When the Cold War ended, some pronounced it the “end of history.” That, of course, was ultimately proven wrong by the attacks on 9/11.

Similarly, every new groundbreaking food trend probably has left industry pundits wondering whether, at last, everything has been tried. After “tall” food, tapas and TexMex, what new culinary trails are left to be blazed, the cynic may ask.

As it turns out time and again, the simple answer is “many.” Today, consumers certainly are no closer to the end of history in the food world; indeed, judging from the multitude of culinary cross currents flowing in both foodservice and retail spheres, it probably is safe to say history may not have an end when it comes to food.

Just look at what is happening in the always-edgy Chicago dining scene. Several new restaurants are looking at food preparation and presentation in an entirely new--some might say, borderline bizarre--way that effectively transforms the traditional kitchen into a science lab. The result is food that looks and tastes like it has been conceived by looking through a prism.

Food Creations Gone Wild

The general concept, pioneered by the trailblazing chefs who make three restaurants-- Alinea, Moto and Avenues--what they are, is “engineered” food. Their approach blends culinary art and science, and involves a fundamental transformation of foods' physical properties and the subsequent creation of new counterintuitive forms and combinations of foods that end up altering the appearance, taste and even the method of eating them.

Discussed in a recent issue of Chicago magazine by way of profiles of the three chefs, the food concept yields some strange concoctions. Try these on for size: oysters with “fizz,” produced by using a soda gun to inject them with carbon dioxide; pureed olives turned into a foam with the help of nitrous oxide; and skinned grapes on the stem dipped into peanut butter, wrapped in micro-thin bread and turned into a jelly with the help of a heat gun. Some may think this is Dr. Frankenstein meeting Julia Child.

In the same vein, the May 2005 issue of Vogue magazine features a New York City-based restaurant offering savory-flavored cotton candy. Chefs at wd-50 present diners with flavors such as ginger cotton candy, described as “pale golden in color and with a pungent but pleasant taste in every bite--not easy to achieve, because the added flavorings get so thinly dispersed in the airy fluff.” Other flavors include beet rose with raspberry, juniper berry with black olives and saffron. The chefs also are working on many additional flavors, including mustard, capers and soy sauce. In an interesting aside, the magazine informs readers that cotton candy is known as “candy floss in England and fairy floss in Australia and New Zealand. The French call it la barbe à papa ('papa's beard')…”

Whether it is history in the making or just a deranged detour off the mainstream culinary highway destined for the restaurant equivalent of television reruns at three o'clock in the morning, the concept is nonetheless turning heads. It keeps things interesting in the ever-ambitious restaurant world where sameness is a recipe for boarded-up windows.

However, innovation does not have to test the outer limits of credulity to be meaningful or noteworthy, and that certainly is the case in the restaurant universe. A multitude of food trends are percolating constantly, some entirely new and innovative, others simply a new twist on the familiar. While some are born to die, others will prove to have the stamina needed to affect not only the dining-out sphere, but the much larger eat-at-home market as well.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Professional trend watchers see a veritable maze of different themes, concepts and influences converging to make the job of the cutting-edge chef or food product developer the equivalent of walking a tightrope.

Here are a few to watch, gleaned from polling pundits, seers and chefs:

  • Ever-bolder flavors. Though they are aging, Baby Boomers are not losing their desire for flavorful foods. On the contrary, their palates may demand more intense flavor.

    “Those moving into their 50s and 60s went through the birth of casual dining, and experiencing different cuisines and different flavor profiles,” observes Tom Downs, director of marketing for Newly Weds Foods, a foodservice supplier in Chicago that monitors dining trends. “As they age, their taste buds will dull a bit, so more flavor will have to be incorporated into foods for flavor to have the same impact.”

    Amanda Archibald, consulting analyst for Mintel International's (Chicago) Menu Insights program that also tracks restaurant trends, says American consumers may be increasingly inclined to place more value on flavor than quantity when it comes to food.

    “A move toward smaller, but more flavorful portions is showing up in higher-end restaurants, though it is not really in the mainstream yet,” she says. “Big portions remain the norm there, because consumers still are oriented to how much they can get for their money.”

    Evidence of the trend toward more taste in food is the proliferation of “smoke-enhanced” flavors. “They're big,” Archibald says. “It is being used across a lot of different dining concepts. New concepts are emerging, like chipotle- and even tea-flavored smokes, and new foods [are being] smoked, like tomatoes, eggplant and corn.”

  • Widening ethnic influence. Mexican, Chinese and Italian used to be the only descriptors needed when talking about exotic foods. Today, they actually mean little.

    “There is a growing sophistication of tastes, and we are seeing more different styles of Chinese food, including Cantonese, Thai and other specialized Pacific Rim cuisines,” says Penny Wamback, operations manager for NewProductWorks, the trend-tracking arm of Arbor Strategy Group (Ann Arbor, Mich.). “Many different styles of these foods are being offered because there is a more educated consumer palate out there.”

    Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago foodservice consulting firm, says the mainstreaming of more specialized ethnic cuisine is evident with the growth of concepts like P.F. Chang's (Scottsdale, Ariz.), Pick Up Stix (San Clemente, Calif.) and Paul Lee's, a new Asian concept introduced by Outback Steakhouses (Tampa, Fla.).

    “Asian is influencing the menus of other types of operators as well; the extension of appetizers like lettuce wraps, which were pioneered at P.F. Chang's, to other types of restaurants is an example,” he says.

    Latin American cooking also is taking hold, as consumers branch out from traditional Americanized Mexican fare. Now, Paul says, Cuban, Brazilian and other specialized South American dining concepts are showing up.

  • The re-emergence of “comfort” foods. Harried lifestyles, anxiety over the state of the world and a resurgence of nostalgia are driving more consumers back to the basics when it comes to food.

    “At-home, crock-pot cooking is still booming,” says Wamback. “The time-pressed want to re-discover the home-cooked meal.”

    Paul notes that while more restaurants are serving up moreincreasingly exotic fare, down-home dishes like cheese grits and biscuits and gravy are more prevalent than ever on restaurant menus. Comfort foods do not have to mean bland or even inexpensive. Paul notes upscale steakhouses like Morton's (Chicago) and Ruth's Chris (Metairie, La.) that cater to steak and potato lovers, albeit well-heeled ones, are doing a booming business.

    Mat Wolf, head chef at Gautreau's, a New Orleans restaurant, says diners are less interested in California cuisine, “$40 for a plate of three peas and some peeled shrimp,” and more attuned to dishes that are simple, yet painstakingly prepared.

    “Comfort food does not have to be bland, but neither is it something that is made with 15 components, different sauces and foams and 25 different garnishes,” he says. “It is all about letting simple preparation techniques do the work and letting the ingredients speak for themselves.”

  • Stealth health. Consumers are notorious for saying one thing and doing another. That is nowhere more evident than when they talk about eating more healthfully. However, there is some evidence they are walking the talk.

    “We do see our customers starting to demand a healthier cooking style,” says John Zehnder, executive chef at Zehnders of Frankenmuth (Frankenmuth, Mich.), one of the nation's largest and most famous family-style restaurants. “We used to put butter on everything. Now, people want less fat and oil. We are serving steamed green beans instead of buttered greens and making fresh fruit an option over cream soups.”

    However, Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group (Port Washington, N.Y.), a consumer marketing research firm, says health concerns still are overblown when it comes to consumers deciding what, where and how to eat.

    “We did a study of what consumers were looking to satisfy at the dinner hour and found that only 6% percent of the time was health the number one concern,” he discloses. “Getting something easy was the biggest thing.”

    To be sure, deciphering the consumer's true desires is one of the biggest challenges facing would-be innovators in the foodservice or packaged foods world. That reality, though, is unlikely to be a barrier to those looking for the next big thing, whether it is something as far-fetched as engineered food or something that is right under the nose, as in comfort foods. Whatever the answer, Balzer says, the consuming public will be ready and willing to give many things a try.

    “We are all explorers when it comes to food,” he says, “but what we ultimately want from our food is something that tastes good, is not cost prohibitive and makes our lives easier. If our foods do not meet those needs, we are back off to exploring.”