Chefs' food finds for 2006 unite under a common theme: the growing quest for quality and authenticity.
This article first appeared in the 1 January 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Innovation is a year-round activity for forward-thinking chefs who shape the industry's most progressive menus. While a flip of the calendar by no means closes the book on last year's food fashions, the advent of 2006 is an ideal time to explore the trends that are simmering on the horizon.
Culinary buzzwords abound, a few of which neatly encapsulate the coming year's major restaurant-food trends. Artisanal, organic, global, ethnic, healthful, locally sourced and authentic still exert powerful sway on menus while the call by diners for high-quality ingredients continues, fueling a new set of expectations in all industry segments.
"Across the board, you see people paying a lot more attention to quality. It's a growing trend," notes Martin Heierling, executive chef at Sensi at Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Fusion is practiced less than in the past as chefs stay truer to a cuisine's authentic roots, whether Italian, Japanese, French or American. Florid excess is rapidly disappearing too, as simplicity becomes fashionable, a development that goes hand in glove with the quest for quality ingredients. And some classic French preparations, abandoned in years past for being too old school, are fashionably back in the mix.
In short, all signs point to 2006 playing out as a year in which the best chefs, supremely confident in their own professional stature, allow ingredients to bask in the limelight.
Chefs also understand the need to reach beyond culinary trends and find inspiration in changing dining patterns. At New York City's Davidburke & Donatella, Executive Chef David Burke has responded to the call for small, shareable plates by introducing a selection of Asian-spiked dumplings. He also plans to experiment with a dry-aging cave made of salt that will draw moisture from meat and infuse flavor.
The appetite for tastes culled from around the world fuels the creative hand of Puerto Rico native Hector Santiago, chef-owner of tapas restaurant Pura Vida in Atlanta. He laces his Latin American/Spanish menu with authentic flavors such as aji amarillo and aji rocoto, South American chiles distinguished by heat that plays off fruity essences.
Santiago reaches for these ingredients to spark seviches such as tilapia marinated in lime juice with aji amarillo and aji rocoto. The chef also plans to rely more on other South American ingredients including choclo, a starchy Peruvian purple corn, and huacatay, an herb also known as black mint.
Also riding the ethnic-flavor wave is Peter Repak, executive chef at the Chicago location of six-unit, Dallas-based eatZi's Market & Bakery. Repak, an alumnus of Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel and Charlie Trotter's, sees Cuban-style mojos gaining favor. He plans to use the classic recipe in such dishes as cochinita pibil, strips of pork shoulder marinated in sour orange juice, chiles, garlic and cilantro and braised in banana leaves.
"With mojos as marinade, finishing sauce or baste, a limited number of ingredients creates a rainbow of flavors," says Repak, who also anticipates growing regard for Spanish ingredients such as chorizo, quince preserves and Serrano ham.
At Sona in Los Angeles, Chef-owner David Myers targets Vietnam as the next big culinary influence, noting the clean flavors, fresh ingredients and simple preparations that are hallmarks of the cuisine. On his menu, these ideas translate into such dishes as grilled shrimp tossed with macadamia oil, kaffir lime leaves and serrano chiles, served with julienned green papaya preserved in syrup with fresh mint and lime juice. Additional ingredients in Myers' cupboard for the year ahead: Buddha's hand fruit; Indonesian long peppers; and obscure Moroccan spice blends and Indian curry powders.
Moroccan spice mixes including harissa, made with hot chiles, garlic, cumin and coriander, and ras el hanout, which can contain as many as 50 ingredients including ginger, anise, cinnamon, cardamom, galangal and turmeric, have earned places in many kitchens. Laurel Restaurant & Bar in San Diego serves mussels with harissa-and-cilantro broth and Moroccan-spiced rack of lamb. Hamersley's Bistro in Boston offers North African-spiced hot-smoked salmon with preserved lemon, mint and parsley salad.
At Bern's Steak House and its contemporary sibling, SideBern's, in Tampa, Fla., Executive Chef-partner Jeannie Pierola says ras el hanout brings dishes "a phenomenal pinch of flavor."
"We might sear lamb loin in it for a spicy crust and serve the dish with pickled mangoes for a juxtaposition of spice and complexity," she says.
One in the Oven
Blended in varying combinations, spice mixes such as coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom and cloves lend Indian accents to dishes that span dining segments. Operations as different as Sensi and Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, take their dedication to Indian cuisine a step further through the use of tandoor ovens.
Sensi's Heierling, whose menu features a handful of tandoori options, aspires to expand his use of the equipment to cook whole fish such as Thai snapper with oil- or yogurt-based marinades that contribute color and flavor.
At BYU, Executive Chef Robert Morgan will use the tandoor oven to produce spice-rubbed lamb and chicken dishes at the campus' new 800-seat dining facility.
"It's a very intense heat, so the meat is seared to the point where it remains very moist and tender," says Dean Wright, director of dining services.
Yogurt-based sauces known as raitas provide a cooling complement for often-spicy Indian flavors. The blends of plain yogurt, herbs and vegetables are becoming a greater part of the mix at BYU and throughout foodservice. The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Calif., marries a yellow-curry cauliflower ragoÁ»t appetizer with cilantro and yogurt; at Mosaic in Atlanta, cucumber-yogurt sauce tempers chickpea tagine.
"Yogurt sauces are easy to prepare, extremely flavorful and can be used with hot or cold dishes," Heierling says. "We've seen a trend in recent years away from heavy sauces, and yogurt has a natural balance of richness and acidity."
Kurobuta pork-produced from Berkshire hogs and valued for its taste, texture and marbling-isn't the only part of the pig making menu inroads.
Long devoted to "everything pig," Paul Kahan, chef-owner of Blackbird in Chicago, sees personal favorites such as pork belly and guanciale (dry-cured pork jowl) growing in popularity among chefs and diners. "Guanciale is richer than bacon, and the fat has a different melting quality," he says.
At Restaurant Kevin Taylor in Denver, Chef-owner Kevin Taylor plates braised pork belly and Kurobuta pork tenderloin together to contrast the rich, crisp flavor of the belly with the leaner cut, complementing the dish with porcini mushroom jus and house-made macaroni.
"Three or four years ago we did belly, but it wouldn't sell, so we'd call it fresh bacon. We revisited it this season [menued as pork belly] and it's one of our most popular dishes," says Taylor.
Rob Weland, executive chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Washington, D.C., also believes Americans have greater appreciation for the craftsmanship of using the whole hog. He recently began purchasing locally raised suckling pigs to make his own smoked pork shoulder, called porchetta, and head cheese. Along with prosciutto and speck ham, they are anchors of a meaty antipasto plate.
The many guises of raw seafood preparations-crudo, carpaccio, sushi, seviche and sashimi-continue to come across as trend-forward.
"Part of our concept was to make raw fish accessible to the American palate," says Tyson Cole, executive chef and co-owner of Japanese-themed Uchi in Austin, Texas, where a crudo bar offering a daily selection of eight to 12 dishes is planned.
The most popular raw applications highlight pristine products in simple fashion, often adorned with little more than infused oils, vinaigrettes, fresh herbs or high-end salts. Examples include Uchi's black-snapper carpaccio with roasted garlic, tangerine oil, micro cilantro and Japanese sea salt, and Poste's House-Cured Hamachi With Lemon-Coriander Vinaigrette.
Hamachi, the young Japanese yellowtail prized for its richness and silky texture, is one of the most highly sought choices for such preparations. At Restaurant Kevin Taylor, the fish is flash-frozen and sliced paper thin, paired with tuna tartare, pink radishes, avocado and fresh wasabi ponzu; at Wolfgang Puck's 20.21 in Minneapolis, it is matched with toasted-sesame dressing, endive-onion salad and daikon sprouts.
Fruit "caviar"? Deconstructed white wine? Edible menus? These are among the offerings at a handful of the nation's restaurants that fall under the emerging culinary catchphrase "molecular gastronomy," which brings chemistry, physics and other scientific principles into the kitchen.
An evolution of Spain's Ferran AdriÁ of El Bulli, the approach has piqued interest from chefs such as José Andrés of Café AtlÁ¡ntico in Washington, D.C., Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homaro Cantu of Moto Restaurant, both of Chicago. How does it translate to menus?
At Blackbird in Chicago, Chef-owner Paul Kahan takes a cue from Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York City with "meat glue," a protein-binding enzyme called transglutaminase. He sprinkles it along the edges of skate roulade filled with peeky-toe crab, brown butter and sage to seal cylinders for searing; he also uses it to crust fish fillets with scallops.
Fruit "caviar"-pearl-like spheres created by adding emulsifying compounds to fruit juices or purées-will play a larger role in the year ahead on Chef-owner Hector Santiago's menu at Pura Vida in Atlanta. In flavors of lemon, lime, sour orange and passion fruit, the "caviar" will top raw fish preparations.
Executive Chef-Partner Jeannie Pierola at SideBern's in Tampa, Fla., uses a food processor that mixes frozen, diced produce and proteins without thawing to create intensely flavored sorbets, ice creams, mousses, soups and sauces. For sweet-corn vichyssoise, she combines frozen corn, softened leeks and cream then purées it. Apple-cardamom ice cream that accompanies foie gras is made the same way.
In the hands of the right chef, even seemingly prosaic items such as iceberg lettuce, parsley and cream cheese can dazzle right along with the most glittering culinary stars. But here are a few foods, techniques, combinations and culinary terms that will be meteoric in their interest.
Braised pork belly
Moroccan spice blends
Specialty oils and vinegar
Meat on the bone
Meat and poultry with a pedigree
Hot chiles combined with sweet ingredients