Menus: What's in, what's out

Tired of bacon and salted caramel? At the saturation point with farm-to-table menus? Predicting trends is always a risky business, but it looks like those few may have peaked in 2012. So what’s on the radar for 2013? cauliflower steak

We checked in with several well-regarded culinary forecasters to get some answers. Here’s their thinking—both anecdotal and scientific—on what will be in…and what’s not quite out, but very 2012.

Five mega-trends

1. With local sourcing and farm-to-table cooking firmly entrenched in restaurants, vegetable love will continue to bloom. “Expect vegetables to come into every aspect of the menu, even vegetable juice-based cocktails,” says Kazia Jankowski, associate culinary director for the Sterling-Rice Group, a food industry consultancy based in Denver. She cites center-of-the-plate items like a Cauliflower T-bone with Olive Pistou created by chef Jason Negroni of Superba Snack Bar in Los Angeles.

Vegetables front and centerHuge hunks of meat
Small plates for oneStandard-size entrees
Smoke (from smoked vanilla to tomatoes and potatoes)Bacon
Chicken conceptsBurger concepts
Free-form menus
(no traditional categories)
Segmented menus
(appetizer, entrée, dessert, etc.)
Seasonal sourcingLocal sourcing
Aleppo peppersChipotle peppers
Ancient grainsGluten-phobia
Spirits, sake and juice

Wine pairings

Even casual restaurants are thinking outside the vegetable box, reports Datassential. Kale, Brussels sprouts, celery root, mustard greens and Swiss chard are some of the vegetables that showed significant growth on casual dining menus in 2012.

“Veggies are hipper and becoming more of a bragging right on menus,” confirms Suzy Badaracco, founder of Oregon-based Culinary Tides.

The elevated status of vegetables will also lead to more thoughtful vegetarian and vegan items, says Kara Nielsen, trendologist with CCD Innovation in San Francisco. “Restaurants are now offering more plant-based proteins and more than one token vegetarian entrée,” she points out. “Thanks should go to the better burger chains, like Elevation Burger. They did a great job developing a tasty proprietary veggie burger.” Operators can turn to ancient grains, beans and a wider variety of vegetables to put together thoughtful vegetarian options—a particularly smart move as the price of meat goes up this year.

2. Asian and Latin still rule, but there will be a shift toward more esoteric and authentic flavors and ingredients. Hispanics now comprise 16 percent of the U.S. population and Asians 6 percent. These two groups are projected to keep growing—and so is their culinary influence. Street foods from Thailand, Singapore, Mexico and Peru have already moved onto fast-casual and full-service menus, but 2013 will see other cuisines emerging, such as Korean, Filippino and Bahian, Badaracco believes.

“I can see a fast-casual concept serving Korean Bibimbap,” says Nielsen of the build-a-rice-bowl dish featuring sliced beef, sautéed vegetables, egg and the chili paste known as gochujang. The latter appears on several “top 10 trend” lists and is predicted to supplant sriracha as the Asian hot sauce of the moment. Peruvian rotisserie chicken, Thai chicken wings and Korean fried chicken are poised for growth as well, Nielsen contends.

“There’s also some ingredient cross-over in Hispanic and Asian cultures, including tropical fruits, coconut, chilies and cilantro,” she adds. This is prompting some restaurants to menu cross-cultural hybrids, like the sushi burrito served at San Francisco’s Sushirrito. It’s a nori wrapper enclosing rice and Mexican hot sauce, with a tortilla chip coating.

3. Chefs are getting sweeter on sour. Fermentation is the number one technique cited by chefs in the NRA’s 2013 “What’s Hot” survey. Fermented foods take pickling and brining—two 2012 trends—up a notch or two by combining sour with umami. Korean kimchi is a good example. “We’ll be seeing more drinking vinegars, fermented fruit juices and sour beer on drink menus,” Jankowski reports. On the more casual side, she forecasts more tart ingredients, like vinegar and yuzu, flavoring sauces and condiments.

4. Healthy eating is being redefined. Sixty-four percent of consumers today—up from 57 percent in 2010—agree that it is important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition, states Technomic in its Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report. However, “there’s a shift happening in terms of what actually defines healthy…,” says Technomic VP Darren Tristano. “We’re seeing more consumers gravitate toward health-halo claims—such as local, natural and organic, as well as whole-wheat and free-range. Operators can leverage this growing interest in the health halo by developing the kinds of menu offerings that can underscore health without detracting from the taste perception.”

McCormick & Company, a leading flavor company, calls this trend “empowered eating” in its 2013 Flavor Forecast. “This references the world’s ever-growing interest in health and wellness—but with a very personalized view,” says McCormick executive chef Kevan Vetter. “In restaurants, we’re seeing this come to life as chefs look to the power of flavor to make healthy foods more delicious. We love the healthful combination of dukkah—the Middle Eastern blend of cumin, coriander, sesame and nuts—with specialty broccoli, as an example of this trend.”

Restaurants and their customers are embracing this flexible approach. Kitchens are layering flavors and textures by combining bold spice blends like garam masala with inherently healthy vegetables and seafood, for instance, or pairing savory fruits with grains.

5. Smoke is infiltrating the menu in new places. Bacon paved the way by creating an intense craving for smoky flavors, and smoke will be hotter than ever this year. Mixologists are smoking water and ice cubes for cocktails, bakers are smoking flour for cookies, chefs are smoking hay to cook pork and chicken and pastry cooks are smoking vanilla ice cream, Nielsen has discovered. With the proliferation of wood-fired ovens in restaurants and the greater availability of varietal woods, we can expect to see a lot more smoking going on in 2013.


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