Earlier this year, the American Culinary Federation (ACF, Augustine, Fla.) celebrated its 75th anniversary by holding the annual international chefs conference at the Marriott Center (Orlando, Fla.). Thousands of the world's best chefs gathered to share cooking secrets and techniques, and to discuss developing restaurant trends. Many research chefs, including some of the directors of the national Research Chefs Association (RCA, Atlanta) attended. Corporate chefs representing the world's largest food companies, such as ConAgra and Kraft Foods, networked with gourmet chefs from America's hottest and trendiest restaurants, listening for what might be the next hot consumer trend.

Haute Cuisine Begins

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the great French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier developed what we now define as “haute cuisine.” A number of culinary and food historians insist that Marie Antoine Careme created haute cuisine in the late 1700s to early 1800s. However, others argue that a close examination of actual recipes and techniques used by Careme clearly indicate they are very different from the style and techniques now recognized as the foundation of haute cuisine. In contrast, many of Escoffier's recipes--such as Peach Melba--still are seen on restaurant menus today.

Early in his career, Escoffier was an army cook during the French and Prussian war. During this period, he was also involved in research on the canning of foods. Perhaps the “father of haute cuisine” also could be considered to be the world's first research chef. He was recognized as an expert in kitchen design, having designed and supervised the construction of most of the kitchens on the Hamburg-America Ship lines. He devised and introduced the brigade system of restaurant/kitchen management. This system is still in use today, a testimony to its effectiveness.

In 1920, Escoffier became the first chef in history to receive France's highest possible civilian medal, the Legion of Honor. Many considered Escoffier to be the greatest chef alive at the time. To date, no living chef has ever surpassed his accomplishments.

So what creative advances do today's accomplished chefs, the heirs to many of Escoffier's accomplishments, offer? Here is a look at development in the area of food trends.

Here's to Your Health

Perhaps the hottest trend seen during this year's culinary conference was healthful gourmet dining. Each year, the ACF holds a national “Hot-food Challenge.” Four finalists, representing the very top chefs in the U.S., face each other in a two-hour, chef-against-chef cook off.

This year, for the first time, the ACF required the contestants to submit their recipes to be reviewed for nutritional content prior to the event. In addition to flavor, texture, appearance and aroma, the products also were scored on healthfulness, according to the latest nutrition science. Certified chef Kyle Shadix, director of culinary arts and pastry, Art Institute Culinary-New York, judged the gourmet entries for nutrition points. Shadix also is a registered dietitian and a member of both the ACF and American Dietetic Association.

Chef David Saint-Grubb, CRC, CEC, corporate executive chef with Smucker's Inc. (Orrville, Ohio), was a contest finalist. Saint-Grubb also is a national board member for the RCA (this year, the RCA was well represented, indeed!) However, the event was won by certified chef Daryl L. Shular, CCC, proving that gourmet techniques and nutrition science can go hand-in-hand. The culinary instructor presented this healthful gourmet meal:

  • Guava/chipotle glazed scallops in mango fennel salsa with watercress basil broth,

  • Citrus-poached asparagus and gazpacho gelee,

  • Maple-smoked tenderloin of pork with glazed golden beets,

  • Flame-roasted Fuji apples with banana/Irish-oat pudding and

  • Coconut/pineapple sorbet in a tropical coulis.

    The chefs of the ACF are embracing the trend of healthful gourmet dining, and are creating amazing new recipes following its concepts. Healthful gourmet items need not be “fake” versions of delightful, high-fat, high-calorie foods. Delicious, truly new items do not compete with the memory of a customer's untouchable childhood favorites or expectations. Savvy product developers might be wise to become aware of this growing culinary movement. The interest in healthfulness also translates to wellness and fitness, rather than dieting and following fads.

    Chef Candy Wallace, president of the American Personal Chefs Association (San Diego), states, “Our customers are asking for healthy menus, but they want delicious menus. They want healthful, great food--not a low-cal diet.” Wallace says, “Unless they are specifically focused on weight loss, what they really want is great-tasting, great-looking, balanced meals.”

    Personal fitness trainer and nutrition counselor Virginia Erwin, who also is a registered dietitian states, “People want to enjoy living life, not life-support. Any diet or fitness plan that makes a person's life less happy in the long run will not work. The point is to improve your life, not just extend it. Food that tastes better and is better for you, exercise that improves your state of wellness and your state of mind, that's what people need. Diets don't work. Improving your life by improving your lifestyle, that's what works.”

    The trend is toward a balance of proper eating and proper lifestyle. This year, nutrition and wellness were the topics on every chef's mind.

    Seasonal and Sustainable

    Master Chef Hilmar Jonsson, CMC, corporate chef, Icelandic Seafood (Norwalk, Conn.) travels the world over promoting gourmet seafood. Jonsson tells us he is seeing a growing interest in sustainable farming and fishing:

    “Customers are becoming aware of and are concerned for the state of the world's oceans. It is clear that some species have been over-fished. Many favorite fishes are almost completely unavailable in restaurants. When was the last time you saw haddock on the menu at your favorite bistro?” Customers are beginning to demand more than simply low prices and consistent products. The future may find us all paying greater attention to where our foods originate. Sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and managing our food resources for the long term are growing concerns even in the culinary arena. Marketing products to this demand will be a growing trend.

    Haute Cuisine Restaurants: The Real Chef's Edge

    Chef Shawn McClain from Chicago's Green Zebra restaurant is currently on the cutting edge of all of the above trends. McClain, formerly chef at Chicago's four-star restaurant TRIO, has taken vegetarian dining to an entirely new level.

    The menu is made up of three sections, each grouped according to “flavor intensity” rather than appetizers, entrées, or side dishes. All items are small dishes and are intended to be ordered in flights; that is, restaurant patrons receive three or more versions of the same food. Although the restaurant focuses on vegetable items, it is not entirely vegetarian. Seafood and fowl items are always available. The presentation, flavors and textures of McClain's masterpieces are breathtaking. Customers line up for reservations because the food is great, sometimes not even realizing that it is vegetarian.

    Peter Drohomyrecki, one of the owners, says, “The chef will not compromise on ingredients, ever. Rather than settle for a lesser quality vegetable, herb or fish...we will adjust the menu. Our items move with the seasonal availability of produce. In fact, we have small farmers in Wisconsin that plant according to our future menu needs.” Drohomyrecki says they even have a professional fisherman in Rhode Island that tailors his catch to their menu. “Though sometimes we tailor our menu to his catch,” he adds. “Customers do not have to think about what to eat on our menu that is healthy or will fit their diet. They know that everything is...and does. They come because they love the food. And, they always come back.”

    Manufacturers on Trend

    Small niche producers have been addressing these areas for some time. Local companies like Stonyfield Farms (Londonderry, N.H.) and Natural Ovens Bakery (Manitowoc, Wis.) have been ahead of the curve. However, even the world's largest manufacturers are getting on board. ConAgra has made inroads into the area with its Lightlife (Montague, Mass.) brand of organic entrées. Lightlife manufactures a wide range of soy-based, meatless products that include veggie burgers and hot dogs, deli slices, ground meat substitutes, and well-known vegetarian items such as tempeh. When the “big dogs” begin to spend capital dollars on new manufacturing facilities, those products are likely to be more than a passing fad. Healthful eating, wellness rather than weight loss, and a greater focus on whole grains and vegetables are trends with legs. These types of products are one way for today's consumers to improve their life by improving their lifestyle. As more and more customers demand gourmet healthful products, more of the largest food corporations likely will recognize this trend and fill the demand.