Nearly 2,000 successful professional chefs attended this year's American Culinary Federation (ACF) national conference in Philadelphia. Culinarians from all four ACF regions (Northeastern, Southwestern, Central and Western) meet once a year to share experiences. Most importantly, they meet to share forecasts and predictions about coming consumer trends. Every major city in every state was represented. Since 1929, the ACF has been the U.S.'s premier culinary professional organization. These 40,000 restaurant professionals represent the world's best. Each has proven successful at creating new, cutting edge food products and putting them on America's menus. Although it may be said that one out of every ten restaurants fail, these ACF restaurants are the winners. The ACF chefs have a 70-year history of predicting the next big food trend and creating new items to capitalize on that trend. They usually are right.

Predicting the next big trend in prepared foods is important to Unilever. “Unilever sponsors the annual ACF Chef of The Year competition and the Student Chef of the Year competition, held during the ACF conference,” Steve Jilleba, CMC, AAC, corporate executive chef for Unilever Foodsolutions, tells us. “These two events are not simply a valuable way for Unilever to support the international culinary community. It is a very real method for the company to stay on the playing field with our first-line customers. The teams competing every year in this program are the real time innovators using our products. The needs of these chefs are the true needs of our target market. However, it is the student competition that gives us the most valuable depth of information regarding coming new product trends. The student champions of today will be the culinary innovators of tomorrow. These are the trendsetting leaders of the future. By supporting these young culinarians, Unilever is helping to build, and be part of, that future.”

Predicting the future is also of interest to Nestle. Of course, Tyson and Cargill are just as concerned about staying on the cutting edge of developing consumer demands. These multi-national prepared foods giants know that many, if not most, mainstream consumer food trends begin on the white tablecloths of fine dining restaurants. Each of these huge and hugely successful food producers is a major sponsor of the annual ACF conference, and has numerous culinary chefs on staff working to develop new products. These companies, and others, such as Kraft, ConAgra and Sara Lee, know that sending one researcher or culinarian may not be enough to gather all the valuable information being discussed. Therefore, these companies send a team.

So, if smart food companies send teams of highly trained chefs, what trends did the teams from Unilever, Tyson and the others discover? There were four main factors being discussed by the chefs during this year's conference. These trend drivers will affect consumer buying patterns and purchasing behavior in America's restaurants over the next year. History has proven that many of the hot menu ideas will trickle down to supermarket shelves. These four factors will no doubt generate trends, fads and fizzles. Successful chefs have become adept at spotting the trends and picking the fads over the fizzles. During the late 1980s, chef Alice Waters predicted the trend toward organic products. In the early 1990s, chef Rick Bayless predicted the coming Mexican foods trend. Understanding the factors driving the trends of tomorrow will give product developers the “chefs' edge.” Here are four key considerations.

The prepared food industry's challenge will be to create products that mirror the culinary trends of authenticity, using seasonal items and creating upscale items.

1. Hispanic Culinary Influence

The first driver is the continued influx of Hispanic immigrants. This has created a paradigm shift in America's professional kitchens. Every restaurant professional is aware that almost every restaurant kitchen, even those not serving Mexican items, has Hispanic employees involved in product development. Restaurant kitchen operations are not as regimented as a typical corporate food lab. In everyone's favorite restaurants, crisis management is more the norm than is the scientific method. The person who is actually preparing the menu has great latitude regarding how much and what type of ingredient goes into a product. What works (and what sells) stays on the menu. This imperceptible recipe drift is leading to a slow but steady change in restaurant customer preferences.

One result of this shift is that traditional Hispanic recipes and classical Spanish cuisine will be combined with elements from other cultures' cuisines. One of the hottest and most successful restaurants currently setting this trend is Vermillion in Chicago. Chef Maneet Chauhan has combined traditional Mexican and Latin American recipes with high-quality Indian ingredients and techniques. The resulting symphony of flavors and colors has made her, and Vermillion Restaurant, nationally famous. Traditional Hispanic cuisines will continue to be combined with other cultures' cuisines, creating new and even more delicious variations.

Unilever's master chef Steve Jilleba demonstrated sauces with traditional Hispanic flavors.

2. Authentic, Natural and Fresh

The next trend driver being discussed by chefs is the result of this large demographic's desire to both prolong life and enjoy it. Fresh produce, natural ingredients and a very long history of honoring family traditions are all deep-seated in Hispanic culture. Tradition, quality dining and healthy eating also all appeal to our aging Baby Boomers. The term healthy has taken on a slightly negative connotation, indicating food lacking in taste appeal, or “fake” food. The traditional, authentic foods eaten by generations past are beginning to be thought of as wholesome, natural and desirable. Functional foods may give way to fresh foods. The terms “naturally wholesome” and “authentically delicious” will become the gold standard for fine dining. Seasonal and sustainable agriculture and fisheries will become trendy and marketable. Wise and knowledgeable retired Boomers will be willing to pay more for such products.

Fresh produce, natural ingredients and a very long history of honoring family traditions are all deep-seated in Hispanic culture. These values impact trends in food choices.

3. Sustainable, Seasonal and Up-Market

The third factor that will be a major trend driver dovetails with the retiring Boomers' ability to pay more for quality and their desire for authentic, wholesome and natural foods. Looking into the future, most people wish to leave a better world for their children and grandchildren. Young people want to ensure that they inherit a bright future. The growing movement toward sustainable agriculture is riding this building wave.

Master chef Hilmar Jonsson is one of the world's top seafood chefs. Winner of numerous culinary awards, medals and competitions, he is formerly royal chef to the king of Denmark. He is now corporate executive chef for Icelandic USA Inc. Chef Jonsson states, “Across the country, and in fact around the world, top chefs are looking for ways to use ingredients and products that come from sustainable sources. Marketing that information has enabled many restaurants to up-charge prices on menu items prepared from such trendy sources.” He continues, “Sustainable seafood will become more important to prepared foods manufacturers. Dwindling fisheries are causing shifts in ocean products [seafood and shellfish] availability. The falling U.S. dollar is also sending fish to Europe and Asia, whose consumers are willing to pay more. You may be surprised to find Europeans eat far more fish at home than they do in restaurants. I believe that 90% of homes in Belgium have a deep fryer. Nearly 80% of fish eaten in Europe is cooked at home. In the U.S., 80% of the seafood consumed is in restaurants.”

Surprisingly, both affluent Boomers and less-affluent people in their 20s are willing to pay a premium for up-market (upscale), sustainable ingredients. Restaurants are finding success in these types of products on the menu. This is true for chef Grant Achatz's super-trendy, gourmet Alinea Restaurant as well as places like The Chicago Diner, a famous vegan hangout.

Certain fast casual restaurants tout the fact that they send their chefs to be trained in European countries.

4. Classic, Culinary Techniques

This brings us to the fourth and most talked-about trend at the ACF conference. The vegans happily munching at The Chicago Diner do share more than just a desire for feel-good ingredients with the celebrity millionaires trying to find Alinea. (The place is far too trendy to have a sign.) Both The Chicago Diner and Alinea employ classically trained chefs who use European culinary techniques in preparing the menu items.

Across the U.S., a grass-roots culinary renaissance is taking place. The hugely successful Food Network has spawned a growing number of “foodie” TV channels. The combined might of this global culinary media empire now broadcasts to billions of viewers worldwide 24 hours a day. Today's consumers are seeing close-up shots of the finest culinary presentations ever created. Instead of hearing or reading about exotic recipes, people can see them presented in glorious color. Today, most Americans know what a great meal is supposed to look like. The bar has been raised. We have entered an age of culinary enlightenment, and there is no going back. Fast casual restaurants like Olive Garden are marketing the fact that they send their chefs to Italy to attend culinary school. Quick service restaurant chains like Jack in the Box are promoting artisan ciabatta bread rather than hamburger buns. Classic, traditional culinary art has entered the U.S. mainstream.

The four trend drivers discussed at the ACF also point to a revelation. Cutting-edge food product developers conclude that, in the near future, culinary science may take the place of food science, at least in the area of new product development. Classic culinary techniques are becoming necessary to meet the demands of average consumers. Yet, the science and engineering required to manufacture and distribute such products remains as important as it has ever been! Creating the successful retail food products of tomorrow will need both the knowledge of a food scientist and the culinary skills of the chef. The future culinary scientists who possess both will be the product development stars creating tomorrow's most successful trends.

Website Resources: -- Chef Martin Yan's website -- For more information about the restaurant in which Gabriele Montevecchio works Specialty%20Eateries -- The National Restaurant Association'sSmartBriefis a free e-daily newsletter