Creation Trends: Small is large these days

July 15, 2003
Grazing, once the sole province of tapas and sushi bars, gains momentum

Could it be that the nation responsible for Humvees, the $200 million summer blockbuster, the Super Bowl halftime spectacle, 64-oz. Big Gulps and the Chrysler Building is actually thinking smaller these days when it comes to dining?

Given the popularity of steakhouses and fast-food outlets specializing in mammoth cuts and jumbo combos, it may seem surprising that a growing number of Americans are also beginning to discover the pleasures of a more selective, measured and social form of eating known in many quarters as "grazing."

Just to clarify, those of us charged with keeping an eye on culinary trends and consumer behavior use "grazing" to refer to two distinctly different phenomena. One is the tendency of people to enjoy snacks or "mini meals" throughout the day. This form of grazing is largely the result of the hectic schedules of most Americans, which make it impractical -- if not impossible -- to sit down to three square meals a day.  

The second form of grazing, driven by pleasure rather than pandemonium, involves the practice of enjoying several small plates in a single sitting rather than a single larger entree.

For a host of reasons, restaurants in virtually every category are continuing to find success with small plates. The widespread appeal of Spanish tapas restaurants and sushi bars put the whole concept of sampling on the U.S. culinary map, where it has spread with a vengeance. Consider these factors underlying the small-plate trend, which are as varied as the offerings themselves:

Economies of scale: Americans may tighten their belts in tough times, but they still crave the social experience of a night out in a favorite restaurant. Scott Barton, chef and owner of Voyage in New York City, has divided his establishment in half to suit his patrons' wallets, profiles and moods.  "If you're a white-collar professional in your late twenties living check to check, the front of the restaurant has a more casual decor and a menu that's based on sharing plates,"? he says. "It's great for dating, and for the younger set that may prefer to share a few plates before and after a movie or show rather than sit down to a single big meal."?  The restaurant's rear dining room, meanwhile, tends to attract diners with an eye on a more traditional, entree-based experience.

Wanted -- the world on a plate: Tighter security, global unrest and a weakening dollar are putting a damper on many Americans' desire to venture abroad. But there's still something distinctly exotic and adventurous about going on a culinary safari from the comfort of a restaurant table. "It's about discovery, and it's about experience,"? says Roland Passot, chef and owner of San Francisco's celebrated La Folie.  

Luke Sung, chef and owner of Isa, also in San Francisco, has distinguished himself by putting a French topspin on the Spanish tapas tradition, offering small plates characterized by simple but deliciously distinctive flavors that work beautifully together: foie gras with rhubarb and strawberries; potato-wrapped Alaskan halibut paupiette with capers, tomato, lemon and brown butter. "People are getting variety through trying very different dishes all the flavors don't have to arrive on one plate," Sung says.  "This allows us to work with very straightforward recipes. And what's more, we serve the food as soon as it's ready. It makes sense to cook this way, and it makes sense to eat this way."  

The kinds of liberties Sung has taken with tapas are now relatively common on both coasts: Cicchete, or Venetian-style tapas, and the so-called "Tapanese" variant are just the most prevalent examples. Meanwhile, specialty tasting menus emphasizing an entire spectrum of cross-cultural flavors continue to find favor among diners coast to coast.

Appetizing options for snacking, sharing and sampling: Fine dining isn't the only segment promoting the sharing-and-sampling ethos. Casual chains have long taken pains to offer substantial appetizer menus that help diners round out their meals and the restaurant boost its average check total. Today, many emphasize "sampler platters"? that deliver a wealth of tastes on one plate. And though they're more focused on convenience than on providing a social experience, fast-food outlets are offering more finger-foods than ever before. On-the-go eating has spawned a new generation of more substantial QSR snacks, from jalapeno bites to fish-and-chip platters to popcorn chicken.

Less really can be more: Whether patrons actually wind up eating less or paying less when they head out for a small-plate experience is debatable. At many restaurants specializing in small plates, it's easy to rack up a check that's at least the equivalent of what diners would pay for a more traditional meal, many chefs say. Regardless, there's something undeniably satisfying about teasing the palate rather than overwhelming it. From a purely physiological point of view, our tastebuds and olfactory senses are easily tuckered out, which means that we derive the greatest pleasure from the first few bites of any dish. And psychologically speaking, the small plate seems ideally suited to Americans' notoriously short attention spans. On that note, a May 2003 New York Times review of Amuse, a new Gotham tasting-menu mecca, described the restaurant as a place "where coming attractions are the show."?

Will small plates become a permanent fixture in the land of bigger-is-better, or are they simply a sign of these more modest times?  Only time will tell, but we at the Center for Culinary Development are betting that as more Americans discover just how rich, exciting and satisfying a meal comprising small plates can be, they'll embrace grazing in a big way.

FOOD PROCESSING welcomes Marc Halperin as a new contributor focusing on emerging and prevailing trends in the food and foodservice industries. As culinary director and partner at San Francisco's Center for Culinary Development, and as a trained chef, Halperin assists leading food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research. Look for his column here each month. Also, feel free to e-mail him with your questions or suggestions for future columns at [email protected].

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