Chef Candido Lopez Cuerdo, from Segovia, Spain, prepares traditional paella in huge outdoor grill-pits during the Worlds of Flavor event.

The Worlds of Flavor Conference (WOF) held each year by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is widely acknowledged as America’s premier and most influential summit on developing culinary flavor trends. This annual event is a must-attend meeting for multinational corporate chefs, savvy senior product developers, global chain restaurant executives, celebrity chefs and food world literary stars. The largest and most successful prepared foods companies in the world send entire product development teams to this trendy flavor conference each year. They go to get a first look (and perhaps a head start) on what may be next year’s most important directions in consumer food preferences. Every year, Prepared Foods magazine sends its own executive research chef to cover the event. Here are the latest and most important new and developing restaurant trends seen during this year’s edition, “Spain and the World Table: Regional Traditions, Invention and Exchange.” Spain’s top chefs are clearly the vanguards of today’s most high-tech culinary science trend, molecular cuisine.

Recently, the cover of Gourmet Magazine featured Hamaro Cantu, a local Chicago chef. His super-trendy, nationally famous restaurant, Moto, boasts molecular cuisine, that most advanced of trendy gourmet cooking styles. While molecular cuisine is based soundly on hard-core food science, menu items are often prepared table-side, using such startling equipment as lasers or cryogenic systems. Edible menus feature color photos of sushi printed on rice paper. Dining in Moto is truly a “Willy-Wonka-like” experience, as Hamaro is a world-class culinary innovator. Many of chef Cantu’s techniques are actually patented. However, what most American foodies do not realize is that the chefs at Moto are standing on the shoulders of giants. The cutting-edge kitchens of Spain have created most of the concepts upon which molecular cuisine is based. Using those techniques in upscale restaurant kitchens first began over 10 years ago. This new gourmet culinary science was born not in America; it was created in Spain. Molecular cuisine is Hispanic cuisine!

During this year’s WOF conference, a number of these pioneering Hispanic innovators came to the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., where the meeting was held. Through interpreters, they lectured on the science, theory and philosophy of molecular cuisine and prepared wonderful dishes. What is the secret to this success? Flavor, texture and aroma must come first and foremost, they all agreed. Beauty, presentation and showmanship must come next. Science and engineering must be thought of as a tool, a means to achieve the final result. Too often in the past, efficiency in manufacturing was the goal, with specifications adjusted to accommodate equipment or process limitations. During the numerous workshops and lectures, three clear trends were brought to light. Understanding the philosophy and techniques of molecular cuisine and creating new products built on that foundation will give today’s food developers “the chef’s edge.”

Siding with Sous Vide

The keynote/kick-off cooking demonstrations for the 2006 WOF event were performed by chef Joan Roca. A Michelin two-star chef and best-selling author from Girona, Spain, Roca created a fabulous, sautéed pork item. Anala minute`dish, the item is prepared to order when a restaurant customer requests it. Yet the cut of meat used typically requires many hours of slow, low-temperature braising to achieve the perfect flavor and texture. How is it possible to create a made-to-order item that usually requires as long as 36 hours of slow preparation? It was made possible by using high-tech food science and a technique known as sous vide, which is French for “under vacuum.” The pork was pre-processed at a relatively low temperature while under a vacuum. The processes required to achieve a super-moist, tender and flavorful end result could never be attained in the six minutes given to a busy restaurant chef to sauté each order. Using culinary science andsous videtechniques—as a first stage process—a dazzling and delicious gourmet dish was created. Science was used for results that were better, more beautiful and more delicious than traditional cooking methods. Made possible by using culinary science as a pre-processing step, it was finished to order.

Look for a future trend of restaurant chefs using sous vide items as pre-processed ingredients. These ingredients will be finished in the restaurant by chefs who will create their own recipes around the sous vide product. This is not a cheap “heat and dump” boil-in-the-bag. Such gourmet sous vide products also could be used at home by time-pressed consumers. Ready-to-finish gourmet foods created with the sous vide technique may be the next successful foodservice items.

New York Times writer and best-selling author, Peter Kaminsky, demonstrates uses of Iberico ham, Spain’s “king of hams.” Iberico ham is a specific type of dry-cured, Serrano ham traditionally obtained from a breed of small brown animals native to southern Spain. The pigs have black hooves, leading to an alternative name, pata negra ham.

Upscale, Omega-3-rich Pork

The one protein that was a clear winner and topic of much discussion this year was pork. Not only did the first cooking demonstration set the tone by using state-of-the-art, high-tech cooking techniques, the keynote lecture focused on a wonderful gourmet pork dish. However, this was “not your grandfather’s pork chops.” Pork in general and ham in particular are some of the cornerstones of traditional Hispanic cuisine.Ibericoham is perhaps the world’s most upscale pork product and the height of gourmet-ness. Iberico hogs spend their entire lives in the manicured forests of a huge, park-like preserve calledThe Defendera. Feeding primarily on wild acorns, theIbericohogs are the porcine equivalent to Kobe beef.New York Timescolumnist and best-selling author Peter Kaminsky lectured on both Iberico ham and the better known, lower quality Serrano ham. Author of the bookPure Pig, Kaminsky shared his expertise regarding the super high-end pork of Spain. Many of the numerous culinary experts who spoke at the CIA believe that the other white meat is on the verge of an enormous rise in popularity. The continued influx of Hispanic immigrants will push the demand for pork on menus. Advances in the science of farming, feeding and processing is yielding pork lower in fat, higher in omega-3s and vitamins and that will be considered a healthier alternative protein. Demand for such proteins will pull the products toward consumers. Pork, specifically high-end, healthful pork, may be the next big trend in dining.

Sous vide (pronounced “sue veed”) is French for “under vacuum.” Wikipedia defines sous vide as a cooking method that maintains a food’s integrity by heating it for an extended period of time at relatively low temperatures. Food placed in airtight plastic bags may be cooked in water baths for well over 24 hours at temperatures far below boiling (e.g., 60°C or 140°F).

Intense Hispanic Fusion Cuisine

The great Spanish chefs attending the WOF were actually very impressed by how far new American cuisine has come in the last decade. The culinary innovators in Spain are beginning to embrace the best of California’s French-inspired culinary style. They are taking the very best from such luminaries as chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Restaurant and Alice Water’s Chez Panis. Culinary scientists like the James Beard award-winner José Andres and Michelin two-star Andoni Luis Aduriz have brought gourmet dining to an entirely new level. The spectacular presentations created by their Hispanic/French fusion often look American. The culinary techniques upon which this new style is founded are pure classic haute cuisine. However, the flavors are clearly Spanish—classic Spanish flavors and aromas melded into new products that are quite familiar to most American consumers. The result is a new and very appealing cuisine: Hispanic fusion.

One of the greatest pioneers of this new cuisine is chef Norman Van Aken. In 2006, in Madrid, Spain, chef Van Aken was awarded the highest honor. Spain’s International Summit on Gastronomy named him the founder of new American cuisine. In his internationally famous restaurant, Norman’s (Coral Gables, Fla.), this chef has literally changed the direction of America’s culinary style. When interviewed by Prepared Foods magazine during the WOF conference, chef Van Aken stated, “During this symposium we have a truly fantastic time, meeting some of the greatest lights in the world of cooking. In a setting such as The CIA Napa, this is even more so. They are bringing some of the world’s finest in from far away to share their vision and passion. It is always difficult to decide how you can pick between the many presentations without feeling like you are missing something quite important. Naturally, as chefs, we like to get together for wine, food and after-hours conversation. Professional friendships grow out of many of the WOF events we attend.”

A Perfect Storm—of Flavor

The Cajun cooking trend of the 80s set the stage for big, bold flavors. This opportunity was eagerly picked up by wave after wave of spicy ethnic cuisines such as Thai and Mexican. TV’s Food Network and endless numbers of upscale food magazines have helped teach Americans what fine dining is. It seems that the conditions may be right for a perfect storm of flavors. Hispanic fusion may be that perfect storm. Understanding what has led to those conditions will help in predicting tomorrow’s trends. Understanding what restaurant chefs will be creating and putting on menus in the near future will allow research chefs, food developers and marketing managers to be ready with the right new products when that storm of flavor hits.

Website Resources: — Culinary Institute of America’s review of its 2006 Worlds of Flavor Conference — Type “Worlds of Flavor” into the search field for reviews of past CIA events