smashing tater tots and topping them with ingredients that fit a concept’s menu style and authentic positioning. Tex-Mex operators may use tots instead of traditional tortilla chips as a new base for nachos, while an Irish pub could offer toppings of corned beef and stout-cheese sauce.
At HopCat, a 7-unit regional brewpub concept based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the restaurant’s beer-first identity influences each part of the menu—even down to the fries. “The concept behind the food was ‘food your mom would make if your mom liked beer,’” says Garry Boyd, “ringleader” at HopCat. “It’s really been a focus to put beer everywhere. The beer-battered French fry fits right into that.”
HopCat makes its fries a signature item by adding “crack seasoning”—named for its unique blend of spices and for how addictive it is—and, true to its identity, the concept promotes the fries as the perfect beer pairing.
Strong in Supporting Roles
But while sides are definitely in the limelight, original, flavorful sides also give extra credence to entrees. “Protein portions are getting smaller, which leaves more room for chefs to lavish extra attention and indulgent ingredients on things like Brussels sprouts, ancient grains and old-fashioned greens,” says Sutton. She points out that people don’t notice a smaller main dish when it’s surrounded by extraordinary sides.
“As a French-trained chef from Wisconsin, I love how people are coming back around to cooking side dishes in animal fats to make heartier, more substantial sides.” She reports seeing more duck-fat-roasted potatoes in French bistros and bacon-fat-braised greens help reinforce American home cooking styles like barbecue.
Sutton also likes to see how French cooking is back in fashion. “If you want to go French, go whole hog and try some truly indulgent and authentic sides. Do a classic French potato with equal parts butter, cream and potato.” And don’t forget breakfast sides, encourages Sutton. “One of the most on-trend breakfasts I’m seeing right now is steak, eggs and frites, with maybe a little Hollandaise. What's better than dipping a fry in egg yolk?”
For more authentic inspiration and ideas for creating true-to-you menu items, visit Brew City® here.
This post is sponsored by Brew City®