What’s hot on restaurant menus?

A new National Restaurant Association (NRA) survey of more than 1,600 professional chefs – members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) – reveals that nutrition and philosophy-driven food choices will be the hottest trends on restaurant menus in 2009. Local produce, bite-size desserts, organics, healthful kids’ meals, and new cuts of meat top the list of nearly 210 culinary items in the third annual “ What’s Hot” chef survey. Rounding out the top 10 trends are kids’ vegetable/fruit side dishes, superfruits (including acai and mangosteen), small plates/tapas/mezze/dim sum, artisan liquor and sustainable seafood. Nutrition/health as a culinary theme is ranked number 11 in the survey, underscoring the growing trends of consumer interest in healthful living.

“Creativity has always been a hallmark of professional chefs. Today’s marketplace offers more options than ever before,” says Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of NRA. “As the wider trend of health continues to grow, the trend of choosing certain foods to follow one’s personal philosophy has also gained momentum in the culinary world. As interest in food and the culinary arts grows in the U.S., consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the food they eat, and chefs are putting their enormous talents to work to fulfill the demand for dishes that follow these trends.”

Several among the top 20 trendy items are related to the emerging trend of philosophy-driven food choices, including local sourcing, organics, artisanal items, sustainable seafood and free-range pork/poultry. Locally grown produce – rated the number-one trend on restaurant menus in 2009 – has grown tremendously in popularity for a variety of reasons. The idea of farm-fresh fruit and vegetables and minimal transportation are appealing to many, and sourcing locally is also tied to supporting local communities and businesses. Food and beverage items produced by small, artisan businesses also hold appeal, as do animal welfare and environmental concerns.

“Going green will no longer be an alternative, as it will affect everything we do in our industry, from the use of induction cooking to finding new and exciting local food sources,” says ACF national president John Kinsella, CMC, CCE, WGMC, AAC. “And the word ‘chef’ will represent and mean a chef who cooks healthy, flavorful foods.”

New/fabricated cuts of meat (such as Denver steak and pork flat iron steak) come in at number five on the list of trendy items. Several factors drive this trend, including culinary creativity, cost-consciousness, and interest in lean protein. These new cuts are developed to gain maximum flavor from the meat, incorporating under-used parts of the animal into innovative dishes, and customizing cuts to trim fat content.

“What’s Hot” chef survey