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Tea: To Sip and Sup – US Food Trends

07 May 2008

Tea does more than soothe the soul. Operations are steeping themselves in its versatility as a flavoring agent.

This article first appeared in the 1 May 2008 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 Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

When John Peters interviewed to be executive chef at Powerhouse in Chicago, he ended the tasting meal he created for the restaurant's investors by placing a bowl filled with chamomile before the investors in the center of the table. He poured hot water into the bowl before serving the dessert course, a simple apple cobbler.

"It was just a refreshing, pleasant aroma that created a sense of relaxation," recalls Peters, who got the job.

Tea, one of the world's oldest and most widely enjoyed beverages, has stirred fresh interest among operators for its relaxing properties, its versatility and its ability to bring flavor nuances to the menu.

To Sip

As a beverage, tea has a large fan base. According to the New York City-based Tea Association of the USA, Americans consumed more than 55 billion tea servings last year. While retail tea sales continue to increase, away-from-home tea consumption also has grown, rising 10% over the last decade. Tea's resurgence has some operators rethinking their beverage service.

"There is so much variety and choice," says Amy Calhoun, category manager for Seattle's Best Coffee. "It used to be ‘I can have breakfast tea or chamomile.' The proliferation of brands, I would say, is very similar to what has happened with coffee."

Units of the Seattle-based chain (Atlanta-based Focus Brands franchises the brand on military bases and in select international markets) display earth-toned signs that coax guests to relax with teas ranging from iced and hot varieties to a line of tea lattes in flavors such as chai, matcha and crème caramel. So far the reception, particularly during the afternoon, has been strong.

"Everyone wants the fruit cocktail du jour, but we've set out to do something different, and they're selling really well," Moratis says.

At the Polo Restaurant at The Garden City Hotel in Garden City, N.Y., Executive Chef Steven De Bruyn has turned to tradition for tea service. Every Saturday, he serves classic afternoon tea, where loose-leaf teas are steeped in pots at the table alongside silver tea strainers and house-made jams, scones and sandwiches served on custom-designed tea stands. Although tea can oversteep in the pots, De Bruyn knows that his customers wouldn't be receptive to change.

"People love the show," De Bruyn says. "They love the whole idea. It's a traditional thing, and that is what they're looking for."

The show also translates into a business opportunity. When the hotel recently pulled off its first private-event tea service (for 100 guests), De Bruyn realized that the format-a teapot and a tea stand filled with food on each table-allowed guests to serve themselves during presentations without being interrupted by waitstaff.

More private events at the hotel with tea are likely, particularly because tea's appeal has broadened. "What I've seen is that there are more and more men attending tea," De Bruyn says. "In the beginning, it was purely women. The women convinced the men that it was fun. And we don't make it too stuffy."

To Sup

Beyond its use as a beverage, tea can play a role in several savory culinary applications, including smoking, braising and marinating. Some chefs find that using tea in savory courses can make food more wine-friendly.

At the fine-dining Corks Restaurant in Baltimore, Chef-owner Jerry Pellegrino uses teas to give neutral foods tannin to allow them to better reflect the characteristics found in wine.

"When you try to pair wine and food, you want to bring similar flavors together," he says. When cooking rice or couscous, Pellegrino steeps tea into the cooking liquid to add tannin and bring the starch's flavor profile more in line with that of the suggested pairings.

Pellegrino also finds that tea works well as a marinade for light proteins such as poultry, because of its acidity, and as a smoking agent because it burns well. Last fall he cold-smoked Vidalia onions with black tea for a salad with duck, baby arugula and cherries.

Yet he's careful not to overdo it. When he uses tea to flavor rice or couscous, he brews it at half the concentration of a typical cup of tea. "It's a subtle component," he says. "It's more like a spice."

At Public and its next-door sibling, The Monday Room, in New York City, Head Chef Brad Farmerie also uses tea to make dishes more wine-friendly.

He marinates venison loin with brown sugar and salt and then smokes it with a mixture of tea and rice. The venison is served thinly sliced, cold, with an onion-and-licorice marmalade and asparagus, fennel or a green salad.

"There are so many nuances: the smokiness, the texture, a touch of bitterness, a touch of tannins," says Farmerie.

Using tea in a spice rub also can impart distinctive flavors to food. At Swans Café Lobby Bar and Restaurant at The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers in downtown Boston, tea sommelier Cynthia Gold and Chef Daniel Glascock serve tea-infused dishes such as tea-cured salmon frequently. Gold also found success recently with a lamb loin seasoned with a Moroccan spice rub made with smoky Lapsang souchong tea.

Still, few operators suggest that mentioning tea as an ingredient on the menu will sway diners' decisions. "When we write the menu, we like to tell them what is in each dish," Pellegrino says. "[Our menu is] 12 entrées, and they all sell evenly."

Tea Technique

Operators offer three ways to infuse tea into the menu:

Tea-Smoking

  • Chef Brad Farmerie of Public in New York City keeps tea-smoking simple. He uses equal parts inexpensive black tea and rice.
  • Although it is traditional in Chinese tea-smoking to add orange rind, cinnamon stick, star anise and sugar to the tea-and-rice mixture, Farmerie says spice nuances come across better when they are used in the marinade beforehand (see recipe for instructions).

Tea-Marinating

  • Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks in Baltimore likes to marinate protein with tea because the beverage's acids act as tenderizers and tea gives the meat a deeper color.

  • Pellegrino steeps tea at double the strength at which he would drink it, adds aromatics such as sage, shallots, peppercorns and bay leaves, cools it completely and marinates the protein (typically poultry) in it for half a day.

    Tea-Infusing

  • Jono Moratis, beverage director and vice president of The Glazier Group, infuses about 2 ounces of tea into 750 milliliters of vodka, gin or bourbon for about 24 hours for the tea cocktails served at Monkey Bar in New York. Infusing for any longer, Moratis says, would cause the alcohol to become bitter.

  • Moratis' favorite cocktail, the Arctic Monkey, is a vanilla vodka flavored with coconut-almond tea, which he uses for a tea-infused rendition of a mudslide.

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