Restaurants may be watching their food purchasing pennies more carefully, but that isn’t hampering creativity in the kitchen. We gathered predictions from a team of expert forecasters; here are the top food trends to watch in the coming year.
Friend of a shepherd & rancher
Chefs are expanding beyond fruit, vegetable and dairy farmers to develop personal relationships with small livestock producers. In the past couple of years, it was all about the pig, as restaurants partnered with suppliers to source heritage pork. This trend will continue, but look for lamb and goat to join the meaty mix. Heritage Foods USA, a meat distribution company dedicated to preserving endangered breeds, launched an initiative with 14 family farms and 70 restaurants to participate in “No Goat Left Behind” this past October. Chefs prepared everything from Goat Tartare (Brian Leith of Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn) to Whole Smoked Goat (Dan Ross-Leutwyler of Fatty Cue in Manhattan).
The American Lamb Board is pairing up suppliers and restaurants in its Shepherd to Chef program, reaching from California (Chef Matt Accarrino of SPQR in San Francisco with Shepherd Craig Rogers of Border Spring Farms) to Massachusetts (Chef Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern in Boston with Shepherd Lisa Dachinger of River Valley Farm). The result is a successful local sourcing model and the exploration of lesser-known lamb cuts. Andrew Freeman, president of Andrew Freeman and Company, a San Francisco-based hospitality consultancy agency, predicts that lamb belly will be the darling of chefs in 2012.
Fried chicken is leading the surge in iconic Southern foods on menus, but that’s just the beginning, claims Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst with Mintel Menu Insights. “Chefs are searching below the Mason-Dixon line for culinary inspiration and finding a new love of pimento cheese, gumbo, grits, chicken and dumplings, smokehouse barbeque and even boiled peanuts,” she says. From the Pimento Mac & Cheese at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the Grilled Shrimp with Grits and fried green tomatoes at The Southern, a bar in Chicago, hip chefs are tapping into Southern dishes and reinterpreting them with modern twists.
Year of the potato
The potato is making a major reappearance on menus, and will continue to do so in 2012, believes Freeman. “Carb bashing is over, with French fry menus, custom chips dusted with signature spice blends and mix-ins for mashed potatoes showing up all over.” At Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen in San Francisco, customers can order a sampler of shoestring, steak fries and standard fries with a choice of three dips.
Poutine—that quirky Quebec-born indulgence of French fries, cheese curds and gravy—is emerging on American menu radar, according to Kara Nielsen, trendologist for the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco. And it’s not limited to food-centric cities like New York and San Francisco. Zombie Burger in Des Moines, Iowa, features Zombie Poutine as a choice on its extensive House Cut Fries menu.
Fat gains fans
Fat bashing seems to be lessening too, as chefs explore more thoughtful uses of fat. Back to French fries, trendologist Nielsen is seeing sampler trios showcasing potatoes fried in three different fats—duck fat, flavorful rice bran oil and a fruity local olive oil. “There’s less fear of fat and an expanded choice in the fat department, especially among restaurants doing snout to tail cooking,” she says. Schmaltz (chicken fat), leaf lard and coconut oil are all on the rise, as are vegetables in the fryer, such as beets and kale chips.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, 2012 looks like the year when fruits and vegetables may actually fill half the plate. “American diners have a stronger understanding of the reasons behind this philosophy and are choosing to eat from a broader color palette,” says Kay Logsdon, editor-in-chief of The Food Channel in Springfield, Missouri. Meatless Mondays may even spread out into other days of the week.
Eating a greater variety and quantity of fruits, vegetables and grains is the latest manifestation of the health and wellness trend that has been gaining momentum for several years, according to the National Restaurant Association. “Restaurants are incorporating more fruits, vegetables and salads into kids meals too,” says spokesperson Annika Stensson. “You don’t have to order them separately anymore.”
Health- and money-conscious consumers are seeking small indulgences that are easier on the body and wallet. “We are living with less but still need to treat ourselves with smaller, high-quality products,” explains Cathryn Olchowy, culinary director of Sterling-Rice Group, a food consultancy. Two-bite cupcakes, truffles made with premium chocolate and crème brulee sold from a food truck are a few of the ways this trend is manifesting itself.
The SkinnyLicious menu at the Cheesecake Factory, a concept notorious for its huge portions, includes healthy indulgences such as Chicken Samosas with a creamy cilantro dipping sauce and Sausage Ricotta Flatbread with fontina, parmesan and romano cheeses, garlic crumbs, and herbs. “Customers don’t want to feel like they are ordering from a diet menu,” says Freeman. “This makes them feel like they are indulging.”
New Old World cuisines
Along with the blooming of beer gardens on the beverage side, there’s a corresponding yearning for Belgian, Hungarian, Austrian, Germanic and other beer-centric cuisines, as well as Nordic and Russian dishes. The Center for Culinary Development is tracking hearty breads rich with whole grains, nuts and seeds, housemade pretzels, mussels, smoked and pickled fish and schnitzels with spaetzle as these items move from ethnic to mainstream eateries.
Cooking with beer and calling it out on the menu is a concurrent trend, says Jana Mann, Director of Menu Trends for Datassential. “Infusing foods with craft beers has increased tenfold, as beers, ales and stouts are utilized in sauces, marinades and sautés—not just batters as in the past,” she notes.
Waste not, want not
Cutting edge chefs have been embracing whole animal cooking for a couple of years, but now “off proteins” are trickling down to the mainstream, reports Mann. Sweetbreads, gizzards, tongue, pig face and pig ears are increasingly showing up on menus. Pig blood is even being incorporated into dishes—and not only in the classic blood sausage. At Buca, an Italian restaurant in Toronto, chef Ron Gentile created Spaghetti al Nero di Maiale—a toss of blood-blackened noodles with rapini, crumbled sausage, garlic and burrata cheese, as well as a dessert tart filled with a custard of dark chocolate and slow-tempered blood.
Smoking, pickling and fermenting will continue to be strong in 2012, both as ways to extend the shelf life of seasonal produce and as a method for infusing flavor. Several of our trendwatchers commented on the proliferation of pickled beets, cauliflower, peppers and other vegetables as appetizers, sides, condiments on sandwiches or as a foil to those “off” animal parts. “Chefs are concocting ever more complex ways of making these preserves,” states the annual trend report from Baum+Whiteman International Food and Restaurant Consultants. “Pickles are going global with additions of Asian fish sauce, Mexican peppers, ginger, yuzu, smoked paprika and star anise.”
The new casual
With upscale chefs continuing to open sandwich shops and operate food trucks, casual dining promises to be a hub of activity in 2012. Our trendspotting team points to several indicators. “Whereas years ago, all the best minds in the culinary field focused on fine dining, today the game has moved to casual dining,” says Greg Drescher, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Industry Leadership for The Culinary Institute of America. The economy is partly the cause, but chefs are also embracing the culinary aspects of casual dining, inspired by the markets and street foods of Asian, Latin and Mediterranean countries. “They see the potential for these foods to be re-imagined in American settings while preserving the original flavors,” Drescher adds.
Ten to watch
These are top culinary trends to keep on your radar, compiled from the team of experts we tapped.
- Pimento cheese
- Housemade marshmallows
- Coconut oil
- Chicken skin
- Drinking vinegars paired with food
- Marrow bones
- Sriracha sauce
- Evergreen and eucalyptus leaf infusions