Menu innovation took a hard left turn when the pandemic began. Chefs and operators were thinking less about the next wave of ingredients and flavors and instead concentrating on which dishes were most cost-effective and could be adapted for off-premises business.
Now as full-service operators turn their attention back to the dine-in experience, they can start incorporating new ingredients, experimenting with fresh dishes, and exploring different cuisines. Here are 12 trends chefs should consider when sprucing up the menu.
Game meats of all sorts—everything from elk and bison to wild boar and ostrich—offer chefs the opportunity to experiment with unconventional animal proteins. But in terms of accessibility, game birds may be the best bet for seamlessly introducing lesser-known proteins onto the menu. Consumers might also be more willing to sample grouse and pheasant than moose or alligator. Chef Nelson German has been partial to quail as of late.
In the wake of COVID, consumers might still be hesitant to share foods when dining out. But this reluctance presents operators with an opportunity to create individual mixed plates. Think: Japanese soba alongside Chinese potstickers and a Laotian green papaya salad.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi says that in Hawaii, the tradition of building mixed plates (also known as lunchbox plates) across a spectrum of cuisine originated with immigrant workers sharing foods during their lunch breaks.
Mexican cuisine is no longer treated as a monolith, with many chefs spotlighting foods specific to areas like Oaxaca, Mexico City, and the Yucatan Peninsula. Nevertheless, American fusions like Cali-Mex and Tex-Mex still overshadow stateside nuances. New Mexico has a style all its own—just ask a native like Little Beet CEO Becky Mulligan—with staples like pozole, green chile stew, and carne adovada. But these specialties rarely travel beyond state borders, meaning there is an untapped market to be explored.
Though it sounds like an oxymoron, a healthy spin on indulgent foods is the logical bridge between pandemic and post-pandemic eating habits. In the face of uncertainty, consumers retreated to comfort foods when COVID first struck. Now they’re leaning into meals with better-for-you ingredients, a bit of indulgence, and some global flair, like a Mediterranean bowl, with cauliflower rice topped and steak.
Similarly, the neutral flavor palates of many comfort foods have led consumers to crave the exact opposite, namely bold, audacious spices and seasonings, like Sichuan peppercorns.
Chefs, especially those with ready access to seafood, are cooking fish beyond the regular salmon-shrimp-tuna-whitefish lineup. Curious consumers are eager to try these lesser-known species, and it helps that many, like cubby, mackerel scad, and tilefish, are more sustainable than popular varieties.
In Jacksonville, Florida, chef Scott Alters sources triggerfish, which tastes similar to crabmeat, and Mayport shrimp, which, while not a specific species, denotes any shrimp caught fresh in Northeastern Florida.
While hardly an inexpensive ingredient, truffles are worth their weight in flavor, especially now as plant-forward dishes make their way onto more menus. The subterranean fungi packs enough umami into dishes, from fries to gnocchi to chicken dumplings, to satisfy guests looking for rich, meaty flavors. That’s why truffles are one of chef David Lee’s favorite ingredients at Planta, a group of plant-based restaurants.
Americans’ obsession with Southern cuisine shows no sign of abating, but an interesting divide has taken root in the industry. Some restaurants are showcasing classics that may be unknown outside of the South. Other concepts are reimagining dishes with global flavors or a healthier slant.
For example, New Orleans–based chef Mason Hereford maintains that cracklins and boudin are must-have foods in the Big Easy, given their history and indulgent flavors. Meanwhile chef Tiffany Derry is elevating and rethinking Southern favorites at Roots Southern Table, with dishes like heirloom tomato salad and jerk lamb chops with hoppin’ johns.
Call them mocktails no more. The new generation of nonalcoholic libations are a far cry from the twee Shirley Temples and the basic club soda of yore. Whether bartenders are turning to nonalcoholic spirits like Seedlip or building their own concoctions from scratch, these zero-proof cocktails can appeal to teetotallers and regular drinkers alike thanks to complex flavors and expert assembly.
Italian food has long been a part of the American diet, but oftentimes the dishes were adapted versions of Southern Italian staples, think pizza and marinara-based pastas. In recent years, consumers have looked to Italy’s northern provinces where dishes like risotto, polenta, and bean soups are de rigueur. In fact, some chefs, including Karen Akunowicz, are creating whole concepts based around regions like Emilia-Romagna.
Although peach season is coming to a close in most parts of the country, chefs will be eagerly awaiting the return of the juicy stone fruit. Unlike apples, peach varieties are not often touted even though they have a multitude of variations, each with their own unique colors and flavors like flame peaches (rust-red color, sweet), elberta peaches (yellow with a red blush, juicy), and tropic snow peach (white flesh, tart).
From the Carolinas and Memphis to St. Louis and Texas, barbecue is one of the most celebrated regional dishes in the U.S. That said, some local spins have stayed under the radar. In coastal California, the town of Santa Maria has a style all its own, one that originated with ranchers and vaqueros in the 19th century. Chef Conrad Gonzalez says it may be the only official barbecue in the whole state. In this rendition, beef is cooked over live oak wood and then served with locally grown beans.
While German chocolate cake, creme brulee, and ice cream will never fall out of favor, global mashups are starting to crop up on more dessert menus. The combinations are limited only by a chef’s imagination, leading to creations like chocolate-filled samosas, Thai-spiced pumpkin custard, and tres leches halo-halo. To wit, chef Paola Velez whips up pandan babka and ube egg tarts at La Bodega Bakery within Compass Rose in D.C.