Tough economy continues to drive hot food trends: consultant

CHICAGO Today’s hottest food trends are related to economic headlines such as rising foreclosures and high unemployment, according to a presentation by Michael Whiteman, president of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based food and restaurant consultancy Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman Co. here at the 2011 Protein Innovation Summit presented by HOTELS, Meatingplace and Plate magazines.

“A whole bunch of consumers are economically distressed and psychologically distressed, and they’re rethinking their dining choices,” Whiteman said.

Whiteman outlined a number of “hard times hot buttons” — including economic survival, intimacy and friendship and the desire to feed emotions — driving current food trends. “What makes these hot buttons important is that they are all emotional concerns,” he said. “These are personal issues that affect the gut, the heart, and they need to be satisfied.”

Whiteman discussed trends including:

Small plates

Whiteman noted that today small plates are bringing diners together, and foodservice operators should consider merchandising menu items like sliders for big groups instead of just one person.

Reconsidered vegetables

Whiteman presented many examples of protein playing a supporting role for vegetables, which are now more prominent on many plates. Dishes highlighted included meat surrounded by hummus and a small steak accentuated with pesto and served with arugula and Parmesan.

The offal truth

Braised, breaded and fried beef tongue and pork cheeks served on ancient grains such as quinoa and farro with shaved fennel and radishes were a couple examples offered by Whiteman of offal taking center stage in many menu items. “Part of the attraction of these types of dishes is the spirit of adventure, the thrill of new experiences,” he noted.

Eggs all the time

Eggs are no longer just for breakfast, Whiteman explained; they now appear in dishes such as a BLT Caesar salad topped with a poached egg and grits and greens crowned by a poached egg coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.

Adding new elements to “old” Italian

Many “new old” ingredients — including lardo, burrata and sea urchin — are accentuating familiar Italian classics, Whiteman said.

A new sandwich culture

Internationally inspired sandwiches such as banh mi from Vietnam and cemitas from Mexico are becoming increasingly popular, Whiteman noted.

The food truck phenomenon and ethnic mish-mashing

Food trucks are prevalent in more and more cities, Whiteman said, and the cuisine they’re serving often illustrates “ethnic mish-mashing,” or the combining of flavors from various food cultures. Sometimes the results border on the ridiculous, such as a taco filled with spaghetti, but Whiteman added, “You can laugh, but it’s an indication of where we’re going gastronomically.”

Hamburger mania

The skyrocketing popularity of hamburgers, Whiteman explained, is driven by factors including the fact that they’re made of cheap protein and that, like eggs, they’re familiar and comforting, which gives foodservice operators a chance to pair them with exotic ingredients.

Overarching trends

A major concept extending over all today’s hot food trends, Whiteman noted, is “upscaling the downscale” by taking low-cost products and making them more refined, such as pork belly served atop crispy grits with root beer jelly or a hamburger topped with an exotic cheese and a runny egg.

Whiteman concluded his presentation with a reminder that even delicious food is rendered meaningless by poor service. “The basis of our existence is the way we provide service,” he said.