8 menu trends from the future

A global conference last week in Europe provided a preview of where restaurant menus may be headed. Here are the eight currents that were anointed megatrends. You'll need to bring your own fork.
future of food
Hans Steenbergen, Unilever's editor in chief of food inspiration, kicks off the conference. / Photos: Peter Romeo

The map might’ve read Wageningen, The Netherlands, but the true location of an unusual trend fest last week was the culinary future. Chefs came from across the world—the real one, and the restaurant universe—for a preview of where menu development is heading.

They were treated to a download from mega-supplier Unilever Food Solutions of the likely next big currents in menu making, as indicated by reams of research and the input of some 1,600 chefs.

The information was boiled down—reduced might be a more fitting word for such a chef-y crowd—to eight super trends. Few were likely unfamiliar to anyone who works in whites. But the examples given (and usually tasted) to illustrate each of the currents were a far different matter. When did you last have a miso made from 2-month-old moldy bread, one of the spotlighted examples of cutting-edge efforts to reduce food waste? Or a vegan chocolate mousse prepped so as not to break down as a to-go option? How about an ice cream made from parsnips?

Attendees were given a bite, literally, of these eight trends:

Irresistible vegetables: The proprietor of what’s widely regarded as one of the world’s best vegan restaurants, The Netherland’s De Nieuwe Winkel, provided a virtual tour of the plant-forward movement’s far-forward edge. Chef-proprietor Emile van der Staak explained how he was blending science with culinary technique to produce specialties such as a nut-based, meatless pate that the chefs and journalists in attendance readily lauded as indistinguishable from the real thing. He also provided samples of a dairy-free butter he’d engineered with the assistance of science. He called it “botanical gastronomy,” and suggested that it’s the successor movement to molecular gastronomy.

botanical gastronomy

Other preparations offered to illustrate the trend owed less to a lab than to unorthodox uses of vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and mushrooms. Carrots were often the featured item. But science still figured into some of the dishes, such as a mushroom dish flavored with soy sauce fermented in just three hours through the use of a certain enzyme.

Modernized comfort food: Vegetable-based meat replacements figured prominently in the examples that were sampled. A waffle topped with what tasted like apple compote, for example, was topped with a plant-based slice of bacon that looked exactly like true pork belly.


Low-waste menus: One of the world’s celebrated experts on fermentation provided samples of how he uses that ancient preservation technique to deflect foodstuffs like orange rinds and coffee grounds from the garbage bin. Christian Weij assured attendees sampling the examples that they needn’t balk at trying items like fermented pine needles that had come from his family’s Christmas tree (the Weij family lets the needles soften and ferment for a full year, or from Christmas to Christmas).  

He noted how green tomatoes could be held for years in a fermentation solution, or how bread is needlessly discarded. Indeed, he said, 30% of the world’s bread supply is thrown away, when it can easily be turned into a flavoring or base by managing how it’s broken down by mold or other microorganisms. He even suggested that the intestines of fish purchased whole could be repurposed into something delicious, and certainly novel.

Wild and pure: The emphasis here was on foraging, including the collection, where fitting, of seaweed, along with berries or greens still largely unused in North America, like saltbush leaves or nettles. Chef Van der Staak drew oohs and aahs with his mention of a “food forest,” a wild patch of edible plants his restaurant had cultivated largely by letting the plot resort back to its natural state.

Flavor contrasts: Dutch master chef Angelique Schmeinck shared her formula for keeping familiar ingredients from being dismissed as ho-hum. She explained how she aims for contrasts—salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth—by preparing and combining favorites in unusual ways. Among the examples she provided for tasting, for instance,  was a Bloody Mary reduced to what looked like fiery-red melon ball with a pudding-like consistency, eaten with a spoon.

table tester

She featured black carrots that had been prepared and sliced into what looked like buttons and tasted like candy. Black olives were turned into what looked like bits of charcoal, though with a consistency like a dried mushroom.

Schmeinck presented the output of her exploration in what she called a “flavor painting,” a collection of familiar items prepped in novel ways and served on a long white tabletop. Attendees were encouraged to stand around the table and sample the often unrecognizable items with a spoon. Schmeink herself said she was taken by the combination of a seafood mousse and a passionfruit reduction.

Feel-good food: Which preparations do for the body what modernized comfort foods do for the soul? The emphasis was on preparation methods and ingredients that don’t sacrifice flavor in delivering an immunological boost or a standout nutritional profile.

The new sharing: The examples cited by Unilever’s own chefs includedsuch unusual shareables as a whole charredand sliced seabass, presented as something a party could use to dip in an array of sauces on the periphery of the platter.

They also provided a recipe for tafelspitz (German for “table top”), a piece of boiled sirloin cap served with several root vegetables as well as potato “doughnuts” for dipping into the juices.

Mindful proteins: A focus here was onreplacing meats with more earth-friendly ingredients such as Jerusalem artichokes and out-of-the-ordinary preps of familiar analogs like legumes, beans and mushrooms.

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