Predicting Future Trends Difficult Even in Information Age

Despite the "information explosion," many of the things we need to know -- including consumer food preferences -- remain as elusive as ever.

By Marc Halperin, Contributing Editor

Despite the proliferation of periodicals, websites, databases, streaming media and 24/7 cable TV news, many of the important things we need to know remain as elusive as ever. Take, for example, consumer preferences in food.

Sales figures - and our own powers of observation - can tell us what people are eating today. But what keeps those of us in the various food industries awake at night is wondering what they'll be eating tomorrow.

We at the Center for Culinary Development are - pardon the pun - fairly consumed with this issue, and that's why we make an annual practice of surveying our 80-member Chefs' Council to divine which trends are looming large on the U.S. culinary horizon.

The reason we turn to distinguished chefs has less to do with their status as connoisseurs and creative talents than with their less-talked-about role as market researchers and culinary bellwethers. Each time a chef runs a new special on his menu or road-tests a new dish or ingredient combination, he or she is effectively conducting an ad-hoc focus group.

If the restaurant quickly sells out of, say, a newly added ahi tuna ceviche it's a good bet the dish will become a fixture on the menu. What's more, given how closely restaurateurs monitor their competition, ahi tuna ceviche may then nose its way onto other establishments' menus as well. Our "Trend Mapping" process tells us this is how foods ultimately wind up being featured in the pages of culinary magazines, which in turn can land them on mainstream restaurant menus and, eventually, in the aisles at your local supermarket.

This year, our chefs singled out dozens of phenomena, including different cuisines, lifestyle trends and ingredients, which appear to be on an upswing. Here's what they found.

Farm-to-Table Organic

Nearly all our chefs agreed that, as consumer concerns about the origins of species on their dinner tables continue to gather momentum, restaurateurs and manufacturers will keep stepping up to the plate to meet these concerns.

"Organic, whole and natural foods will become more popular as Americans in mid-size towns, such as Louisville and Orlando, demand more local, conscientiously farmed fruit, vegetables and animal products," says Bay Area chef and restaurant industry consultant Andrew Hunter.

Scott Barton, chef and consultant at Counter, a vegan hotspot in New York's East Village, notes that establishments such as Pure Food and Wine in the city's Flatiron district are finding a wider audience thanks to a growing purist streak.

"The caliber of the farmer's market system we now have in New York created more chef interest in creating wholesale relationships," Barton says. "Pre-buys now allow farmers to buy seed, and chefs are actually influencing crop choices. Also, as a by-product of the farm-to-table trend, there is a spate of pristinely executed 'homey' or simple cuisine, such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which bills itself as seasonal American food celebrating the produce of the Hudson Valley," he adds.

Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible, predicts that organic beef, poultry and eggs will remain hot for the foreseeable future, while Bay Area private chef and caterer Mani Niall sees virtually limitless opportunity for Niman Ranch organic-certified meats and others in the field.

Food stylist and consultant Karletta Moniz sums the trend up neatly: "People want 'real' food - hold the hormones, hold the GMOs."

Back to the Roots

Artisan and heirloom foods are still on the rise. While health-related concerns may be fueling an appetite for all things organic, a push for quality, a yearning for simpler times, and a fascination with production on a smaller scale seem to account for consumers' ongoing love affair with artisan breads, cheeses, pastries, chocolates and other premium items.

"People will be interested in more locally grown and made foods, which will [continue to] drive the artisan food movement to middle America," says Robin Davis, food editor at the Columbus Dispatch. Chef and caterer Jenny Huston, meanwhile, believes heirloom turkeys, artisan cheeses and traditional, locally and regionally produced agricultural products are the wave of the future.

Artisan chocolate seems to be particularly hot at the moment. "With so many fine producers, we can choose from a cornucopia of chocolates for our varied uses," notes J. Kenyon, chef and general manager of San Francisco's noted Greens restaurant. "Chocolate could become the next olive oil," he says.

Ethnic Street Smarts

Our chef experts tell us haute cuisine continues to be shaped by the most unassuming of sources: Street foods - those portable, populist staples from around the globe. Such items are being accorded more respect generally, and are receiving the high-end treatment at fine-dining establishments. From Mexican empanadas to Vietnamese pho (beef noodle soup), from Salvadoran papusas to Indian samosas, the emphasis is squarely on simplicity and authenticity.

Peter Reinhardt, a chef and instructor at Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., dubs this trend "street food done right," while Barton describes a widespread attempt to create "authentic, vibrant regional cuisines."

James Schenk, chef and owner of San Francisco's Destino, a South American bistro, has given Peruvian arepas (stuffed cornmeal biscuits) a prominent spot on his menu, while at Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles, cuchifrito - "little fried" street foods such as pressed Cuban sandwiches and plantain chips - are prominent on the Happy Hour menu. And at Bangkok Joe's on K St. in Washington, D.C., (described by the Washington Diplomat as "an upscale venue for traditional Asian street foods") dumplings, rice bowls and other dishes of humble origin are the main draw.

Quick Fix

Our Chefs' Council continues to see ethnic cuisines by region becoming more fractured and fragmented with time. Rather than speaking only of Mexican food, we're hearing greater emphasis on sub-cuisines, i.e. from Oaxaca, Veracruz, Jalisco and Yucatan. A little farther south, the distinctions narrow as well: Peruvian, Andean-Peruvian, Chilean, Colombian and so on.

And, of course, the U.S.'s own sub-regional cuisines are gaining more attention and respect from culinary opinion leaders. "I definitely think there's room for more regional cuisine restaurants in the U.S.," says Adrian Hoffman, chef and partner at San Francisco's One Market restaurant. "People are tired of going to an 'Italian' restaurant to have Neapolitan versions of pizza and pasta. They learned there's more to Tuscan food than beef carpaccio with arugula. Let them now discover the great foods of Sicily, Piedmont, and the North."

Smaller Plates, Big Impact

"Small plates and small bites still have momentum," notes Michael Dellar, president of Dellar Restaurant Enterprises and co-owner of several Bay Area institutions, including the storied Lark Creek Inn. Barbecue guru Raichlen agrees: "I think tapas, mezes and other small plates will continue to be big, as will restaurants comprised entirely of grazing and tasting menus."

The fast and the curious are also a part of the new scene. There was broad consensus among respondents that fast-food establishments will continue down the path of healthier offerings. Some, including pastry chef and food writer Jennifer Millar, believe the bigger chains will ultimately have to respond aggressively to the organic trend as well. "The push for organic fast food and prepared food will become ever stronger," she notes.

So many opinions, so little space. Our survey touched on a wide range of other issues as well, including those specific to fine and casual dining, health foods and convenience. The full report is available in print or digital form and may be purchased either by writing me directly at or by calling 415-693-8910.

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