Worlds of Innovation

In early November, I attended the Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, CA.  It is a premier event that always fills me full of inspiration and new ideas, and makes me want to travel the world!

This year’s theme was “American Menus”, yet there were top chefs from all over the world, both in attendance and as speakers. This shows how influential other cuisines are to our menus domestically and how the food world seems to get smaller and more interconnected every day.

 Of the many general themes I garnered from the event, here are a few of the main ideas that came across loud and clear that are sure to impact American menus in the near future.

  1. Home Cooked Meals
  2. Informal eating                                                                                
  3. Artisan, handmade, chef driven                                                            
  4. Ethnic infusion of flavors
  5. Luxury at a discount 
  6. Comfort food
  7. Simple, fresh, true flavors 
  8. Street food 

Home Cooked Meals This really doesn’t mean more people will be cooking at home, it does mean they want foods that remind them of home cooked meals from childhood.  Fine dining chefs are reverting back to the foods they grew up with, the dishes they learned to cook from their Mom or Grandma.  Chefs are examining their roots and culture more closely than ever before and recreating these dishes in new, exciting ways.  Chef Charles Phan of the famed Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco served an impeccable Fried Chicken with Sriracha Butter served in a paper cone that brought back great memories of home cooked chicken but with a surprising new flavor twist.

Informal Eating – This trend focuses on meals becoming more casual – communal tables in restaurants, picnics, food on the go; trailer/truck food and snacking all are great examples of this hot trend.  Ramen noodle bars exemplify this trend, a casual spot to have a delicious, filling, hot meal with friends that can be a quick eating adventure.

Artisan, Handmade, Chef Driven Processed foods are out, and even if it is manufactured, the food must look handmade to be considered authentic.  Artisan, hand tossed Napoli style pizza crusts are the perfect example of this trend that can easily be transferred into multi-unit restaurants.  Celebrity chefs are being asked to develop products for manufacturers, retail and for chain restaurants more and more, adding a culinary flair and notoriety to menus.

Ethnic Infusion – Great flavors are coming from other countries’ cuisine and can fit perfectly into well known American favorites to create new, innovative menu items.  Chermoula, Harissa, hummus, Achiote, ceviches, and many types of peppers (Aleppo, cascabel, piquillo, and guajillo to name a few) are all trendy ingredients that will get more attention on upcoming menus.  The opposite of ethnic infusion is ethnic CONFUSION, which while making an interesting show on menus, seems to be more of a fad than a lasting trend.  The flavors provide a WOW impact but don’t necessarily taste great.  Wasabi coated fried chicken sounds interesting, but would you crave it every week?  Ethnic fusion is nothing new. Wolfgang Puck is a master of this type of cuisine, but it must be done well AND taste great to endure.


Luxury at a Discount – The economy is still impacting food choices and this will not change anytime soon.  While there are signs of improvement, consumers are hesitant to spend extravagantly on meals as they once did.  Consumers still want a luxury dish, but they also want it at a great price.  Instead of an expensive dinner out, consumers are trading down to the same flavors served in smaller portions or in unique ways, such as food trucks, to get their fine dining fix in a completely different atmosphere.  Star Ginger, a mobile food truck on the campus of UC Davis in California, offers quality Southeast Asian food and fresh flavors in the form of rice bowls and sandwiches to patrons.  And all of this is at an affordable price while giving the customer a chance to try something new with a low investment.

Comfort Food – Sandwiches are in!  Baker Mark Furstenberg did a demonstration using a sourdough bread boule, cut and hollowed, slathered inside with white bean spread, stuffed with slow cooked lamb, caramelized onions and black olives.  The bread was then weighted down and baked.  After baking, the boule was sliced and served as a fork and knife sandwich eat, and it was amazing.  Great flavors, a hearty meal, and simple ingredients made this an ultimate comfort meal.  Joyce Goldstein also showcased a tuna salad sandwich at the same sandwich workshop, made with Moroccan Charmoula Mayonnaise that was simple, ethnic but familiar, and above all, delicious.

Simple, Fresh, True Flavors – Recipes do not need a long list of ingredients to be “inspired”. The old adage of “keep it simple stupid” applies here!  Select the best ingredients available, make sure they are vibrant and fresh, and cook them in a way to let the true flavors of the food shine through.   Chef Jose Garces made a basic empanada but added a twist by using cooked plantain dough instead of the traditional flour dough, filled with a scallion, garlic, and queso fresco cheese filling.  The combination created a tasty dish that was simple and amazing and also a great gluten-free choice.

Street Food – Perhaps inspired by Hawker food stalls in Singapore, which are Singapore’s “food trucks”, mobile food trucks are still on the rise in the USA.  In Singapore, big bowls of noodle soups, hot pepper crab, satays, grilled meats, quick to prepare/easy to eat meals are the norm, but domestically, the variety has taken off and the choices are staggering.  Anything from empanadas, dumplings, sushi, Indian biryani, pizza, BBQ, fried chicken and waffles to desserts like cupcakes, cake shakes, make your own s’mores and fried doughnuts can be found being dished out of food trucks in many cities.  There is plenty of inspiration that can be translated to everyday foods we already love. How about Bulgogi wings?

 At The Marketplace we could sample the delicacies and demonstrations that we saw during the day, and sponsors had a chance to show their take on the conference theme.  While sampling everything would have required an extra stomach or two, there were a few notable dishes worth mentioning.

Frito Lay served up walking Frito Pie variations that were innovative and definitely not something you’d find at the ballpark.  I tried the Sweet Cream, Salted Caramel and Amarena Cherry Tacos with Original Fritos Corn Chips.  Served in the bag  for a portable dish, I wasn’t sure the flavors were going to be harmonious, but they were well thought out and a great example of how sweet and savory can come together to create something unexpected. 

Shrimp & Cuttlefish with Black Rice Paella was another winner in my book; a very regional dish that was truly authentic, showing authenticity was NOT dead!  Topped with a foamy whipped egg white and green garlic topping, this paella was bursting with flavor and satisfied the comfort food need perfectly without being heavy. 

Chef Newman Miller of Quantum Foods made a puff pastry stuffed with braised beef ribs and Stilton blue cheese, showcasing simple and delicious can go hand in hand. 

Just to show that foie gras is always in style, another chef created a corn masa tamale wrapped banana leaf, steamed and then topped with a slab of seared foie gras.  Watching the preparation, my mouth watered and even though it wasn’t traditional, it looked delicious! 

 Much inspiration was gathered at this event, and now I am ready to translate this inspiration into innovative new dishes in the kitchen. I hope it has also sparked your imagination or at least made your mouth water and your taste buds long to sample a few of these flavors!

 Happy Eating,

 Chef Allison

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