Playing Favorites – US Food Trends

30 May 2007
Playing Favorites – US Food Trends

Sure, menu stalwarts such as burgers and Caesar salads are predictably big sellers, but chefs know there are more-creative recipes that grab guests' attention.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2007 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 here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Tio attributes the success in part to straightforward simplicity-"in a roundabout way, it's still meat and potatoes," she notes-but gives most of the credit to servers who enthusiastically share the recipe's back story with diners. "When I was a kid, a babysitter would make homemade pierogis on the front porch," Tio recalls. "Having a story to associate with a dish is helpful to servers. It makes them feel a part of the recipe, and they love selling it."

For chefs who strive for creative expression and at the same time aim to please customers who find comfort in familiarity, balancing innovation with sales success can be daunting. Chef salads and bacon cheeseburgers may be sure bets, but in the face of escalating competition, differentiation in menu items and concepts is increasingly important.

Recruiting waitstaff as menu-item champions, as Tio has done, is an important strategy (for more ideas on getting servers involved, see sidebar, "Power to the People"), but not the only one. Some chefs enlist can't-miss main ingredients to anchor new dishes, as Chef-partner Gabriel Caliendo does with Ginger Soy Salmon at Lazy Dog Cafe, a three-unit casual-dining chain based in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Globally influenced kitchens often turn to time-honored ethnic recipes as starting points, a strategy Executive Chef Klaus Happel employs with lamb tagine at the Renaissance Scottsdale Resort in Arizona. Still others aim to pique diners' curiosity with unlikely but appealing ingredient combinations.

No matter which tactics operators choose, their efforts reflect one of foodservice's most-basic tenets: Understand what consumers want and deliver it in fresh, flavorful ways.

History Lessons

The inspiration behind Crab Cake Salad, which sells 40% more than other salads at Tiffany's Restaurants, a Pine Brook, N.J.-based casual-dining chain, was elementally simple.

"People love our crab cakes," founder and co-owner Michael Romanelli says of the salad's central product, which uses a 50-50 blend of jumbo lump crabmeat and special or backfin crabmeat with egg whites, panko crumbs and seasonings.

Serving the broiled, 4-ounce crab cake atop chopped green-leaf lettuce with cherry tomatoes and black olives offers guests a lighter way to enjoy a favorite item, Romanelli says. Made-to-order lemon vinaigrette finishes the salad on a bright note.

Even if diners aren't already familiar with a dish, traditional recipes that have stood the test of time make promising starting points.

"Foods that have been appreciated for decades must be doing something right," says the Renaissance Scottsdale's Happel. "That's why you take something that has always worked and try to improve it."

Happel's lamb tagine updates the classic Moroccan recipe by cooking lamb apart from the vegetables to avoid the visual sameness inherent in so many stews. Fava beans, artichoke hearts and fingerling potatoes are prepared separately and then heated to order in reduced lamb stock with pan-seared lamb loin, asparagus, baby carrots and preserved lemon. Sliced lamb is placed in a shallow bowl, atop the colorful vegetables and rich, brown sauce.

At Arab-influenced Mediterranean restaurant Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., the brisk-selling starter dubbed Sultan's Delight borrows from a Turkish preparation of braised beef or lamb served on smoked eggplant purée. Short ribs-a customer favorite that pairs a familiar item with an exotic preparation-are braised and glazed with tamarind paste. To lighten the recipe while adding body, Chef-owner Ana Sortun uses yogurt and toasted pine nuts in place of rich béchamel.

Safe Entry

When devising new menu items for Lazy Dog Cafe, Caliendo first considers how to satisfy the dining public.

"I don't just take my own views into consideration, because everyone has personalized tastes," he says. "I look for a flavor profile that will please 1,000 different people when it comes to levels such as saltiness, spiciness and sourness."

Salmon, widely accepted among high-volume restaurant customers, draws diners into an entrée that stands out among seafood choices. Caliendo balances the fish's richness with stir-fried broccoli, water chestnuts, carrots, bell peppers and mushrooms drizzled with tart ponzu dressing. The grilled salmon is finished with pineapple-teriyaki glaze.

Seeking a dining-hall recipe that could be prepared quickly in a small space and still deliver high-impact flavor, Executive Chef Matt Rapposelli at Ohio University in Athens turned to two student favorites: pasta and Cajun seasonings. His resulting Bayou Bake combines shrimp, andouille sausage, peppers, green onions and mushrooms with cream, onion strips, Parmesan cheese and spiral pasta. The dish is baked casserole-style in hotel pans.

The sophisticated dining clientele at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas allows Tim Semenuk, executive chef for Culinaire International, to stretch boundaries a bit further when it comes to designing guest favorites. Lavender-crusted duck breast with vegetable couscous and sweet chile-butter sauce resonates with diners across the facility's operations: on restaurant menus, at banquets and for dinners honoring high-end donors.

The beurre blanc, spiked with Thai sweet-chile sauce, seals the deal with customers, says Semenuk. The juicy, seared duck breast it accompanies is coated with coarse-crushed lavender, cardamom, coriander, juniper berries, fennel and brown sugar.

"It's sweet, it's spicy, and then you have the velvety texture of a butter sauce," he says. "People just go crazy over it."

Unexpected Hits

As much as consumer food preferences can be predictable, chefs thrive on the ability to concoct unique preparations that earn rave reviews-and customers' dollars.

During his recent tenure as executive chef of Alias Restaurant in New York City, Shane Coffey attributed diners' appetites for a starter of roasted cauliflower with chanterelles, red grapes and rosemary to its unexpected combination of ingredients. The cold-weather recipe interjects the earthy taste of cauliflower and mushrooms with sweet sautéed grapes. A poached egg mingles with rosemary aÁ¯oli atop the salad, creating a hollandaise-like flavor accent.

"A lot of people are skeptical about the poached egg, but after they order it, they love it," Coffey says. "The restaurant does well with local, repeat customers, and this is definitely one of the favorites they'd come back for.

Campus audiences, a demographic known as much for their willingness to embrace new tastes as for devotion to homey comfort foods, also can surprise with their appetites for the exotic. At Willamette University in Salem, Ore., which has an exchange program with a Tokyo university, the foodservice team traveled to Japan for culinary inspiration. Among the hottest recipes they brought back is musubi, a popular Hawaiian snack fashioned in the style of sushi.

Short-grain nishiki rice is mixed with rice-wine vinegar, mirin and sugar, and then pressed into rectangular molds. Sliced, canned pork loaf fried with sweet soy sauce blankets individual portions, which are bound with nori (thin sheets of dried seaweed). Students purchase the pieces individually, most often at breakfast and lunch, and eat them by hand.

"It's relatively easy to produce, and the sweet, salty flavors are wonderful," says Marc Marelich, general manager of food services. "It's fun for the students to eat, and it's not something you'll find everywhere here in Oregon."

Power to the (Serving) People

Every cook in the kitchen might adore a particular recipe, but servers have the real power to influence what guests order. That's why so many operators make a point of finding ways to give waitstaff a personal stake in what they sell.

  • Chef and co-owner Michael Maddox of Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights, Ill., invites servers to help prepare recipes in the kitchen or pick fresh herbs from the garden. "It puts the dishes in their mind because they think, 'I helped prepare this.' It gets them excited about the food because they become part of it."
  • Numerous countries are represented among staff members at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse (where the dish shown is served) in Philadelphia, so Executive Chef Matthew Levin makes a point to ask servers what they ate growing up, what spices their mothers cooked with and whether they have family recipes to share. "When employees see part of a dish they've had some input on, they just love it," he says.
  • At Pine Brook, N.J.-based chain Tiffany's Restaurants, sales contests spur servers to spread the word about new or unfamiliar menu items. "It doesn't matter what the prize is; they like the challenge of showing they're the best," says co-owner Michael Romanelli.
    Lazy Dog Cafe, a Huntington Beach, Calif.-based chain, also uses competitions to spur sales, often targeting daily specials customers might otherwise overlook.
  • To help students feel a connection to those producing their food (and vice versa), Ohio University in Athens plans to bring more cooks from the back of the house to the front lines to dish out recipes they've helped create. "A lot more pride is taken when it's done that way," says Executive Chef Matt Rapposelli.

Wrong Turns

For every recipe that becomes a menu blockbuster, there are at least a dozen that flop. Chefs share stories about what they did-and didn't-learn from dishes that didn't quite work.

  • Ahead of its time? Almost four years ago, tandoori chicken skewers fell flat on the opening menu at Huntington Beach, Calif.-based chain Lazy Dog Cafe. With Indian influences now more mainstream, the recipe may get another try. "People are much more aware of what 'tandoori' means today," says Chef-partner Gabriel Caliendo.
  • Sold short. When Tiffany's Restaurants co-owner Michael Romanelli got a great deal on choice New York strip steak from an overloaded supplier, he menued a hefty portion of the upscale cut for $9.95. Customers didn't bite, refusing to believe a quality piece of meat would sell for so little. "I learned to never underprice a good, quality product, no matter how good a deal you get," he says.
  • Market matters. Executive Chef Klaus Happel loved the red-beet tartare with sour cream he once menued at the Renaissance Scottsdale Resort, but diners were less enthusiastic. "I don't think beets worked in this market," he speculates. "I bet in New York I could sell it."
  • Change in scenery. When crispy sweetbreads over a ragoÁ»t of lobster, cipollini onions and fennel were a flop at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., Executive Chef Celina Tio thought sweetbreads were the hindrance. But when she simplified the preparation, serving sweetbreads over creamy polenta studded with olives, guests couldn't get enough.
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