Trends Report From The 2017 StarChefs Congress

By Sean Kenniff

By

Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno welcomed attendees to the StarChefs Congress and dove right into trends.
Antoinette Bruno welcomed attendees to the StarChefs Congress and dove right into trends.

Now more than ever, it’s fun to eat in America. Standards for sourcing and sustainability are reaching all-time highs, and we still have a ways to go, but that doesn’t mean chefs are leaving their nostalgic love of certain ingredients behind. Pretense and ingredient preciousness aren’t stifling creativity or a chef’s spirit of fun.

                                                         Fun, and Ingredients Without Pretension

No place was this more evident this year than in Texas, where Chef Mark Weaver of Periphery in San Antonio serves polenta-crusted pimento cheese fritters on Ritz Crackers. Across town at Hot Joy, you can dip cheeseburger spring rolls in thom yum cool ranch. At Cafe No Se, Amanda Rockman enrobes her Good Humor-inspired strawberry ice cream bar with white chocolate magic shell. And here at home in New York, at the height of fine dining, Per Se Pastry Chef Anna Bolz crafts a "Happy Feet"-inspired dessert complete with a miniature, tropical fruit flavored penguin! 

In 2017, you couldn’t shake soft serve. The trend that started 10 years ago with Christina Tossi’s Milk Bar and Graham Elliot Bowles’ Grahamwich, was everywhere: In New York at Sunday in Brooklyn, Lilia, Olmsted, Made Nice, Cote, Seed and Mill, at Andrew Carmelini’s Mr. Dips, Shake Shack, Dominique Ansel Bakery, and Louis by Jean Geroge; in Portland, Oregon at Tusk and Nong's Khao Man Gai; in Denver, at Bar Fausto and Mizuna; at Oak + Rowan in Boston; Honey Paw in Portland, Maine; and Rich Table Rotisserie and Robin in San Francisco. We are at peak soft serve! We also saw unpretentious ingredients and dishes from the 90s creep back onto menus. There’s the Caesar salad-inspired celtuce dish at Willow in Portland, Oregon; the portobello mushroom mousse crostini at Colonie in Brooklyn; and the classic molten chocolate cake at Manhattan’s Il buco, which now comes covered in fenugreek meringue and toasted coconut. 

This humble trend manifested on the StarChefs Congress main stage with the Wing Battle and the “This Is How We Doughnut” presentation from masters of fried dough Wylie Dufresne, Clare Gordon, and Alex Talbot.

                                                                        Concept 2.0

Since the Great Recession, a new crop of sophisticated, tech integrated, and brand savvy concepts has emerged. Chefs are establishing replicable models through which they can reach the masses without sacrificing quality. In San Francisco there’s Souvla. Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio have Pizzeria Locale. And L.A. is leading the way for the modern concept with Howlin’ Rays, Wexler’s Deli, and Hanjip, to name a few. 

                                                                           Koji

Koji, the food-friendly mold, has been used in China and East Asia for 2,000 years to brew soy sauce and ferment bean pastes. Today, chefs are applying koij to meat, fish, and vegetables. It magically speeds up the aging process in charcuterie and adds depth of funk and flavor to anything it touches. We saw Bryan Voltaggio demonstrate this westernized chef-driven use of koji right here on the main stage seven years ago. And since then, koji has become a part of many chef toolboxes.

In Spicewood, Texas, Adam Brick and Taylor Hall of Apis marinate tomatoes in koji. Damien Brockway of Counter 3. five.VII in Austin adds koji to a Kanpachi Crudo. In Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Hari Cameron of a(MUSE.) designed an entire menu around koji, seasoning dishes with koji liquid and koji salt. And at Jeremy Umansky's new Larder in Cleveland, almost the entire charcuterie program is touched by koji. 

                                                                  And We're Bowling

Moving from the larder to the table… Bowls symbolize a shift in the way we eat: casual is king, and a concave plate is cool. From Michelin-star restaurants to taverns, chefs are packing a whole lot of thought and technique into bowls. No matter how complicated the technique or obscure the ingredient, every guest feels at home when they’re scooping food from a bowl. 

                                                                     Granny Chic

Vintage, antique, and reproduction plateware convey a sense of home. It’s an inexpensive way to add eye-catching detail and can be easy and inexpensive to source, and even a chipped plate can add charm to a fabulous collection of restaurant plates with chip warranties. Matching no longer matters, and granny has never been more popular. There's even been a rise in restaurants with grandma names, like Norah, Isabel, Willa Jean, Virginia’s, Mae, The Betty, Lilia, Maude, and Gwen. 

                                                             No More Plastic Straws

Americans use more than 500 million plastic straws every day. Straws are among the top 10 types of debris floating in our oceans. Casual restaurants and fast food chains certainly send the bulk of that number out into the world, but everyone in the industry can do their part. The next time you’re composing a cocktail, build it without a straw. If you need one for effect, opt for compostable paper or reusable metal straws. Or get rid of plastic straws all together, like the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group did.

                                                                  Bejeweled Veg

Beautiful bejeweled veggies sparkled on plates this year. Vegetables have been rock stars for a while, but this year they went glam! We trace this style back to Yotam Ottolenghi’s decked out eggplant with buttermilk topped with za’atar and pomegranate seeds. Fine-dining chefs are taking the concept a step further. At Blackbelly in Boulder, Hosea Rosenberg tops fairytale eggplant with prosciutto, gorgonzola, almonds, basil, and black garlic. Suzanne Cupps of Untitled at the Whitney Museum, smears carrots with chicken liver mousse, bread crumbs, and pickled cabbage. And Nick Pfannerstill formerly of Dovetail on the Upper West Side, cures carrots in merguez spice, roasts them, coats them in carrot crème fraîche, and then tops them with fried beef threads, chiles, mint, and toasted flax seeds. In all these cases, chefs are using clean, white plates as a blank canvas for their bejeweled veg.  

                                                                 Margarita Mode

Tequila. Sugar. Lime. When we embarked on our tasting tour of the country this year, we never expected to be swept up in a tidal wave of margaritas. Los Angeles, especially, seems to have a salt rim these days. Margaritas have matured, but that doesn't mean they’re any less fun. One workshop at the StarChefs Congress captured the agave new-wave this year:“Margaritas Gone Wild” presented by L.A.’s Yael Vengroff of The Spare Room and Brooklyn’s Will Elliott of Maison Premiere. It’s time to upgrade your agave cocktail game. 

                                                             Wine Is The New Beer 

Wine programs are more casual and more fun than ever. The program that Sommelier Amanda Smeltz built at Roberta’s in Bushwick, may have been the genesis of this juice trend, paving the way for Steve Dilley and his Austin pizza joint Bufalina. There, the list is fresh, immediately drinkable, unpretentious, and fun. Also in Austin, June Rodil’s diner June’s All Day has a wine list reminiscent of a coloring book, enabling guests to get a pour of world class juice to go with their burger, matzo ball soup, or bolognese. Off-the-cuff Sommelier Helen Johannesen is building a hip neon pink brand, along with her dream career in Los Angeles. She’s a partner in pasta joint Jon & Vinny’s, and opened Helen’s wine shop in the back. She also is reaching consumers through her monthly wine club, wine classes, and gift packages which include a Fujimax camera. Her motto is, “If it’s not fun, what’s the point?” Agreed.

                                                                 Doin' It All Day 

Everybody’s doing it. Chefs and restaurant groups across the country are opening all-day, serving B-L-D, breakfast lunch and dinner, capitalizing on rent that’s too damn high. There’s the High Street Hospitality Group in Philly and New York; Sunday in Brooklyn; Rose Café in L.A.; Willa Jean in New Orleans; Mercantile Dining & Provision in Denver; and Outerlands in San Francisco. 

                                                      Food-Hall Real Estate Boom 

The Doin It All Day trend is also part of the mega trend of Food Halls. Food Halls are the convergence of many trends we’ve seen for a while: casual everything, communal dining, food trucks, pop-ups, and the shared economy. Developers are making terms more favorable to concepts that want to go brick and mortar, but for whom rent and overhead are too damn high to go it alone. Investors see restaurants as amenities for future tenants and as cultural cache. Small operators benefit from foot traffic and shared resources. Nine to 18 month leases are lower risk and help small business work out kinks in this "incubator" period. 

Perhaps no city epitomizes this trend better than Denver, with at least seven major Food Halls in both brand new and newly renovated spaces opening in the last three years, including Avanti, The Source, Denver Central Market, and Union Station.

                                                                    Poke

Poke is another trend that’s been building for a while, and one of the most surprising ones of 2017 at that! We saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of poke, and occasionally the divine. Rather than a trend that trickled down from the world’s influential chefs, it bubbled up from the people, and hopefully is a leading indicator of Hawaiin cuisine having more of a presence on the American table. Chef AJ Cummins of La Tour in Vail served us a decadent smoked scallop poke, garnished with Osetra caviar, charred scallions, jicama, puffed rice, and sesame. Classic tuna poke is on the menu at Michael chernow's Seamore’s in New York. And in L.A., we had vegetable poke at Sweetfin, and wild salmon poke at TikiFish.

                                               Beyond Fried Chicken and Kimchi

From Hawaiin poke to Korean favorites... Everybody loves fried chicken, and most us love the umami-full funk of kimchi. But most of the time, a chef’s knowledge of the Korean pantry stops there. This year, for our Congress Book, we asked all the presenters for a grandma cuisine they would most like to master. A lot of you said you wanted to cook with a Korean grandma. So, I challenge you to seek out a Korean grandma and take a deeper dive into the rich culinary traditions of Korean food. We love Korean flavors too, and we want to see them on your menu beyond fried chicken and kimchi. And if Korean cuisine isn’t your thing, seek out a Grandma from Mexico, Sweden, Japan—or from where ever you'd like to adopt a grandma—to help you explore and learn in 2018.

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