Prepared Foods talks menu and food formulation trends with Brett Curtis, CEC, corporate chef, business manager and channel sales manager with Nestlé Professional. The Solon, Ohio, company processes and markets finished prepared entreés, sides and sauces to foodservice operators.
Prepared Foods: We have a feature about ethnic comfort foods. How do you define “comfort food?”
Brett Curtis: To me, comfort food means creating an emotional experience with food that takes you through memories of now and the past. Comfort can come from many cooking styles and cuisines. For American comfort food, I lean towards the Southern traditions because of my experience in the South. However, I also find comfort in Italian, Asian and so many other cuisines on the plate. Really, it’s food that makes you feel good and brings warmth; is dense with nutrients, rich in flavor; and soft to the palate.
PF: Where do you see ethnic comfort food on restaurant menus?
Curtis: Street tacos have become a popular option for restaurants to easily create ethnic comfort food. The familiar presentation takes you to the streets of Mexico with original flavors indigenous to the region. Another good example can be found in British pubs, which are serving up comfort with fish and chips, bangers and mash, and Scotch eggs.
I’d also say the recent burger craze is another great example of using basics to create classic American comfort cuisine. All in all, restaurateurs are highlighting comfort menu items in print to make sure the dining experience brings you back.
PF: Can you tell us about your work with ethnic flavor?
Curtis: Ethnic flavors appear on many menus, because bold flavors are alluring, but also because of the impression the flavor made on the guest—showcasing the skills of those in the kitchen. This is one more trend that Minor’s is delivering to our operators. The new Minor’s Latin concentrates, like fired-roasted jalapeño and fire-roasted poblano, let operators deliver a vegetarian dish with bold flavor and drive new flavors without additional expense, thus enhancing existing menu offerings.
As a chef, I know firsthand how hard it can be to find comfort in vegetarian dishes, if you can’t add great flavor. It’s gratifying to see flavors true to the origin, made with clean ingredients, bringing an emotional experience to diners.
PF: When it comes to combining elements of ethnic authenticity and comfort, what advice would you have for corporate chefs collaborating with food scientists?
Curtis: When it comes to ethnic authenticity and comfort, skilled chefs capture the understanding of and stay true to the defined flavor, texture and appearance of particular ingredient or dish. With that in mind, we—as chefs—need to work with food scientists so we all can be true with authentic ingredients. A chef gains respect among his or her colleagues in the foodservice world by keeping foods and flavors real. We all work together to create recipes that taste authentic, have bold flavors and offer nutrition.
PF: What are menu, ingredient or cooking trends you’re watching in the year ahead?
Curtis: I like to say trend origins begin with the operators who have stepped out of the box or who find creativity that exceeds the wants and needs of the American public. Consumers are demanding more true food, gluten-free and/or healthy options. Customers want to keep local sourcing; that is to say, they want an understanding of where their food comes from. They want local proteins and produce; flavor that satisfies; healthy kids’ meals; as well as laser-focused and upgraded versions of comfort favorites.
I also think cooking techniques, like pickling and braising, will make a bigger splash by year’s end. Ingredients such as kale, tofu and whole grains already are impacting operator menus. Looking to the second half of 2014, I see more diners venturing into ethnic cuisines, such as Brazilian, Southeast Asian and regional Mexican, because they’re new. They also look for trends and bold flavors that “wake you up.”