Culinary Trends 2006

by Antoinette Bruno and Heather Sperling
December 2006

Our 400 tastings plus the results of our recent Culinary Trends Survey show a specific development in the 2006 dining world: the casual chic restaurant. As sustainable philosophy continues to spread, and science continues to enter the kitchens of both casual and fine dining restaurants, diners expect more: higher quality ingredients, more innovation, and more flavor. The simultaneous growth of small, chef-driven restaurants in cities across the country has raised the bar for diners and chefs alike, and haute cuisine is no longer limited to fine dining establishments. Casual chic restaurants offer the best of both worlds, and are the pervading identity of American dining. Trends in Dining The Nation’s appetite and willingness to try new things is growing, and there are a variety of ways in which restaurants are organizing their menus to satiate them. Chefs tasting menus are not just for 4-star restaurants anymore, but are increasingly common in restaurants of all size and stature. Of the chefs we surveyed, 68% offer tasting menus, and within that group 20% charge between $61-$90 and 22% between $31-$61. Tasting menus are meant to let the kitchen show off their abilities, but a tasting menu also has to make dollars and cents. When crafted with a balance of high-cost and low-cost items, a chef’s tasting menu can be a huge revenue booster for restaurants of almost all dining styles. The most sustained trend in American dining is small plates. We’ve seen an explosion of restaurants around the country that pair a tapas-style menu with affordable wines by the glass and a convivial atmosphere. In New Orleans there’s Cochon, where Donald Link keeps diners entertained with unpretentious tastes of his Cajun childhood. In New York City, Chris Santos at Stanton Social serves an eclectic but distinctly American small plates menu with Crab Cake Corn Dogs, Kobe Beef Burgers and French Onion Soup Dumplings. At nearby Inoteca, Chef Eric Kleinman pairs an extensive menu of Italian small plates with an equally grand offering of Italian whites, reds, roses and sparklers by the glass. What are you Dishing Out? Americans are dining out more than ever before, our collective culinary IQ is rising, and the restaurant industry is second only to the US Government in size. So how do chefs make their restaurants stand out? Many chefs turn to the exotic, introducing unfamiliar ingredients and pairing them with the familiar to inspire experimentation and grab their diners’ (and the media’s) attention. Both Ken Oringer in Boston and Josh Dechellis in New York present their diners with ingredients that are traditional in many dining cultures but still unfamiliar to the American palate (respectively, barnacles, and tuna cheeks). At Minibar's 6 seats inside Washington DC’s Café Atlantico, Chef Katsuya Fukushima caters to more traditional DC diners in search of stimulation, but aren’t necessarily looking for crazy ingredients. He transforms the familiar into something new, making “noodles” out of feta water, and pairing them with tomatoes, fresh herbs and feta foam. He also serves a nest of crispy caramelized beet strings in a wire mesh bowl that echoes the interlaced tumble of the beets. Coinciding with this playful approach is a resurgence of authentic, traditional dishes, only minimally updated to make them stylish enough to live up to modern diners’ expectations. Chefs are looking to the traditional dishes of Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, bringing them to the American table with their authenticity intact. With the Malaysian street food at Zak Pelaccio’s Fatty Crab, Matt Hoyle’s elegant Japanese cuisine at Nobu 57, and Iacopo Falai’s gnudi topped with milk foam at Falai, culturally significant dishes and culinary philosophies are not lost in translation. From 2005 to 2006 it was Asia – think Morimoto, Nobu, and cavernous, trendy restaurants dedicated to the hottest Asian cuisine – and Spain. For 2007, chefs are looking south to the ingredients and flavors of Latin and Central America. 24% of the respondents to our culinary trends survey said that Latin America will have the most influence on culinary arts in the upcoming year. In Mexico City, chefs like Patricia Quintana and Enrique Pujol craft well-researched, sophisticated versions of indigenous regional cuisine, setting the standard for high-concept Mexican cuisine. As for the primacy of Latin influence, Marcus Sammuelson of Aquavit would beg to differ; at the 2006 International Chefs Congress he declared that African food would be the “next big thing” to spread to the European and American continents. "Country to Have the Greatest Influence on Culinary Arts in 2007" Top Pairs 2006-2007 Sommeliers aren’t just for wine anymore; with a variety of floral, earthy, fruity, bitter, and crisp notes, beer gives the bacchanalian beverage a run for its money at Café d’Alsace in New York, Four Points in LA, and Belga Café in Washington, DC, where Chef Bart Vandale pairs a Belgian beer with each dish. Guy Savoy in Las Vegas pairs each course with artisanal bread baked in-house. Artichoke Soup with Black Truffle is paired with a black truffle and mushroom brioche; Slow-Cooked Dover Sole with Baby Chanterelles is paired with sweet and nutty chestnut bread. Black, pink, grey, volcanic and Balinese salts have found their way onto plates over the past two years; today chefs around the country are infusing and blending their salts with flavors to add a new dimension to sweet and savory dishes. In Washington DC, Chef Noriaki Yatsutake of Perry's pairs green tea salt with smoked toro, watermelon and wasabi gelée. Pastry Chef Romain Renard of Seasons garnishes chocolate and vanilla cream with a cocoa nib and coffee salt in his Contrast of Chocolate dessert. At Vidalia, Chef RJ Cooper pairs a juniper-infused sea salt with heirloom potatoes, garlic cream, and crispy pork belly. Trends in Products 65% of chefs surveyed told us they focus on locally grown, seasonal ingredients, but only 10% come from restaurants where at least ¾ of the produce is locally grown. On the menu, 39% cite farm or producer names, and 19% include glossaries to further educate their diners on the food on their plate. Focusing on one particular facet of sustainability is a way for chefs to educate their customers and generate enthusiasm for the subject – at Butter in Chicago, chef Ryan Poli offers a sustainable caviar menu that offers farm-raised caviar from Italy, France, Germany and the United States. In Washington DC, chef Barton Seaver promotes the understanding of local, seasonal and sustainable seafood among both diners and chefs. Chefs Collaborative, Sea Web and similar organizations help advance the subject, which sees media coverage on an almost daily basis. Organic beer and biodynamic wine are an increasingly common find on menus that promote sustainability, as is grass-fed beef. In line with the growing focus on sustainability, not to mention the scrutiny placed on the American beef industry, grass-fed beef is a trademark of restaurants like Craft Steak in New York, where you can not only choose your cut, but your variety of beef. "Percent of Products Locally Grown" Chemicals in the Kitchen Over one quarter of our chefs report that they have an increased interest in science and chemistry, and use this knowledge in the kitchen with the use of gums, homogenizers, hydrocolloids or liquid nitrogen. One of every five chefs has experimented with complicated techniques that use innovative equipment: 31% use low temperature cooking, 19% experiment with sous vide, and 19% with foams. A full quarter approach food as science, while 52% approach food as art. In some kitchens, chemicals have come to play as important a role as the stove and the knife. They give chefs new freedom to play with the shape and texture of their food while preserving the integrity of the flavor. Sweet/Savory In a direct continuation from 2005, the most prominent trend in pastry arts today is a blurring of the lines between savory and sweet. Pastry Chef Sam Mason exemplified the trend with his dessert of Chocolate and Banana Ravioli with Mustard Ice Cream and Coffee Soil at a recent dinner at the James Beard House. According to Mason, the walk-in is fair game, and herbs, beets, and foie gras are all popular players in his desserts. The overall impact of these savory ingredients is twofold: they heighten the awareness of diners as they try to make sense of savory ingredients in a new context, and they bring a balance to the dessert so that it is not so cloyingly sweet. The end result is an engaged diner and an engaged palate. Sweets are also taking a page from savory’s book as pastry chefs continue to open their own standalone dessert bars. In New York alone, there’s Chikalicious and Room 4 Dessert, plus eagerly-anticipated dessert-driven restaurants from Mason and Pichet Ong. The concept is simple: these are full service, sit-down restaurants, with wine pairings and courses, but dessert isn’t the afterthought: it’s the main attraction. A significant dessert culture is being nurtured within these restaurants and dessert bars. As the pastry chefs delve into the walk-in and experiment with breaking preconceived notions of the shapes, flavors and textures that end a meal, they establish dessert as an integral part of the dining experience; and not only for the diners, but for restaurant revenue, which greatly benefits from the raised check averages. The trend is slowly but surely spreading to other cities, and we expect next year to bring a comparable pastry renaissance in Chicago, DC, San Francisco, Boston and LA. No longer relegated to the basement, pastry chefs have found a place in the American culinary spotlight; let's hope they embrace it. TOP DISHES 2006 Zak Pelaccio, Fatty Crab and 5Ninth, New York Chili Crab Zak draws inspiration from his travels and cooking in Malaysia and Malaysian street food. Makoto Okuwa, Morimoto, New York Shikaimaki Roll Makoto wraps the classic Japanese dish in Prosciutto di Parma and deep fries it for a modern twist. Paul Liebrandt, formerly of Gilt, New York Scottish Langoustine with Speckled Black Truffle Paul’s risky food and innovative techniques made for one of the most exciting food experiences in the US. Unfortunately, profit is the bottom line Sergi Arola, Arola and La Broche, Barcelona Reorganized Patatas Bravas Sergi has his own, clean and organized version of this traditional dish. In this reconstructed classic, Sergi hides the bravas sauce inside the patata Carles Abellan, Comerc 24, Barcelona Olive Oil and Chocolate Carles blurs the line between sweet and savory with a play on the traditional French breakfast Noriaki Yasutake , Perry’s, Washington DC Fish and Chips Roll Noriaki reimagines English pub fare through the lens of Japanese technique Katsuya Fukushima , Café Atlantico and Mini-Bar, Washington DC Organized Salad with Jicama, Arugula, Corn Nuts, Crispy Quinoa, Cabrales Cheese and Raspberries The salad is reorganized as a plated dish. Rasberries, corn and Cabrales make for a strangely complimentary flavor combination. Donald Link , Cochon, New Orleans Boudain Sausage Socially conscious chefs are choosing their meat purveyors carefully. Donald uses sustainably-raised pork used to make his boudin sausage. Gabriel Bremmer , Salt, Boston Roasted Beet Salad with Laura Chenel Goat Cheese Foam and Beet Paper The translucent beet paper is a colorful and crisp addition to this dish and steals the show! David LeFevre , Water Grill, Los Angeles Bluefin Tuna, Wasabi, Red Radish Puree and Shiso Unfussy Asian ingredients in a small plate increase revenue and give diners a chance to taste the range of the chef’s cuisine. Michael Cimarusti , Providence, Los Angeles Spot Prawn Poached with Fava Beans and Wasabi Michael uses tapioca maltodextrin, a starch patented as N-Zorbit to stabilize high-fat ingredients and transform them into powders. Industrial chemicals and products are adding new dimensions to familiar flavors and textures.