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Chefs predict top restaurant menu trends for 2016

National Restaurant Association survey shows that local sourcing and environmental sustainability remain hot trends

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The National Restaurant Association (NRA) annually explores the top menu trends for the coming year. For this year’s What’s Hot culinary forecast, the NRA surveyed nearly 1,600 professional chefs – members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) – to find which foods, beverages and culinary themes will be hot on restaurant menus in 2016.

The top 20 food trends for 2016 include: locally sourced meats and seafood; chef-driven fast-casual concepts; locally grown produce; hyper-local sourcing; natural ingredients/ minimally processed food; environmental sustainability; healthful kids’ meals; new cuts of meat; sustainable seafood; house-made/ artisan ice cream; ethnic condiments/ spices; authentic ethnic cuisine; farm/ estate branded items; artisan butchery; ancient grains; ethnic-inspired breakfast items; fresh/ house-made sausage; house-made/ artisan pickles; food waste reduction/ management; and street food/ food trucks.

While the survey highlights what is trending on restaurant menus, additional analysis of survey results and respondents’ answers to the open-ended question, ‘What will be the next hot menu trend?’ reveal a few more food ideas to keep an eye on this year:

Veggie-centric: When referring to centre-of-the-plate items, that usually means proteins, but that may be changing. Fresh produce as the star of the plate is being championed by more restaurants and culinary professionals, who are serving up vegetable-centric meals that are often vegetarian without being advertised as such. And even when animal proteins are included in the dish, the vegetable is still the main attraction. Basically the opposite of television character Ron Swanson’s attitude toward veggies as ‘the food that my food eats.’

Sriracha = the new ketchup?: The red sauce in the bottle with the green top is ubiquitous, but just a few years ago, only Thai food enthusiasts were familiar with this condiment. Following in its popularity growth wake are a range of other condiments and spices from various global cuisines applied to anything and everything to create brand new flavour combinations – chimichurri as a hamburger topping, peri peri barbecue ribs, Za’atar spread on crostini, raita with hot wings.

African flavours: International cuisines have become ingrained in our everyday diets, but despite featuring numerous distinct cuisines, Africa is still relatively under-explored when it comes to culinary experiences in the United States. Perhaps not for much longer, however. Berbere, harissa, dukkah, ras el hanout, tsire and other spice mixes and flavours are likely to gain wider use, as African flavours are a fast-growing trend.

Restaurant stores: ‘Grocerants’ has been around for a few years now – grocery stores increasingly focusing on foodservice. We are now starting to see restaurants adapting that idea by considering fresh food retail operations. If consumers want to eat where they shop for groceries, it is reasonable to believe they also want to the grocery shop where they eat. In fact, half of the consumers say they would be interested in buying fresh, uncooked food items from restaurants (think items like steak, shrimp, bread and pasta of the same quality as served in the restaurant). Hybrid concepts like food halls and market restaurants are leading the way.

Simple is key: Simplicity, back to basic cooking, and classic dishes. These are words to live by this year according to many professional chefs. While molecular gastronomy is turning more mainstream, there is a counter-movement brewing that focuses on stripping down recipes to fewer ingredients to let them shine in all their glory. Venerable preparation methods like pickling, fermenting and smoking are back with a vengeance, and traditional recipes are being refreshed for today’s palates.

No more gluten-free kale salads?: All good things must come to an end, and we may be approaching the end of the trends line for kale salads and gluten-free cuisine. Both of these formerly hot trends have been losing steam over the past couple of years. But don’t expect either to go away altogether. We are more likely to see these evolve into perennial favourites over time. For example, kale salads are being adapted to salads where other greens are traditionally used, like Caesars and Cobbs, and gluten-free items are becoming menu staples at many foodservice locations.

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