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Keeping up with on-trend flavors

SHAPE May 2017

Chefs, operators cater to increasingly adventurous tastes with cutting-edge ingredients.


While veteran restaurateurs and chefs understand the value of satisfying their guests' culinary cravings with classic tried-and-true menu items, they also recognize the benefits of keeping pace with food fashions and on-trend ingredients in today's marketplace.

More than ever curious consumers are demonstrating an awareness of the changing food landscape, spurring many operators to adjust their menus to accommodate the latest directions and voguish ingredients.

“It’s important for restaurants to keep menus up-to-date with trendy ingredients as consumer tastes are continually evolving,” says Joe Garber, marketing coordinator for research firm Datassential. “People also like to try new flavors, and putting unique and trendy ingredients on a menu can help a restaurant or chain stand out. In fact, 70 percent of U.S. consumers indicate that their food preferences are driven primarily by what they encounter on restaurant menus — more so than what they find on supermarket shelves or with recipes.”

Working with on-trend ingredients also provides an opportunity for restaurants “to add a new twist and experiment with flavors through 'safe experimentation' — giving adventurous diners a new flavor to try with the added comfort of a familiar food, Garber says. “For example, adding an ingredient like harissa to a burger is something that a consumer would try, but it might be trickier to market an unfamiliar and exotic dish.”

However, adding the latest ingredient or dish to a menu should not be approached as a one-size-fits-all kind of exercise. Operators must know their clientele and adjust accordingly. “It's important for chefs and restaurateurs be aware of on-trend ingredients — people seek them out,” says Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University's Denver campus. “But an [ingredient or dish] might not be right for every restaurant. If it doesn't fit there might not be room for it.”

Nevertheless, keeping up with the latest food fashion and trendy ingredient is a generally sensible plan to follow in this competitive marketplace. “If you’re a hot chef with a new restaurant who is getting a lot of media and social media attention, you’ll need to innovate and follow trends to keep the attention,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting Inc. in Carmichael, Calif. “Kale is an example of a trendy ingredient that many restaurants have added to their menus. But once an ingredient like that goes mainstream and appears on a major chain’s menu it’s no longer very trendy. Chefs need to keep looking for the next ingredient that will make their customers happy and excited.”

Ratcheting up the spice level in dishes is one flavor trend that is exciting restaurant customers. “'Spicy' is all the rage right now,” Myrdal Miller says. “It started with sriracha and has moved onto a wide variety of spicy ingredients, like North African harissa, African peri peri peppers/spice and Korean gochujang.”

To some degree that spiciness dovetails with the trend toward incorporating more ethnic dishes on the menu. De la Torre says today's consumer is far more responsive when it comes to trying ethnic influences and ingredients. “Ten years ago you couldn't sell a dish like Brussels sprouts with fish sauce,” he says. “Now people are much more adventurous.”

Health and wellness concerns also play a role in the kinds of ingredients and preparations operators are menuing. “As consumers' taste and dietary preferences change, chef’s need to adjust their menus to meet the demand,” says Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a New York-based restaurant consultancy. “Customers care a lot about the 'healthy halo' aspects, particularly in dishes that are featured as ‘light.’”

In the meantime, chefs and operators are continuing to explore new culinary vistas by experimenting with a wide range of on-trend ingredients. Datassential cites several of those more cutting-edge items in its “Flavors & Ingredients To Watch” study. They include:

Chermoula — A Moroccan sauce consisting of preserved lemon, cilantro, parsley, garlic, cumin, coriander and olive oil, chermoula is often served with grilled seafood. It has grown more than 400 percent on menus over the past four years.

Umeboshi — Umeboshi are Japanese ume plums — actually a species of apricot — that are pickled in salt or a salt and liquid mixture, often with the herb perilla, which gives them a pink hue. They are making appearances on menus alongside fermented Asian flavors like miso and kimchi.

Turmeric — Featured on only 2 percent of U.S. menus, turmeric nevertheless has grown 155 percent over the past four years. A mild relative of ginger and native to southern Asia, turmeric is prized for its earthy flavor and deep orange color.

Finger limes — Named because it is about the size and shape of a finger, the Australian finger lime can be used in anything from dessert garnishes to cocktails. These limes also are being used by chefs looking for a more unique citrus flavor ingredient to brighten up raw seafood dishes like ceviche or crudo.

Avocado oil — Used in dressings and as cooking oil, avocado oil has a high smoke point and provides a healthy alternative to olive and coconut oils. 

Other on-trend items include:

Poke — Johnson & Wales' de la Torre notes that the Hawaiian dish poke is finding wider acceptance. Generally prepared with chopped, raw ahi tuna, seaweed, nuts, soy, onions and sesame seed, poke is showing up in bowls as well as appetizers and main dishes at a growing number of restaurants. 

Sea vegetables — With their desirable umami taste, sea vegetables like sea beans,  kelp and nori are being added to mixed vegetable dishes, broths and salads, de la Torre says.

Clearly, though, operators and chefs know that not every dish or ingredient promises to be a good fit for every menu. “It depends on who your customers are,” says Myrdal Miller.” If they are younger diners who are eager to try new foods with a trend story, then [you should explore new flavors]. But if you have an established customer base who wants their favorite menu items to stay the same, then don’t worry about following the trends. Follow the lead of your customer, and give them what they want.”



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