2015 StarChefs Trends Report

By Sean Kenniff


Sean Kenniff

This year took the StarChefs team from the Pacific Northwest to South Beach and lots of restaurants in between. We stopped over to check out the emerging scene in Minneapolis (what’s up, Gavin?), and spent a week eating almost everything but barbecue in Kansas City. In total, we met and tasted with 600 chefs, bartenders, pastry chefs, somms, and artisans. And they taught us a lot. They fed us soulful Mexican and tricked out vegetables. We got to know shabazi and zhoug and found friendly bacteria in our pastry. We were also witness to an evolving industry—one where waste is a mortal enemy and Millennials are starting to make an impact. Thanks for sharing and providing fodder for the 2015 StarChefs Trends Report. 

Tapping the Middle Eastern Pantry 
Chefs across the country are exploring the vast spice pantry of the Middle East. It began with Ana Sortun in Boston, Mike Solomonov in Philly, Alon Shaya in New Orleans, and in San Francisco with Mourad Lahlou. Now second generation spice-adept chefs are striking out on their own, like Sortun protege Cassie Piuma at Sarma in Somerville, Massachusetts. Dukkah, chermoula, zhoug, shabazi, and basturma—not familiar with them yet? Get to know them. More and more chefs are adding a whole new vocabulary of spice to their seasoning repertoire. 

New Face of Mexican 
Honest, chef-driven Mexican cuisine has seeped into the bones of American food. Restaurants like Alex Stupak’s Empellon paved the way for Enrique Olvera to come to New York with his restaurant-of-the-year Cosme. In Seattle, Monica Dimas put all her heart, skill, and heritage into Neon Taco and Tortas Condesa. Aaron Sanchez and John Besh opened Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans this year, and Steve Santana of Taquiza in Miami is nixtamalizing corn and making tortillas for the city's high-end restaurants. Even behind-the-bar knowledge is deepening. Sotol is creeping onto back bars nationwide. New York Chef Danny Mena imports mezcal, along with cooking traditional Mexican food at Hecho en Dumbo. We're at the dawn of a new era of Mexican food in America, one that goes far beyond the combo plate.         

What's in Your Teas-en-Place?
Tea has moved beyond the mug to the kitchen mise-en-place. In Boston at Clio, Chef Zachary Watkins garnishes a dish of uni, mushroom, and fried garlic with a dried aromatic tea. In New Orleans, Bartender Jonathan Shock of Square Root infuses pisco with white tea. Tea expert and Violet Hour Bartender Tyler Fry infuses schochu with Japanese tea. Chicago Pastry Chef Anna Posey makes a vacherin with sweet tea ice cream, tea-compressed green almonds, and tea-infused olive oil. Seattle Chef Brandt Bishop smokes scallops with black tea at Canon. And in Portland, Maine Bartender Trevin Hutchins of Tempo Dulu at The Danforth Inn is infusing gin with jasmine tea. 

Sharing Is Caring: Large Format Dining
Small plates taught diners how to share. Now chefs are building on that learned behavior and serving large format menu items, from pizza-size saucers of paella, whole hog heads, and pork butts to duck boards with different preparations for every part of the fowl. One large, focused dish with accoutrement has taken the places of tables cluttered with small, varied dishes. At Sycamore in Newton, Massachusetts, Chefs David Punch and Lydia Reichert serve a duck board on which guests share roasted, glazed, confit-ed, and smoked duck, along with duck poutine. At The Charlatan in Chicago, Chef Matt Troost serves half a hog head in a cast iron pan chock full of goodies. And Chef Patrick Ryan of Kansas City's Port Fonda serves a dish called “Viva La Pork” in which the whole cut is served surrounded by everything you ever wanted to put in a tortilla. Pastry Chefs have channeled the trend. For instance, Pastry Chef Michael Daly serves an opera cake for four at the Four Seasons Boston and Manabu Inoue serves tofu custard for the whole table in a big bowl of mochi mochi, annin tofu, mango soup, and coconut-green tea sorbet.

Peek-A-Boo Plating
Chefs are hiding the main event on the plate, adding drama and making the guest break into dishes to discover what lies beneath. At Canlis in Seattle, guests have to break into an almost brain-like shell to dig into Pastry Chef Baruch Ellsworth's banana-chocolate-peanut-miso dessert. Thin circles of parsnip braised monkfish veiled from guests at Chicago's Lula Cafe. Pastry Chef Brian Song of Natalie's in Maine composes a dessert of dulce de leche, walnut cake, and tarragon, buried in cinnamon-chocolate soil. A rich, warm mass of blood pudding is covered with sprouts and crunchy grains at Parachute in Chicago. And at Alter in Miami, Chef Brad Kilgore places a spoonful of caviar on sea scallop espuma that's quickly swallowed up, disappearing into the chive, truffle pearls, and Gruyère underneath. 

Mainstream Vegetarian
Elegant, technique-driven, and soulfully satisfying vegetarian dining is gaining prominence and momentum. Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen has finally been joined by New York chefs like Joseph Buenconsejo of Wassail, Elise Kornack of Take Root, and José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pam Yung of Semilla. On the fast-casual front, Brooks Headley has made a cult following for his veggie burger at Superiority Burger and Chef José Andrés is launching Beef Steak to bring vegetables to the masses. The mainstreaming of vegetarian cuisine has taken some time. It's a trend that has evolved naturally from the convergence of trends that came before it: farm to table, sustainability, healthful eating, the vegetable focused dish (e.g., carrots). And with more small, independent, chef-driven restaurants than ever, a vegetarian menu fits well into an affordable, sustainable business model.  

Fermenting has reached fever pitch, and even pastry chefs are getting into the game. They're using fermented products to accentuate and balance flavors. At Chicago's Little Goat Diner, Matthew Rice makes a miso-butterscotch budino. Mina Pizarro of Manhattan's Juni ferments oats for a chocolate-lovage dessert. Junko Mine of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland is churning shio koji gelato and experimenting with sustaining yeast cultures in an assortment of flavored waters.  

Grain Nation: Milltown, USA
Milling is a movement, and small scale milling operations are cropping up coast to coast—not just in isolated rural areas. Chicago is an epicenter with Baker Miller and Pleasant House Bakery leading the way. In Richmond, Virginia, there's sibling duo Evrim and Evin Dogu at Sub Rosa Bakery. Outside Asheville, North Carolina, is David Bauer's Farm & Sparrow, and in New Orleans, Graison Gill's Bellegarde Bakery (with a brand new granite mill from Vermont). But it's not just chefs and bakers, craft distillers like Westland Whiskey in Seattle and CH Distillery in Chicago are also at the fore of the grains movement. Much of the progress in the culinary and distilling world stems from broader research and advocacy by wheat rock star Steve Jones, whose breeding work at Washington State University’s Bread Lab is helping fuel the grain revolution in America. 

Cider: Value, Versatility, Validity
Cider hasn’t been this loved in America since the early 1900s when our citizens began to favor lager. Fast forward to 2015 and the industry has realized the versatility and depth of this relatively inexpensive category, one that in many cases expresses the American terroir. It's an outgrowth of the craft beverage movement—now with massive, global beer companies on board. Hitchcock Deli in Seattle sells tallboys of Washington State Cider. Rising Star Eli Cayer is hocking his exceptional “Cidah” from Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland, Maine. Wassail on the Lower East Side is New York's first dedicated cider bar.  And tiki-focused Cane and Table in NOLA happens to have an exceptionally deep list of Basque ciders, which Bartender Colin Decarufel taps for cocktails like the Basque in the Sun with Tanqueray, Ramos Del Valle Basque cider, lemon, yellow Chartreuse, and passionfruit. 

Moving Beyond the IPA
The beer industry in America following a similar path to that of the wine industry. California wines got bigger and bigger and higher in alcohol until the bubble burst and new trends emerged. Now some of the country’s best brew masters are diversifying and moving away from the over-hopped IPA and reviving other styles with lower ABVs and more diverse flavor profiles. Off Color Brewing in Chicago and Holy Mountain in Seattle are leaders in this trend. Brewer Claudia Jendron of Temperance Beer Co. in Evanston, Illinois, wins awards for her classic-leaning, just hopped English-style ales. And at Machine House Brewery, also in Seattle, Brewer Bill Arnott is focused almost entirely on low ABV British ales: pale, gold, mild, and bitter. John Laffler of Off Color put it bluntly: “The world simply doesn't need another IPA.” 

Cocktail Culture, Relaxed 
Bartenders are continuing to loosen their bow ties—in all sorts of venues, Guests now expect an excellent drink anywhere, whether it’s an unassuming arepa bar in Minneapolis or Eleven Madison Park. Dive bars are the new speakeasy.  The trend is most evident in New York with revived dives such as Holiday Cocktail Lounge and 151. The change extends from atmosphere, décor, and sheer welcoming hospitality to the use of ingredients-of-the-people such as Budweiser and hot sauce in cocktails. The fun and flare has infused into garnishes, too, with bartenders like Tenzin Samdo in Boston and Chicago’s Julia Momose putting serious thought and artistry into cocktail decor. At Bourrée in New Orleans, even the slushies that are served in a styrafoam cup are worthy of the top shelf. 

The Changing Life of a Cook 
There's a new generation entering the workforce: the much talked about Millennials. These workers are demanding, community oriented, ambitious, and often impatient. They will shape the kitchens and cuisines of the future—but the industry must attract, retain, and train them properly. By improving wages and offering benefits, cooking will become a more viable career option for a new generation, as well as bringing up quality of life for the old guard. This year Danny Meyer became the most recent and certainly highest profile restaurateur to eliminate tipping, which is only part of a solution in evening the wage disparity between front- and back-of-house. Organizations like C-CAP and chef programs like Edward Lee's YouthBuild and John Besh's Chefs Move! scholarship program, which inspire, support, and properly train young cooks, are working to close the cook-gap.  

Waste Not
This year, waste prevention got mobilized, organized, and even corporatized. Dan Barber lead a series of pop-ups called wastED, “working to reconceive 'waste' that occurs at every link in the food chain, creating something delicious out of the ignored or un-coveted, and inspiring new applications for the overlooked byproducts of our food system.” Baldor Specialty Foods—the largest produce distributor in the Northeast—announced “a comprehensive plan to eliminate all organic waste destined for the landfill.” Part of that plan is a program called SparC offers trim, tops, and peelings from their processing facilities to restaurants. Chefs are also working to conserve water. John Cox of Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn in California invented a low cost cleaning system for the dish pit that replaces a stream of water with a blast of air, saving his restaurant 800 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by all the other restaurants, hotels, and institutions that could benefit from the compressed air cleaner, and you have a waste water revolution. 



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