Best Culinary Practices for 2012
It’s been a year filled with farm-to-table concepts, gourmet burgers, offal galore, pop-up restaurants, French macarons, meatballs, and every kind of food truck imaginable. But what does 2012 hold in store? Which strategies, techniques, trends, dishes, and flavors will have the biggest impact on your kitchen operations? We rounded up a stellar cast of chefs, restaurateurs, industry analysts, a professional forager, and a director of honey to get a sneak peek at what culinary practices are going to be hot for the next 12 months and how they can help you get a head start on your competition, wow diners and boost your bottom line.
Freedom Within a Format
Having a concept for your restaurant chain doesn’t mean that your cuisine has to be set in stone. The Matchbox Food Group has a number of restaurants in Palm Springs, California, and the Washington, D.C., area. Though the casual eateries are known for pizzas and miniburgers, their menus are starting to boast a variety of items that go way beyond comfort-food classics. At the Capitol Hill Matchbox, executive chef Shannan Troncoso has introduced luxe entrees like lobster risotto and duck breast. Over at the micro-chain’s Rockville, Maryland, outlet, chef Jon McArthur has whipped up elevated options like seared scallops with braised Asian pork belly and tuna tartare with honey-garlic sauce. Giving the chefs autonomy to put their own stamp on the burgeoning concept was always part of the plan. “The idea was to pair pizza with American and bistro items that you wouldn’t think went together,” says CEO Ty Neal. “We just say no to cookie cutter. We want to always make our restaurants better by giving our chefs creative leeway.”
The restaurant group plans two new locations around the District next year where the core menu will again be supplemented with location-specific dishes conceived by the on-site staff. “We don’t have kitchen managers,” Neal says. “We have seriously talented chefs.” Neal and his partners retain an executive veto power, so the kitchen team won’t have complete control. However, Neal says that the group is open to a broad variety of dishes, including those with Southwestern and French roots. That approach ultimately helps keep the restaurant concept fresh for both the kitchen staff and the diners, so there’s a continual excitement about new items, which are usually available only for a limited time.
Farm-to-table concepts are a dime-a-dozen these days. Now restaurants are taking their sourcing to the next level by introducing rare and exotic foraged ingredients into their recipes. “Bringing nature to the plate in interesting ways is a big trend,” says Andrew Freeman, president of hospitality consulting firm Andrew Freeman & Co. “This includes unexpected elements, such as leaves, twigs, and different flavors direct from the trees.”
Mikuni Wild Harvest stocks some of the culinary world’s most notable larders with freshly foraged goods like blue spruce tips and baby pine buds. Co-founder Tyler Gray oversees a continental network of foragers who ensure that restaurants such as Per Se to Le Bernardin have only the freshest uncultivated produce and wild proteins. “Painters are going to choose the best paints for their canvas,” Gray says. “A chef is going to choose the ingredients with the most prolific flavors and defined characteristics.”
By incorporating hyper-seasonal, nearly-impossible-to-find ingredients into their dishes, restaurants not only give diners an experience that they can’t get at a competitor, they also give them a great story about the origins of their food. “It’s not simply the right choice and a good choice, it’s also a delicious choice,” Gray says. “There’s nothing quite like a wild mushroom ragu. Farm-raised oyster, portobello and crimini mushrooms have none of the nuance, character, aroma, and flavor of wild chanterelles, porcinis and morel mushrooms. They’re on a completely different playing field.”
It’s one thing to source the best local ingredients; it’s another thing to produce them yourself. The latest buzz on the restaurant scene is beekeeping. Mission Beach Cafe in San Francisco has four hives on its roof for honey to sweeten its dishes and drinks, while Tysons Corner, Va.’s, Härth keeps three beehives on the roof so the bees can pollinate the on-site garden and produce honeycomb for the cheese program. Washington, D.C.-based Farmers Restaurant Group, which owns two Founding Farmers locations, has partnered with George Washington University to create its own honey. “Our goal is provide value, values, and yummy food,” says director of honey Valerie Zweig. “Urban beekeeping is one more way Founding Farmers can walk our talk and extend our brand.”
The restaurant installed its hives in 2011, so its first batches of liquid gold will be featured on menus in the fall of 2012. Corporate chef Joe Goetze wants to make sure that the honey is properly utilized when it is added to his arsenal. “We’re not going to be using it in the heavy cooking, because we won’t get credit for it and we won’t get any value for it,” he says. “It’ll be used as a topping and a dressing. We’re going to put it on items like flatbreads and ribeye, which people don’t necessarily expect.” To ensure that the restaurant does receive attention for its efforts, servers will be armed with information, which will also be posted on its website and in its on-site reading library. That intimately connects guests to their dining experience in a way that transcends merely drawing attention to the connection between local producers and the products on the plate.
A Taste of Asia
Look to the East—well, the Far East—if you want to see what’s going to excite diners’ palates next. “Keep an eye out for a lot of regional Thai and Indian street food,” Freeman says. That will include ethnic-specific ventures like New York City’s Indian Creperie, which specializes in stuffed crepe-like dosas; Tikka Bytes, an Asian subcontinent-styled food truck in San Francisco; and Chipotle’s new Asian concept ShopHouse. But it will also include mainstream restaurants expanding their menus. The Matchbox Food Group will roll out several Asian-inspired dishes at its location in Washington’s Chinatown, while San Francisco’s contemporary American restaurant Level III now offers Thai lobster bisque.
Freeman also sees a rise in the importation of ancient techniques from Asia. This includes everything from making bao buns to pulling noodles. Next year, chef Martin Yan will open M.Y. China in San Francisco, which will not only focus its menu on the handmade carbs, but also will allow guests to see dishes being created in the open kitchen. Incorporating old-world concepts into a new-world context allows chefs to bring back heritage cuisines, entertain guests with showy food preparations and add a deeper backstory to their menus.
A Wealth of Health
Calories, fat, and sodium were big players the past few years, as American comfort foods made a big comeback. However, now health concerns are playing a larger role in dining choices. Freeman believes that diners want to walk a fine line. “It’s all about healthy indulgence,” he says. “Gone is the word ‘diet’ on menus. People want to eat delicious food with a good calorie count.”
Aaron Noveshen, founder and CEO of the food strategy consultants the Culinary Edge, believes that chefs and restaurateurs now need to focus on what goes into food and be able to make that information easily accessible. “People are paying more attention,” he says. With mandatory menu labeling coming up in 2012 for restaurants with 20 or more locations, consumers will suddenly have a lot more information at their fingertips about what they’re eating. “The No. 1 thing people will look at is calories,” Noveshen says. “Brands are starting to articulate about what a meaningful, healthy number might be. The current magic number is 600 calories or less.” Though many restaurants will be exempted from this labeling law, it could ultimately teach consumers to expect that information at establishments of any size. Kitchens that get a jump-start on offering healthier options and those that voluntarily make health information available will be ready to meet the expected demand.
Food Trucks Park For Good
“We’re at the tipping point,” Freeman says. “Food trucks started out as a really cool underground movement, but now they’re becoming mainstream and will soon just be a part of culture.” With the broad acceptance of the dining format, food truck owners now feel the need to reinvent themselves and expand beyond their wheels. A number of food trucks have transformed themselves into brick-and-mortar operations. Pupatella pizzeria in Arlington, Virginia, Los Angeles ice cream sandwichery Coolhaus and Portland, Oregon’s, vegetarian-vegan burger cart Off the Griddle all began as mobile operations before settling down in a permanent space.
Though many brick-and-mortar brands have opened burgeoning mobile offshoots, Noveshen is quick to assert that the culinary processes have to be spot-on to be successful. “The most successful mobile food trucks assemble food to order,” he says. “They’re in the fast-food business.” As an example, Noveshen points to king of pop-up Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoBites food truck in Los Angeles, which preps everything in advance off-site and then fries chicken to order. “Everything on the prep side—like the flavors and the brine—can have all the culinary integrity, while the service side was built for speed,” he says. “You have star-status food being served in a quick environment.” So brick and mortars looking to branch out should keep the prep in their home kitchens, while just focusing on service in their trucks. That ensures high-quality food, while reaching a new set of consumers and expanding the brand.
Small Plates, Big Impact
“Dining in restaurants has become so much more social,” Freeman says. “So even though small plates were a big trend for 2012, they’re here to stay.” No one knows this better than James Beard Award-winning chef-partner Guillermo Pernot of Cuba Libre, which has locations in Washington, Philadelphia, Orlando, Florida, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. The innovative chef has been doing this format since 1985, when he opened a small-plates concept called Trust in Philadelphia. His latest series of eateries focuses on Cuban cuisine in a tapas format, which allows diners more freedom and experimentation. “People are afraid of eating certain things that they haven’t tried, things that they’re not quite sure what they are, or things they’ve had before, but they were badly prepared,” Pernot says. “Small plates give those people another chance, because everyone gets to order what they want, and they still get try a little bit of everyone else’s food.”
For the culinary team, the tapas-styled format allows for a lot of creativity. With more than 40 menu items—many of them available only seasonally for a limited time—chefs are given more leeway to work with out-of-the-mainstream ingredients. Pernot and his team have incorporated things such as smoked duck ham, tamarind ketchup, white anchovies, and octopus into their creations. Though he often sources exotic ingredients, Pernot can still maintain a respectable profit margin on every dish that usually runs between 20 to 30 percent above food costs. Plus, the meals can be paced to unfold more slowly than at other casual restaurant concepts, so servers have more time to upsell the restaurant’s extensive drink menu.
So there you have it, our best ideas for your culinary practices in 2012. Now it’s up to you to take this tips and turn them into success stories. We’d also be interested in hearing about some of your most winning culinary practices, so please leave your ideas in the comments section below.