Alternative proteins were high on the list of topics showcased as the 11th Annual StarChefs International Chef Congress (ICC) ( On the main stage, at the ICC food carts, and at the products fair, chefs transformed classic dishes with new protein substitutes—from simple swaps to surprising sources.

Brad Farmerie of Saxon + Parole in New York City took a twist on beef carpaccio, swapping out beef for raw lamb then embellishing the flavor with lemon and a variety of herbs and spices—mint, parsley, cilantro, cumin, smoked paprika, garlic, and onion. 

Toronto-based chef Christine Flynn, the face behind the Chef Jacques La Merde Instagram handle, also looks at protein differently. Her parody account creates tiny, tweezered designs with nacho cheese and processed junk food. Plated to perfection, she pokes fun at some of the trends popping up in chefs’ social media feeds. “I think chefs are using less animal proteins and less dairy,” she says. “When they are using proteins, theres a focus on better quality, smaller amounts, and making use of the entire animal.” To make light of this, the chef demonstrated her plating artistry with Spam at the products fair.

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David Danielson, executive chef for Churchill Downs at the Kentucky Derby, echoed the sentiment on using the animal in its entirety, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a sustainable kitchen. On Day Two of the ICC, he served a chicken fried pig trotter croquet with whipped pimento cheese and crispy black eyed peas. “This is pig's feet,” he says. “But I want to make pig's feet good. I want to change misconceptions with the presentation and the flavor profile.”

And pig's feet weren't the only animal “scraps” making their way on the plate. Throwaway cuts like beef cheek and lamb neck were also used to rave reviews.

Cricket was front and center on Day Three—make that cricket flour. “As the world gets bigger and more crowded, our traditional food sources may not be enough,” explains John Sundstrom of Lark in Seattle of the rising interest. “So, looking at non-traditional options is of great interest. In most Western diets this is very new, unusual and to some repellent, so finding a way to ‘sneak’ an in insect based flour into a baked good, or the insect itself prepared in a tasty way, such as fried and spiced for a taco is a good option.”

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Chefs in Latin America, Asia and Australia have been doing this for some time, he says and in many cases, the use of insects is well regarded. “I don’t know the nutritional breakdown, but it seems that the protein level is pretty high, and they grow fast, and don’t require the same resource input as animal or seafood to raise,” he says. “At the very elite level of restaurant it’s about introducing guests to something new, thus the ants, crickets, grasshoppers and grubs appearing on menus.”

He and other chefs credit the rise of items like cricket flour to Millennials who tend to be more open to alternative proteins and/or are choosing to not eat animal proteins. “If it tastes good and also fits in with their ethics and personal beliefs they will embrace it,” he says.

Sundstrom tends to focus on beans and legumes as a center of plate building block for a vegetarian or vegan dish and likes tofu in it’s many forms (silky, firm or fried). He also likes using the Beyond Meat products because they are vegan and gluten free, and have a ground beef or chicken like texture. And, they take to dressing up with sauces or preparation. “The idea for me is take make the alternative protein exciting, delicious and fun.”

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Kenny Gilbert is another fan and says all he had to do was “look around him” for inspiration. The head chef and owner of Gilberts Underground Kitchen has plenty to choose from in Fernandina Beach, FL—including alligator. While the curled up cooked reptile—head, legs, tail and all—certainly drew a crowd, the chef showcased how versatile the meat could be, offering a pulled alligator BBQ sandwich with complex, robust flavors. “I smoked the alligator for four-and-a-half hours in a Cajun rub,” Gilbert says. “I shred the meat onto a sweet roll and top it all with dill pickled sage, jalapeno and South Carolina barbecue sauce.”

The New Pork Belly

The rise of octopus—touted as the “new pork belly” by Antoinette Bruno, Editor-in-Chief of StarChefs in her Culinary Trends Report on Day One —may also be attributed to local sourcing. Chefs focusing on concentrated regions maintain dish authenticity by sourcing proteins native to that region. Pair that with the growth of Mediterranean—including Spanish—cuisine, and you have a boost in sales. And it’s not just at the sushi bar or served grilled—the eight-legged creature is making its way into confits, terrines, and more. In the products fair, Christopher Lee, Culinary Director of Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurants, served grilled Spanish pulpo with marble potatoes and saffron aioli. “I use octopus because it's a staple in Spanish coastal diets.”

Spanish Chef Ivan Dominguez also reiterated the importance of octopus in Spanish cuisine. During his demonstration on this main stage, he described his restaurant's mantra—to celebrate the favors of the locale. Restaurante Alborada in A Corua, Spain celebrates “the ingredients themselves, especially when it comes from the sea.” To keep the final dish even more authentic, he cooks the octopus in the local sea water before transforming it into a stew. “The quality of fish is very important," he says. "I only source from the Atlantic, which offers high quality fish. I use whatever is fresh at the market and octopus is big in my region.”

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