*The Modern Dining Paradox

*Small Plates Rule

*The New Haute Cuisine

*The Never-ending Chef’s Tasting Menu

*Chef’s Tables

*Designer Menus Get Nixed

*Thematic Menus

*Fish- the Preferred White Meat


*Exotic Ingredients

*Slow and Low – Sous Vide Goes Mainstream

*Chemical Cooking

*Pastry Chefs Get Their Just Desserts

*What’s Next on the Culinary Horizon?







Culinary on the Curve:
What Chefs are Cooking Now (and Why?)

By Amy Tarr and Antoinette Bruno

Our Rising Stars Revue and other key food industry events took us to restaurants in cities across the country last year, including San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami and Boston, not to mention the myriad restaurants in New York, our hometown. We interviewed literally hundreds of chefs and tasted their food this year, and we saw quite a few trends take hold - many of which will have staying power and a lasting impact on the way Americans dine.

In addition to our research in the field, we conducted two nationwide surveys on StarChefs.com (one for chefs, the other for pastry chefs), asking participants to tell us about what they are serving on their menus, where they are getting their products, and how they are creating their dishes. The results gave us some insight into where things stand now and where our country is headed with food. Over 1,000 chefs and pastry chefs participated in our surveys, from almost every state in the US.

The Modern Dining Paradox
Times have changed, as they always do. We now live in a casual society where jeans and tee shirts are the American uniform. Casual chic restaurants are winning over patrons and the white tablecloth, formal dining experience is reserved for elite business professionals and special occasion meals. Despite the preference for a relaxed dining environment, America’s palate is growing more and more sophisticated. Consumers know the difference between arugula and frisee, and eschew run-of-the-mill lettuces. The nation’s appetite and willingness to try new things is growing.

One of the biggest challenges for most chefs is understanding who is eating their food. It’s not like restaurants require you to submit a food resume before dining there. In order to learn more about their typical diner, chefs pay attention to which items are being ordered on their menus and the feedback they receive from their wait staff. At least 30% of the chefs who answered our survey feel that their typical diner is sophisticated, aware of seasonal ingredients and artisanal producers. Twenty percent (20%) described their customers as culinary adventurers who are looking for unusual food and preparations -- an indication that dining out is a new American pastime. A solid 25% of respondents said their diners prefer classic dishes and have traditional expectations from a dining experience. These consumers don’t so much consider eating out as a form of entertainment but rather an avenue of convenience, an opportunity to get out of the house and avoid having to clean-up after a meal.

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Small Plates Rule
It’s been a long time in the making, but probably the single most important trend in American dining is the emergence of small plates menus. This trend follows logically from the modern dining paradox and is likely to be here to stay. The increasingly casual approach to dining coupled with the increasing level of sophistication leads to a more adventurous culinary spirit and the desire to share lots of different dishes. The growing popularity of wine bars and enotecas reinforces the small plates trend – these lower priced dishes encourage sharing and help to contribute to a convivial atmosphere. By pairing a small plates menu with interesting and affordable wines by the glass, restaurateurs – both novices and seasoned operators – have found a winning combination. Mario Batali’s Casa Mono and Bar Jamon in New York popularized the use of quartinos –a quarter of a bottle of wine – which amounts to about 1½ servings per person. Serving wine in quartinos allows you to charge a little more for serving a little more, and it creates another opportunity for customers to share.

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The New Haute Cuisine
For decades only French and French-American restaurants earned top ratings from reviewers in America. These white tablecloth establishments upheld a standard of dining to which no other ethnicity ever dreamed of attaining. But things have dramatically changed, and serious, dedicated culinary professionals in America are looking to their roots –traveling to Italy, Greece, China and Mexico, for example, to complete stages and learn about the authentic dishes of their heritage – and the latest culinary trends developing in those countries. Returning to the US with all this knowledge and skill, they are inspired to present their ideas in a new and fresh format here. Consider Tony Mantuano’s 4-star Italian Spiaggia in Chicago, Ana Sortun’s Middle Eastern-inspired Oleana in Boston, Jose Andres’ alta cocina minibar at Café Atlantico in DC, Sophie and Eric Bahn’s Vietnamese standout, Monsoon in Seattle, and Richard Chen’s modern Chinese Wing Lei in Las Vegas.

Americans’ fervor for ethnic fine dining was best demonstrated by the backlash among critics and consumers alike to the first Michelin guide introduced in New York this past fall. In a shocking display of patriotism, Michelin’s professional culinary inspectors from France gave the city’s French restaurants top ratings -- the 3-star category included Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin and Per Se (The New York Times’ coverage of the Michelin ratings listed Per Se as “New American,” but anyone who’s dined there knows that the menu is written in Thomas Keller’s distinctive Franglais); French favorites Bouley and Daniel shared the 2-star category with David Bouley’s Austrian-inflected Danubeand Masa, Time Warner’s Japanese shrine dedicated to flawless sushi. No Italian or other ethinic restaurant received a 2 or 3 star rating.

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The Never-ending Chef’s Tasting Menu
Tasting menus have long been the hallmark of the nation’s select few 4-star French and American restaurants. But the number of establishments offering chef’s tasting menus has skyrocketed.The number of courses typically ranges from 5-7 courses, but the latest trend is to offer many, many more. Homaro Cantu at Moto in Chicago does a 14-course tasting. Just try to recall for memory Jose Andres’ 21-course tasting at the minibar at Café Atlantico, or Grant Achatz’s 21-course tasting at Alinea in Chicago. Thankfully as the number of courses increases, chefs try to keep the portions in control, with lots of amuse bouches and one-bite dishes. To avoid palate ennui, Achatz alternates sweet and savory dishes during his 21-course meal instead of waiting until the end for Alex Stupak’s stupendous desserts.

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Chef’s Tables
Even more exclusive than the chef’s tasting menu of old was the occasional chef’s table, where an exclusive party of fabulous people could enjoy the attention of a celebrated chef, as in Daniel Boulud’s skybox. But now the chef’s table has become almost as ubiquitous as tasting menus in fine dining restaurants. We’ve found them atop mountains, as in Allred’s in Telluride, Colorado, and practically on the beach, as in Casa Tua in Miami, and steps away from the casino, as in Alex Strata’s restaurant Alex in the Wynn. The issue with chef’s tables is not so much their increasing prevalence, but the underlying assumption on the part of the restaurant that if a party reserves a chef’s table, then money is no object, and they can be charged any price for this “ultimate experience.” But restaurants should be up-front with their customers and communicate the cost of dining at the chef's table.

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Designer Menus Get Nixed
Just like in the ‘80s in the fashion industry when seemingly overnight, high-end brands started splashing their logos all over their designs, so in the food industry over the last few years, chefs have included smattered high quality brand names on their menus to elevate their dishes and highlight certain artisanal products. It started with brands like Niman Ranch, Coach Farms, and Valrohna Chocolate, but before long, product brand names were everywhere. This year the pendulum started swinging back, as leading chefs like Shea Gallante of Cru in New York revolted against the designer menu in favor of simpler, more streamlined descriptions of their dishes. In other words, the quality is in the taste, not in the name-dropping menu.

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Thematic Menus

Another emerging trend was thematic menus, where chefs crafted an entire tasting menu around a specific, seasonal ingredient. The concept originated with cultures that are much more attuned to the seasonality of food, like in Italy or in Japan. For example, when porcini mushrooms come into season in Tuscany, for those 2 weeks at the height of the season, every dish is teeming with these earthly delights, freshly picked from the mountains. Josh DeChellis at Sumile in New York paid homage to the Japanese cherry blossom season – a harbinger of spring – with a tasting menu that included everything from the blossoms in a champagne cocktail to yellow tail pressed and marinated in cherry leaves, to a gorgeous seared duck breast with a cherry glaze. And John Besh at Restaurant August in New Orleans celebrated the asparagus season with a dedicated menu that even included dessert – White Asparagus and Rhubarb Cobbler with Buttermilk Ice.

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Fish - the Preferred White Meat
According to our chef survey results, fish has taken over as the number one selling dish on most fine dining menus throughout the country. Perhaps this is because diners are increasingly more aware of the proven health benefits of eating fish on a regular basis and restaurants are responding by giving them these options. Or perhaps it’s the realization that the quality of fish that available in top restaurants is far superior to the quality sold in supermarkets. Whatever the reason, Americans have finally caught on to the fact that there are plenty of kinds of fish in the sea, which leads into our next trend.

Crudo, the Italian version of sushi, has proven to be a lasting trend. What started at David Pasternack’s Esca in New York about 5 years ago, is now a staple beyond modern Italian restaurants. Pristine slices of raw fish are delicately dressed in olive oil with an accent of salt and lemon. Garnishes vary – we’ve seen everything from fresh sprouts and radish shavings to capers, grapefruit and pickled fennel, to name a few. Crudo’s rising popularity stems not only from the fact that chefs now have access to amazingly high-quality fish, but also from Americans’ ability to appreciate it, thanks to the popularity of sushi.

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Exotic Ingredients
Like never before, chefs are sourcing exotic ingredients to make their restaurants stand out. By introducing unfamiliar ingredients and pairing them up with more familiar ingredients, chefs are finding a safe way to awaken palates and grab their diners’ (and the media’s) attention. Spring’s bounty of unusual ingredients like ramps and garlic scapes are actually quite accessible, especially when a knowledgeable waiter informs customers about these ingredients and their flavor profiles.

As always, we applaud those chefs who really took risks in sourcing exotic ingredients last year: Ken Oringer at Clio in Boston served barnacles (percebes). And when he was at Yumcha in New York last fall, Angelo Sosa served us marinated jellyfish with chili oil and green apple tea. The payoff for using exotic ingredients can be big – they can cause quite a stir with customers. However, these dishes may not fly out of every kitchen, so it's important to watch the costs on them. When Wylie Dufresne first introduced his pickled beef tongue with fried mayonnaise – basically a deconstructed tongue sandwich – he practically had to give it away to get people to try it. But it eventually got so much attention in the media ( and tastes so good) that now people come in specifically for that dish.

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Slow and Low – Sous Vide Goes Mainstream
In terms of culinary techniques, 2005 was the year of cooking sous vide – vacuum-sealing product in a plastic bag and then cooking it in simmering water or a bain marie at a low temperature. The final product is incredibly delicate and tender and has an intense, concentrated flavor because you haven’t diluted it in any way. Leading chefs like Shea Gallante and Wylie Dufresne in New York, Daniel Humm formerly of Campton Place in San Francisco (and poised to shake things up at Eleven Madison Park in NY), and Tony Susi of Sage in Boston, have been using this technique for a few years now. The term sous vide was actually coined more than 30 years ago in France, to describe a technique widely used in the commercial food industry – mostly to package frozen food products. But in 2005 the technique went mainstream, as chefs across the country realized that they didn’t need to invest in expensive commercial-grade Cryovac machines. A simple countertop FoodSaver machine is really all you need.

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Chemical Cooking
This year marked a wider acceptance of innovative chemistry in the kitchen. The industry’s hyper-experimental chefs like Wylie Dufresne and Jose Andrés have shown to their fellow chefs that certain chemicals - natural ingredients that have been broken down into different forms - possess useful properties in the kitchen, allowing them to alter the texture and appearance of food, without tampering with flavor. For example, Wylie regularly uses hydrocolloids in dishes to replace fat content, emulsify liquids, build viscosity and provide elasticity. Gesturing to his wall of chemicals in the kitchen at wd-50, eerily reminiscent of a high school chem. lab, Wylie explains the method to his madness. “Let’s say, for example, you want to make a cauliflower panna cotta, but instead of using cream you want to use fat free milk. How are you going to get it to stay together? You use hydrocolloids.”

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Pastry Chefs Get Their Just Desserts
Pastry chefs stepped into the limelight in 2005, getting recognition for their significant contributions to the restaurant industry. The use of savory ingredients in desserts has proven itself to be a lasting trend, as well as the use of more à la minute techniques and components to desserts. But perhaps the most important pastry-related trend that began to emerge in 2005 was the growing dialogue between chefs and their pastry chefs resulting in a two-way flow of ideas, ingredients and techniques. Not only is the walk-in fair game for pastry chefs, an approach that helps bring balance to their desserts, but traditional pastry ingredients, techniques and forms are now ripe for the picking when it comes to all the other courses, as in Gabriel Kreuther’s savory onion streusel at The Modern or Chef Joel Antunes’ salmon sashimi with Dijon mustard ice cream at JOËL in Atlanta.

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What’s Next on the Culinary Horizon?
Much like the fashion industry, the culinary industry experiences both fads and trends. Fads come and go from year to year, but trends reflect a shift in taste and cultural practices over time. Many of the trends that took hold this year have been percolating for several years, and we’re not likely to see them fall of the map in 2006. But we do need to consider where things are headed in 2006 and beyond.

Without a doubt, the use of innovative techniques has been at the forefront of the minds of America’s leading chefs in recent years. The now-widespread use of sous vide cooking underscores this point, in addition to the vast array of specialty equipment on the market today (See Equipment Trends article). But in 2006 and beyond, we anticipate a fundamental shift in chefs’ approach to their cooking, where chefs return their focus toward flavor once again, and new, distinctive, non-traditional flavor combinations; the use of innovative techniques will become important, not in and of themselves, but as a means to an end.

In the category of “trends we’d like to see more of in 2006” is the increased sourcing of local organic produce, responsibly fished seafood and certified humane raised and handled farm animals. Certain chefs like Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco, Todd Gray of Equinox and Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Washington, DC, Patricia Yeo of Sapa, and Zak Pelaccio of 5 Ninth in New York are early adopters of certified humane products on their menus. But protecting the world’s natural and farmed resources – not just for today but for future generations– cannot rest on the shoulders of just a few chefs. It’s a responsibility the entire foodservice industry must face together.


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   Published: January 2006