Putting together an exciting menu is a delicate balancing act between offering the nostalgic vs new, local vs global, and indulgent vs healthy. As part of Symrise Flavor North America’s Top 2021 Flavor Trends Report, we explore this intersection of seeming contradictions and how they can all come together to make a full, satisfying eating and drinking experience.
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One chef who strikes this balance is Page Pressley, who has 20 years of experience in the culinary world. He led the acclaimed Starr Restaurant Group empire in New York, and has been head chef at restaurants from Le Cirque at the Bellagio to Uchi in Austin. He currently serves as a restaurant consultant, and is the founder and chef at Foxtail Supper Club, an upscale virtual 7-course supper club experience in Austin that serves consumers across the country. This innovative supper club’s menu features signature dishes that hit on Emotional Discoveries, Natural Goodness, and even Premium Indulgence to satisfy and delight diners who love to be kept guessing.
After an uncertain year, nostalgic food near and dear to childhood are showing up on menus more than ever, but more “adult” and elevated to fit a more refined palate to please the consumer of the future while appeasing the child of the past. As consumers age, their priorities shift and factors like nutritional value, uniqueness, and quality of ingredients are taken into consideration more often than what cartoon character is pitching them their new favorite snack.
Whether it be new flavors or textures, chefs are putting an exciting twist on indulgent classics, like macaroni and cheese and s’mores, and transforming fancy ingredients into foods we know and love. Fancy foods can be intimidating, so chefs are revamping these expensive and exquisite ingredients into forms of comfort and indulgence, like tacos, pizza, and fried foods.
Part of nostalgia is not only yearning for these comfort foods of the past but also fondly remembering experiences of dining out while enjoying this food, what it meant and felt like then, and the need to recreate it in the present.
“I think that steakhouses are a concept that have aged out of people’s consciousness, said Chef Pressley. “But I think that the [steakhouse] experience speaks to people on a real emotional level; giving people what they grew up with but a new version of that.”
The signature dishes at Foxtail Supper Club speak to this balance of nostalgic flavors and experiences with signature menu items that span from the decadent “steakhouse experience” Wagyu Carpaccio with Poppy Seeds to the comforting memory of Sunday mornings at the deli with the Parker House Roll with Everything Bagel seasoning.
Unique and Worldly Flavors
While there has been an emphasis on nostalgic flavors, consumers, especially Millennials, are still interested in making Emotional Discoveries through trying new, international flavors and actively searching out dishes and ingredients foreign to them on menus. According to a poll by Mintel, 32% of American Millennials say they go out of their way to try new flavors vs 21% of the general population. This group is also the generation that loves to travel, and being grounded for a year with COVID-19 had many getting their fix for exotic flavors by traveling with their taste buds and seeking out global, bold, and unique flavors.
Global cuisines continue to inspire new flavor innovation, particularly in the form of unique spice and seasoning blends. Many new earthy, smoky, savory, and hot spice blends are making their way onto menus across the spectrum, from chains to high-end restaurants. Blends infusing citrus peels, various seeds, peppercorns, and herbs are being used in stews and soups, salads, egg dishes, roasted vegetables, chicken and seafood.
This adventurous eating and drinking trend makes this an exciting time for chefs to introduce global ingredients not often found on domestic menus. Chef Pressley’s menu is full of experimentations with herbaceous notes that would draw in these consumers seeking to expand their worldview of memorable meals from the dinner table.
“Mexican mint marigold is one of my favorites,” said Chef Pressley. “I like different varietals of basil that are really strong, like cinnamon basil, opal basil. Also spearmint, orange mint, pineapple mint, all those things. In the cocktail realm, flower-infused ices for more floral flavors are really beautiful.”
The experience of trying something new is a significant consumption driver of unique flavors. Chefs have been given the unique challenge and gift of playing with flavors to offer new dishes with unique flavors that meaningfully contribute to a memorable meal, leaving a positive impression and encouraging return visits and lots of good word-of-mouth marketing to others searching for their next exciting, authentic experience.
Local with a Twist
Just as important to Millennials as eating globally is eating local flavors that exemplify their region and taste, literally, like home. According to a poll by Mintel, 41% of participants said it’s important that restaurants offer local flavors on their menus. As global and local mix, there are some surprisingly unique combinations of cultures and flavors coming together on restaurant menus all over the country.
Asian-fusion flavor combinations are increasingly showing up on menus at restaurants, especially in the South, with chefs combining these unique cultural crossovers to enhance flavor profiles and wow guests. Traditional Nashville hot chicken has undoubtedly made its mark in the flavor landscape; however, there is an increasing amount of new and emerging hot chicken cultural remixes ranging from Taiwanese flavors, like Tianjin chili, to Mexican spices.
“People are becoming more comfortable with bolder flavors...more comfortable with stronger herb flavors and more comfortable with spice,” said Chef Pressley.
There are also dishes inspired by traditional dishes but replacing ingredients in an exciting way. At Foxtail Supper Club, one signature dish is the Cantonese-style noodle potato dish, featuring spiraled Yukon potatoes that are seared in schmaltz.
What can go hand-in-hand with fusions and incorporating more global, trending dishes into menus, however, can be a lot of empty buzzwords or a loss of importance put on the health benefits of ingredients. Just adding a label on a dish that says “made with all-natural ingredients” is no longer enough to entice health-conscious consumers looking to indulge.
“It’s about really hitting those consumer buzzwords in an important way; not just saying “superfood” or “immunity” but really conveying that this [menu item] is packed with that stuff and over delivering on those words,” said Chef Pressley.
Those in search of delicious, indulgent, and healthy food are still looking for an authentic experience, which can be lost by overcomplicating a dish can create an inauthentic and ultimately unsatisfying meal. The problem, according to Chef Pressley, is that Americans are letting too many obvious, delicious places fly under the health radar, like good-for-you Vietnamese cuisine.
“I wish Vietnamese food was more popular,” said Chef Pressley. “There’s a pho place with a terrible pun in its name in every strip mall in America right now...a fundamental understanding of how healthy that food can be and how simple the ingredients are and how cost effective they are is something America could use a lot more of.”