Chef Martin Yan of T.V. fame spoke on Asian ingredients and cooking techniques at this year’s American Culinary Federation convention.
The American Culinary Federation, St. Augustine, Fla., is a highly prestigious and well-respected professional chef's organization in the U.S. Each year since 1929, thousands of great restaurant chefs gather at the ACF's annual national conference to network, share secret recipes and discuss developing trends in gourmet dining.

It would take quite a seminar to interest both food scientists and TV stars. Something special, indeed, would be required to attract America's top chefs, restaurateurs, and food marketing executives. In July, the American Culinary Federation held its annual national conference in Las Vegas. Chef Martin Yan, well-known for his expertise on Asian ingredients and cooking techniques, gave the first seminar. Celebrity Chef Paul Prudhomme was seen sitting a few rows from a product development scientist representing Con-Agra. Executives from Nestle, Unilever and other large food companies also were seen taking notes.

Perhaps the most telling trend of all was the greatly increased number of corporate development chefs attending this year's event. Those companies that did not send a chef, or do not yet have one on staff, might have been left out. However, the most important information and emerging trends are as follows.

Retro-ethnic

Baby Boomers still are too hip to use the term “good old days”, but are starting to look back and remember the tastes of their youth.

Chef Jimmy Sneed, formally of the Watergate Hotel, Washington, D.C., has worked with the famous Chefs Jean-Louis Palladin (at the Watergate) and Chef Gunther Seeger (Seeger's Restaurant, Atlanta). Chef Sneed owns and operates the very trendy Frog and Redneck restaurant in Richmond. After his informative seminar, Chef Sneed agreed to share his insights on cutting-edge restaurant trends.

“The big restaurant chains are all getting better,” Jimmy tells us, which is blurring the distinction between fine dining and fast service establishments. This development is forcing white tablecloth restaurants to get better by using fresh, local and high-quality ingredients. He is seeing a return to traditional flavors, ingredients and techniques that are well-seasoned, better prepared and well-balanced. Something as simple as using the best quality salt makes a huge difference: “We all need to start using the finest ingredients and the best possible techniques.”

Traditional Italian, German and even old fashioned “Americanized” Chinese will appeal to those trying to regain the tastes and sensations of their glory days. European favorites such as roast beef and fish & chips will share menus with truly American dishes such as “real” turkey with mashed potatoes and dressing. America and, in fact, the world has come to expect better quality ingredients, diverse flavors and a higher level of service, in general.

The classic Euro-ethnic foods of the 60s, 70s and 80s all will make a re-appearance on America's menus. But fresh and natural ingredients, prepared using the best cooking techniques, and a return to a higher degree of service, will raise the culinary bar for restaurant chefs and tomorrow's dinners.

The emerging restaurant trend will be a move toward comfortable retro-ethnic foods and flavors. These familiar tastes and terms provide the intense flavors and excitement customers have grown used to—without intimidating, difficult names and feelings.

Customers desiring smaller portions will share one dessert. People look for comfortable, simple items. Overall the convention gives insights into new products, new ideas and new techniques.

“Healthy” Comfort Foods

In the past few months, two national “gourmet” food magazines—Savour and Bon Appetit—have featured hamburgers on their covers, and Time put a vegetarian “burger” on its cover. Americans clearly are seeking a return to the comfortable, familiar foods of the past. However, the message of less fat, lower calorie eating is firmly in our minds. As always, we want to have our cake...and eat it to!

Executive Chef Richard Vellante is vice president of food operations for Legal Sea Foods, Boston. He reports seeing this trend develop very clearly. “Today's customers want the perception of healthy eating. However, we are seeing many tables ordering one dessert, and then sharing that one dessert.” The realization is that as customers grow older, they seek smaller portions of intense flavors. Though they want fewer calories, they also want to really enjoy the foods they eat. The chef sees a move away from intimidating, complex flavors, menu terms and product names.

The emerging restaurant trend will be toward smaller portions of intensely delicious foods. These menu items will be prepared using ingredients and techniques that provide the perception of healthy eating.

“Satisfying” Vegetarian Foods

As previously mentioned, the cover story of the July 15th issue of Time was a piece on vegetarian dining. Aging Baby Boomers' growing focus on living a healthy lifestyle—and increased nutritional knowledge—has helped to bring meatless cuisine to nearly every menu in America. Vegetable cookery is hot and shall remain a prominent trend in restaurants all over the country.

Chef Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Restaurant, Berkeley, Calif., creates and promotes gourmet vegetarian entrees and meals. For years, she has been considered a leader in developing nouvelle cuisine. Chez Panisse is by no means a counter culture restaurant. It is upscale and mainstream. When Chef Waters has put meatless items on her menu, you can be sure it is haute cuisine.

The key to successfully creating and introducing vegetarian items is satisfying the customer's expectations regarding visual appeal, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and meal “satisfaction.” Too often in the past, a meatless offering was lacking in taste, aroma or mouthfeel. The application of gourmet cooking techniques to meatless menu items is fast gaining popularity with restaurant chefs and consumers. Braised, oven-seared, hickory smoked, pan caramelized, spit roasted and essence simmered—all are terms that draw consumers, and are gourmet techniques that allow chefs to create special menu items out of ordinary, meatless foods. Mentioning these techniques gives customers the image of hands-on chefs really preparing their meal in the kitchen, as opposed to using pre-processed, re-heated vegetables.

A great vegetarian item looks as good on the menu—and maybe better—than other choices presented. And when a customer orders that item, he or she is picking the product that looks the best. Not because it is meatless, but because he or she believes it will be wonderful. The customer expects to be completely satisfied. Today's emerging trend in vegetarian cuisine is doing just that. Manufacturers will be successful in this growing area of demand if they emulate these techniques and products.

The emerging restaurant trend will be vegetarian foods that truly satisfy even those who would rarely order a meatless entrée. These are high-quality, more filling items targeted to everyday people—rather than heath food eaters.

“Multi-ethnic” American Fusion Foods

The “trendiest” flavors and ingredients of a few years ago were Southeast Asian. The continued influx of Mexican and South American immigrants has created an awareness of and a demand for Latino foods and flavors. Southern Indian offerings also are becoming hot in the best restaurants in New York. Many chefs are now combining foods and flavors from two or more ethnic cuisines. Today's customers readily accept exotic foods and flavors. And today's chefs are pushing the culinary envelope by combining exotic cooking techniques, ingredients and flavors. Once again, the U.S. is becoming the world's melting pot. Here are a couple of opinions.

Executive Chef John Deloia, CEC - Newly Weds Foods, Chicago, has only recently made the leap from successful restaurant chef to corporate research chef. One of the country's top chefs, he tells us, “Asian flavors, such as Thai and Vietnamese, have become very popular. These cuisines have always focused on fresh, intensely flavored ingredients. These flavors and products are firmly into the “family dinning” segment and are making their way into mainstream QSR and retail products. The distinction between “ethnic” foods and flavors and “American” items is becoming blurred. Just as Italian flavors and recipes were once “ethnic” but have become American foods, Asian cuisine will become standard fare.”

Executive Research Chef Kurt Aebi, CRC - McCormick & Co. Inc., Baltimore. Kurt Aebi has been a successful product development chef for over 32 years, first working for both Nestle and now with the consumer seasoning mix company McCormick. Kurt has been on the cutting edge of food trends in Europe, South America and the U.S. Now a Certified Research Chef, this gourmet is truly one of the pioneers of upscale culinary development.

Kurt sees the hottest emerging trend as being the use of exotic flavors and ingredients, used in everyday foods. However, he believes that most people are “meat & potatoes” fans and will never become focused on trendy, upscale products. He feels that exotic flavors begin their acceptance in trendy restaurants and, with careful application, can make it into the mainstream. Chef Aebi tells us, “The average Joe can be scared of new and intimidating ingredient names and terms.” He also states, “ These flavors can be successfully introduced into the mainstream if they are not made the headline item. Instead, they can be added as a new and exciting flavor. These exotic ingredients need not be headlined but, instead, listed as descriptive copy. This way, the customer can come to enjoy these wonderful new spices, flavors and ingredients, yet still have the comfort of “familiar” menu items.

The emerging manufacturing trend will be the incorporation of exotic flavors and ingredients into everyday foods. As the “average Joe” comes to accept these new tastes and sensations they will become part of the mainstream.

Today's emerging trends are giving product developers wonderful opportunities and huge challenges. America's upscale restaurants continue to push the culinary envelope, forever improving our dining experiences. We—as food researchers, culinologists and marketers— must rise to this challenge and take our new products to this next, higher level!