The National Restaurant Association recently released the results from its annual "What's Hot in 2013" survey of more than 1,800 professional chefs, all members of the American Culinary Federation.
I've glanced over the list, and it's not particularly surprising given the direction restaurants have been heading.
For example, in the past few years, we've seen a vast increase in the emphasis on local sourcing. Restaurants like Braise, Hinterland, C.1880, Meritage and Wolf Peach exemplify what it means to create seasonal menus made from the best in locally procured and preserved produce. I wouldn't exactly call this a trend, as it's simply best practice, and the thing that ultimately distinguishes decent restaurants from Applebees.
It's about time everyone accepted local, seasonal eating as a fact of life. So, it's good to see that the topic is still on the radar, and I hope it doesn't fade away anytime soon.
The next step here will be to showcase how local foods can be a truly affordable option for your average Joe. After all, local sourcing has gotten a bad rap for being elitist and expensive. If we can get rid of some of those misleading connotations, we'll be well on our way to creating a far more just and sustainable food system. And we'll be light years ahead of our competitors.
Speaking of sustainability, it's also in fashion, particularly when it comes to meats and seafood. You'll see good examples if you visit hot spots like Harbor House, Hinterland and even Smoke Shack. It's good to see that restaurants care about the sourcing of their proteins. But, I'd like to see more restaurants hopping on the bandwagon, especially when it comes to seafood.
Let's get rid of the Chilean sea bass, the Atlantic salmon and the monkfish on menus and start looking into alternatives like California white sea bass, Atlantic mahi mahi and wild Pacific sardines. Maybe we can even start ramping up some creativity with those invasive species. Consumers can help by creating demand for seafood that makes the cut. For a buying guide of sustainable seafood, visit Seafood Watch.
On the other hand, it's great to see that kids are at the top of the list for 2013. I'm hoping this means there will be an effort to cut out the carb-loaded, nutrient-lacking dishes typically seen on kids' menus at restaurants. Although I'm a big proponent for introducing children early on to "adult" food, rather than relegating them to "kids" items, I'd even support baby steps in this area.
Why not try quinoa noodles in that macaroni and cheese? Maybe put some vegetables on their pizza? And be sure to give them side dishes that include fruits and vegetables. Make them delicious so that eating them isn't a chore. If you do it right, the kids will never notice.
Gluten-free diners should be happy to see gluten-free cuisine in the top 20. Here again, Milwaukee restaurants are making headway. Spots like Stack'd Burger Bar operate dedicated fryers for their GF patrons. Transfer pizza has become the "go to" for gluten-free pies. Restaurants like Mia Famiglia have even gone so far as to attain gluten-free kitchen certification. And most restaurants are beginning to offer a few items suited for customers who prefer to avoid wheat.
Areas for improvement would include additional clarity on menus about gluten-free offerings and providing better education for front-end staff, who need to be the experts on what comes out of the kitchen, and make recommendations for diners with particular sensitivities.
Fans of the food truck will be happy to note that, although the trend has dropped down on the list, it's still making a showing. Milwaukee's food truck scene is no exception, offering plenty of great options during milder weather, and a few (like The Fast Foodie and the Gouda Girls, who recently started serving up their wares from the kitchen at Extendacare) have even secured gigs indoors during the winter months.
On the other side of things, I'm breathing a huge sigh of relief as I read the list of items on the "waning trends" list, which includes overdone and overly trendy techniques like froth/air/foam, and dishes like gazpacho, "fun-shaped" children's items, sliders and flavored and enhanced water.
I'm also perfectly happy to see the bacon trend fading a bit. Pork is delicious. And bacon has its place. But, I think we've all had enough of bacon-flavored chocolate and desserts with bacon. Thank you very much.
That said, the survey also revealed that chefs believe ramen is on its way out. And that makes me a little bit sad. Sure, you can find the occasional ramen dish at an ethnic spot or two, but the trend hasn't really taken hold here in Milwaukee, despite valiant efforts on the part of chefs like Justin Carlisle at Umami Moto, who happens to be cooking up some of the best ramen in the city.
So, I've got one request for 2013. Somebody out there want to help out with that? All we need is a little shop, specializing in delicious heart-warming Asian noodles.
Who cares if it's not trendy? It's delicious.
Top 20 menu trends for 2013:
1. Locally sourced meats and seafood
2. Locally grown produce
3. Healthful kids' meals
4. Environmental sustainability as a culinary theme
5. Children's nutrition as a culinary theme
6. New cuts of meat (e.g., Denver steak, pork flat iron, teres major)
7. Hyperlocal sourcing (e.g., restaurant gardens)
8. Gluten-free cuisine
9. Sustainable seafood
10. Whole-grain items in kids' meals
11. Farm/estate branded items
12. Non-wheat noodles/pasta (e.g., quinoa, rice, buckwheat)
13. Non-traditional fish (e.g., branzino, Arctic char, barramundi)
14. Ethnic-inspired breakfast items (e.g., chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes)
15. Fruit/vegetable children's side items
16. Health/nutrition as a culinary theme
17. Half-portions/smaller portions for a smaller price
18. House-made/artisan ice cream
19. Black/forbidden rice
20. Food trucks
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.