Waygu Beef Photography by Nico Heins | Photographs below by Oscar & Associates | Photograph of Nobody’s Darling by Pat Cobe
CHICAGO —You couldn’t walk 10 feet across Chicago’s sprawling McCormick Place before tripping over another herbal food product at the National Restaurant Association Show in May. Meatless chicken, beef, seafood, eggs and dairy dominated the exhibits.
But after four days of browsing the show and seeing cooking demonstrations and educational sessions, I took the time to dig a little deeper and consider how herbal and other trends can impact on long-term menus. These are my takeaways.
Chefs put a culinary spin on fake meats
Companies typically market plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken in simple applications: sandwiches, pizzas, etc. But during the Salon’s cooking demonstrations, two renowned chefs got their hands on the products and took them to the next level.
TV personality Andrew Zimmern presented Tindle’s plant-based breaded chicken breast in a Japanese noodle preparation. He quickly made a dashi broth with four simple ingredients, then sliced the breaded “chicken” into very thin strips to look like noodles. Topped with a handful of scallions and dried seaweed, he created a protein-packed cold noodle salad that is usually made with somen, a type of Japanese noodle.
Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville and celebrated author, demonstrated how Plantspired’s plant-based Korean steak can be extended to other global dishes. The tofu-based “beef” is sliced, marinated, and then grilled to give it the authentic look and flavor of Korean bulgogi.
Lee sautéed the product with onions for a nice caramelization, then used it as the base for a rich onion soup, topped with a toasted Gruyere and crème fraiche baguette. For his second course, vegetable bulgogi garnished an empanada.
“You can make non-Korean dishes with the product even though it’s flavored with bulgogi,” Lee said.
“Because it’s not a plant-based ground beef product, it’s very versatile and has a great chew, like a steak.”
Flexitarians stimulate plant-based growth
While the range of plant-based proteins and milks appeal to vegans, this consumer group represents less than 6% of the US population. According to Technomic, flexitarians have grown the most as a dining demographic. These are consumers who prefer a plant-based diet but who occasionally consume products of animal origin.
Carin Stutz, CEO of Native Foods, told RB’s Peter Romeo in an educational session that many flexitarians seek out his 12-unit all-vegan restaurant chain. “We appeal to flexitarians who don’t see meat as the center of the plate,” she said. “They seek to reduce meat consumption, but not eliminate it.”
Even in a vegan chain, health doesn’t sell, Stutz added. Native Foods guest favorites are the Poppin’ Jalapeno Burger and the Chickpea and Cauliflower Shawarma Bowl. Ingredients such as seitan, chickpeas, cauliflower, fava beans and mushrooms go into the hand-prepared, chef-inspired dishes on the menu. Native Foods buys vegan cheese and dairy, but not commercially produced burgers, chicken, or other meats.
Bars and restaurants are tightening their niches
Chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs are putting more of a cultural stamp on their concepts and menus and targeting customers who want the same. Nobody’s Darling in Chicago was founded by Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle, two black women whose mission is to create an inclusive, female-centered, gay-friendly bar.
“We wanted a place where women would feel comfortable and where we could build community,” Barnes said, during a mixology demo at the show.
The bar serves signature cocktails like the Southside Lychee Martini, which the audience enjoyed during the demo, as well as the Darling Mule and Frida Pisco Sour.
While neighborhood independent restaurants offer menus with a distinct cultural point of view, the trend is more recent in the bar scene.
During the “Pouring for the Culture” educational session, speakers Kelly Killian and Nelson German discussed how diversity is amplified on the beverage side of the menu.
German, chef-owner of Sobre Mesa and alaMar in Oakland, California, is of Dominican descent and tells the stories of Caribbean and African culture through cocktails. Sobre Mesa’s list highlights small-batch rums from Haiti, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as ingredients such as bitter jerk, soursop puree, brown sugar syrup to mango and allspice, all reflecting the Caribbean.
Global low-labor ingredients grow
Technomic’s Lizzy Freier and David Henkes presentation on New Menu Trends highlighted that 27% of consumers are eating more unique types of global foods and beverages than two years ago. And it’s in restaurants that customers tend to try these products more than 25% of the time.
But lingering labor issues may spur kitchens to expand their global culinary reach in more adventurous directions. Food and beverage companies are rising to the challenge with authentic, value-added food and beverage products.
Japanese furikake, frozen Argentinian chimichurri, Korean doenjang and Chinese crispy chili were available for sampling at the show, among other global ingredients. Given that 36% of consumers are more likely to try a new or unique flavor if presented in a familiar way, according to Technomic, it makes sense for operators to sprinkle furikake on fries, chimichurri on flatbread and crispy chili over deviled eggs.
On the rise: Ingredients from Ghana, Nigeria, Central America and West Asia, according to Freier and Henkes.
Cocktail makers cater to the sober curious
Zero- and low-strength cocktails have grown exponentially over the past two years, but as evidenced by the show, manufacturers continue to elevate the spirits, mixers and other ingredients that go into them.
It might be outdated to call soft drinks non-alcoholic, but regardless of their label, they’re here to stay. And become even better.
Blind Tiger’s non-spirit cocktails come in flavor profiles including the smoky citrus Ward 8 and Sidecar; they can be poured over ice as is or mixed with alcohol for guests who want a buzz.
Non-alcoholic beers and wines are now available in specific Gruvi styles, such as Juicy IPA and Mocha Nitro Stout. The company also offers non-alcoholic wines in the prosecco and rosé varieties.
And on the spirits side, Ritual’s tequila alternative is blended with blood orange, lime, mint and club soda in a complex non-alcoholic Citrus Ritual cocktail at Armitage Alehouse in Chicago.
Henkes said he’s seen so much creativity with soft drinks, beer and wine that he calls it “the adult drink trend of the year.”
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