Flavor trends fall into several categories, says Cunningham.
"Comfort flavors saw a resurgence following September 11. With turmoil over the economy and national security, they won't be going away any time soon," says Cunningham. "Comfort flavors are those that evoke positive emotional responses associated with early eating patterns. Today's comfort flavors have evolved with immigration patterns to encompass Hispanic, African and Asian ingredients. Basics include: sage, parsley, chives, salt, pepper, but also, chilies, cilantro, caraway, fennel, couscous, teriyaki and soy."
"We also see continued popularity in the favored ethnic cuisines from the past decade: Italian, Mexican and Chinese," she says. "What we've seen over the past few years is a splintering of these cuisines into Pan-Asian (lemongrass, ginger, cilantro), Nuevo Latino Hispanic (black beans, chilies, corn), and Pan Med Rim (couscous, risotto, regional pasta sauces)."
"Family-driven and value-conscious consumers have patronized the quick casual segment in droves," Cunningham points out. "Chains such as Chipotle Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, PF Chang's and TGI Fridays have proliferated nationwide. If you look at the cross-section of menus from this segment, you'll find common flavor favorites -- Buffalo, barbecue, Caesar and Cajun."
Cunningham believes that "flavor adventure" is the key to understanding future flavor trends. "As dealing with concerns over the economy and national security become routine, we'll look to simple pleasures, like food, to provide an affordable respite. Continued borrowing of ethnic flavors from countries like Thailand, Morocco, India, Korea and Vietnam will lead these adventures of the palate. We'll also see continued interest in regional South American cuisines, and as these cultures collide, foods that are increasingly hot as hell."
Consumers will also continue to seek out "exotic experiences" with food as part of this adventure, predicts Cunningham. "This will encompass such things as organic food, heirloom varieties, and ethnic ingredients in traditional dishes."
As for future ingredient trends, Cunningham says to watch for flavored tomato sauces and chile pastes, barbacoa, cilantro, carnitas, green chiles, ginger, soy, tropical fruits for salsas and sauces, savory spices in desserts, and sweet dessert spices in entrees. "Adventures of the palate will also include combinations of contrasting textures and preparation methods, with condiments being the preferred vehicle for flavors (mayonnaises, mustards and salts)."
Describing her typical day, Cunningham says Noble's mantra is to "embrace change!" since project parameters, timelines, and products invariably will on a daily basis. "My typical day starts early morning," she says. "I catch up on email, skim a couple of publications and answer phone calls before everyone gets into the Culinary Center. Then we typically have status and update meetings for all the projects going through culinary."
At any given time, Cunningham's team researches flavor profiles or consumer trends, develops written concepts for both consumer and foodservice products, and tests those products in the kitchen.
"The Culinary Center is always buzzing with activity, as one group may be presenting concepts in one of our kitchen facilities, while another may be performing nutritional evaluation in the aseptic test kitchen, and still another conducting taste tests of product prototypes in the dining room," says Cunningham. "Always so much activity and happening at a very fast pace."
Another important aspect of Cunningham's job is making food and consumer trend presentations to the account management and creative teams at Noble -- information they use when formulating marketing messages. "These same types of presentations are given to clients as we move into the formative stages of concepting a new product," she explains. "One thing we all have in common -- the chefs, food technologists and food scientists -- is that we're often here well into the evening. It's hard to stop right in the middle of prototype development or taste testing. So, we're much like a big family."
Side Bar: FP: What ingredients do you always keep in your pantry/refrigerator? GC: Big bold-flavored condiments such as Asian sweet chile sauce, wasabi paste and balsamic vinegar; wonderful cheeses such as Cambazola, Fontina and Parmigiana Reggiano; sweet red bell peppers; shallots and garlic; Arborio rice; chicken stock and lots of Gatorade (I have two teenage boys). FP: What are your favorite foods (when someone else is cooking)? GC: All things spicy including regional Mexican cuisine, Szechwan chicken, anything Thai, fresh spring rolls and homemade tamales.
FP: What ingredients do you always keep in your pantry/refrigerator?
GC: Big bold-flavored condiments such as Asian sweet chile sauce, wasabi paste and balsamic vinegar; wonderful cheeses such as Cambazola, Fontina and Parmigiana Reggiano; sweet red bell peppers; shallots and garlic; Arborio rice; chicken stock and lots of Gatorade (I have two teenage boys).
FP: What are your favorite foods (when someone else is cooking)?
GC: All things spicy including regional Mexican cuisine, Szechwan chicken, anything Thai, fresh spring rolls and homemade tamales.