October 22nd, 2015

Walking the Sweet and Savory Line: Pushing the Boundaries of Flavor

Posted in About Allison

Sweet and savory combinations have been around for a while and are extremely popular with consumers. This craving for unique flavor combinations has pushed food development in some very interesting directions.  From something as simple as salted caramel to other combinations that are downright wacky, consumers desire the contrast that sweet and salty or savory items bring.

So what happens when a food product you are so familiar with releases a new flavor and you are not sure how you feel? Does it confuse you or make you want to jump right in and try it? Does the flavor combination intrigue or repel you?

Lay’s Potato Chips has done this type of reimagining for the past several years with their ‘Do Us a Flavor’ promotion, where the grand prize flavor submission earns $1,000,000 or 1% of the earnings from the new flavor. This year’s contest focus was regional U.S. flavors.  This year’s flavor finalists include Biscuits and Gravy, West Coast Truffle Fries, New York Reuben and Greek Town Gyro.  If you want to learn more about how Frito Lay developed these ideas and the Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest, they will be a keynote speaker at the Research Chefs Association annual conference next March in Denver, CO.

Let’s look at some other concepts that are pushing these boundaries.

We all grew up with certain snacks or desserts that give us a comfortable nostalgic feeling when we revisit them. One of mine is crunchy Cheetos. It was the one mainstay snack in our house beyond any other. And of course it also conjures up images of fingers stained orange by the cheese powder.

In other countries, such as Japan, unique and often unheard of flavor combinations are much more common. Take the Banana Cheetos©, which debuted in Japan in response to the release of the new Minions movie. Such a familiar food, yet reimagined with banana powder, cinnamon and salt.

Then there is the Ramen Ice Cream from Nissin: it features soy ramen and curry ramen flavored ice cream, and it is topped with freeze dried shrimp, beef, egg, potatoes and chives.  Available at Yokohama Nissin Cup Noodles Museum, this is one dish I am not sure I would even want to try.

And then came the RamNut: a deep fried donut made from ramen that has been cooked in horchata then mixed with eggs and frozen until firm. From there it is shaped into donuts, deep fried and covered with sweet frostings and sprinkles. This is one in a continuing series of ramen mash-ups, which started with the Ramen Burger last year.

Not to be outdone, Dominque Ansel debuted Burrata ice cream at his new West Village shop. He touts it as an alternative to the sweeter vanilla ice cream we are used to eating. It is finished with balsamic caramel and a whole confited strawberry, and it has a markedly less sweet character than a typical ice cream.

A chocolatier is Minneapolis, B.T. McElrath, is buying quality local bread, toasting it, spreading it with butter, and then enrobing it in chocolate, for its own special take on the artisan toast trend. You’ve seen this trend most commonly as avocado smeared toast and other flavors with a $10.00 price tag.

And let’s not forget one of the most notable sweet savory trends to hit the Big Easy: savory king cakes. In flavors like muffuletta, boudin and crawfish, these savory flavors are taking NOLA by storm. Based on the traditionally sweet version of the cake, some of these newer flavors manage to walk the sweet and savory line rather beautifully.

From the above examples, it is clear to see just how important the sweet and savory combination is to menu innovation.


October 7th, 2015

Vegetables Take Center Stage

Posted in About Allison

Vegetables are sitting high on the list of trends in culinary right now. Many believe that the vegetable focused trend started as early as 2001 when French chef Alain Passard removed all red meat from L’Arpege, his restaurant in France. Whether you call it vegivore cuisine, or vegetable focused, one thing is for sure, today’s chefs are reimagining vegetable preparations that appeal to meat eaters and vegetarians alike. It’s really no wonder that this trend is gaining speed.

For one, it’s an increased focus on consumer health. Rising rates of obesity and a desire for more “better-for-you” options are driving consumers to seek out new flavors and more vegetables on their plates. While the steak the size of your plate is something that will never go away, more and more the shift to vegetable-centric plates translates to a healthier bottom line for both the consumer and the restaurateur. This trend is not about excluding meat from the plate but rather using it as a flavor to complement the vegetables. Because one thing is for sure, consumers as a whole still want meat on their plate.

In addition to the purported health benefits of a vegetable dense diet, more restaurants are shifting to a focus on vegetables for another reason entirely – cost. Especially in light of the recent egg shortage and with escalating beef prices, making vegetables the star just makes sense. With this shift of protein to the left of center, food costs are reduced. It’s the difference between an 8 ounce portion of meat on the plate versus 2-3 ounces that complement the flavor of the vegetables.

Concepts that are setting the trend:

  • Dirt Candy (Amanda Cohen, NY) – a strictly vegetarian restaurant known for its fun and whimsical outlook on vegetables, features unique dishes such as portobello mousse with cherries and Asian pears as well as grilled smoked broccoli dogs.
  • Oxheart (Justin Yu, Houston, Tx) – helmed by Justin Yu, Oxheart features 2 tasting menus, the Garden Menu (vegan) and the Tasting Menu (vegetable-centered). The chef comes with a rather impressive pedigree, including time at restaurants Green Zebra, Spring and Ubuntu.
  • Gardner (Ben Edgerton & Andrew Wiseman, Austin, Tx)- featuring fresh and locally sourced produce complemented by fresh seafood and proteins with a heavy focus on vegetables, Gardner was recently nominated by Bon Appetit for “Best New Restaurant”. While they didn’t make the Top 10, even a nomination is worth a mention.
  • Commissary (Roy Choi, LA) –  a restaurant inside of a working greenhouse on the 2nd Floor of The LINE Hotel, Commissar features several protein based dishes but the predominant portion of the menu features vegetarian dishes with the signature Roy Choi flair. Think fusion cuisine with Asian and Mediterranean flavors. Charred carrots with a tart yogurt drizzle, radish sprouts and a drizzle of green sauce signify the focus of the menu: the freshest vegetables, reimagined with creative cooking techniques and complementary flavors.
  • Beefsteak (Jose Andres, D.C.) – Chipotle-esque concept in D.C. from Jose Andres that focuses on feeding fresh vegetable based dishes to the masses. With 3 locations and an assembly line format, this may very well be the beginning of a very successful vegetable based franchise.
  • Gjelina (Travis Lett, Venice Beach, CA) – while not a predominantly vegetable focused restaurant, there is a whole section devoted entirely to vegetables, and then another section devoted to salad, which may or may not contain animal proteins. Even in the salad section, the utilization of animal protein is kept to a minimum. Interesting dishes include a squash blossom pizza with burrata and roasted sun chokes with garlic tarragon and vinegar.

One thing is for sure, if you are developing concepts for the next generation consumer, well-constructed, vegetable-focused plates play a key role and a tasty one at that.