At the 2017 StarChefs International Chef Congress (ICC), held Oct. 22 to 24 at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the focus of the three-day event was a word with an indefinite number of meanings: culture. More specifically, the panels and booths served foods that conveys how chefs interpret what it means to “cook a culture,” whether that culture is one into which they were born or one in which they fell in love. As the world is globalizing and cultures are actively forming and changing, every second of every day, is it possible to give a straightforward definition of “culture”? Chef Alvin Cailan is Filipino, and he may refer to his food at his Los Angeles spot Amboy as Filipino, but he says that his food is more “Angelino cuisine that’s inspired by Filipino flavors.” Chef Alon Shaya may make food of his native Israel at his restaurant Shaya in New Orleans, but at what point does would his food take inspiration from the food of the Big Easy, if ever?
These are the sorts of big ideas and questions that both chefs and attendees asked during the the roundtables, classrooms, and panels, and even in the Chef’s Products Fair, where chefs served up dishes about which they’re most excited. In a room where some of the world’s best were passing out everything from skewers of curried mussels to Ohio Buckeye-inspired ice cream sandwiches, one could get a big picture of today’s food culture as a whole. As Antoinette Bruno, the editor-in-chief of StarChefs, said, “It’s so much fun to be [cooking] in America right now.”
So what were people excited about? What’s new? Below, here’s what’s trending in the world of food today.
1. Coconut in everything
“Coconut is a huge ingredient in the Philippines,” chef Cailan said as he prepared a ceviche with both coconut milk and coconut vinegar. While concentrated in the booths that served Southeast Asian-inspired and island cuisines—of which there were many—coconut, in all its form, was finding its way into both sweet and savory dishes. At one end of the room, Raymond Mohan of LoLo’s Seafood Shack portioned spoonfuls of Indo-Guyanese Coconut Shrimp Curry into oblong dishes. Across the room, Chef Isa Fabro of Los Angeles’s Unit 120 served up one of her best-known dishes: steaming, sticky coconut malas, a hybrid Filipino-Hawaiian doughnut that’s covered in caramelized coconut milk and coconut chips.
2. The koji cure
“The food-friendly mold has been used in China and East Asia for more than 2000 years to brew soy sauce and ferment bean paste,” Bruno said during her trends report. Used to cure and speed up the fermentation of everything from salmon to beef, and also delicious in marinades over vegetables, koji lends dishes an unbeatable funky flavor. “Koji will be as ubiquitous as soy sauce and Miso paste in home kitchens within the next 5 to 7 years,” Cleveland chef Jeremy Umansky told Cleveland.com at the end of 2016, and at his restaurant Larder, he uses koji in almost all of his housemade charcuteries. Damien Brockway has added koji to crudo at Counter 357 in Austin, and Hari Cameron of a(MUSE.) in Rehobeth, Delaware, designed an entire menu around koji.
3. Tequila, out of the shot glass
Out of a tacky plastic glass and into a balanced cocktail you wouldn’t be embarrassed to drink on a date, tequila—and the other spirits in its agave family—are proving that they deserve to be taken seriously as spirits. Edgar Morales from Cosme in New York City combined Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Pomi tomato juice, lemon, and jicama stick for Bloody Marias, a playful take on the classic Bloody Mary. Steve Olson, Del Maguey’s global ambassador, lined up high-octane cocktails of mezcal, Suze, and Lillet Blanc. And, while the StarChefs team traveled the country to look for trends, they were “swept up in a tidal wave of margaritas,” which they brought to the congress with The Spare Room’s Yael Vengroff’s of The Spare Room and Maison Premiere’s Will Elliott’s presentation on mixing “progressive, wild margaritas.” There’s no shame in the salt-rimmed drink.
4. Soft serve is back
“In 2017, you couldn’t shake soft serve,” Bruno said, which she traced back to its entry into the chef scene with Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar and Graham Elliot’s Grahamwich. Today, more and more restaurants are venturing into the territory of Big Gay Ice Cream and Mister Softee. At the congress, Seed + Mill served goat milk and tahini soft serve, topped with mixed halva crumbles and freshly milled tahini, and Oddfellows passed out cups on their take on a s’more: twisted chocolate and smoked marshmallow ice cream, Graham cracker soil, and roasted marshmallows on top.
5. Sustainability is as important as ever
“Sustainability is at an all-time high,” Bruno said, which was evidenced in the ubiquity of bamboo leaf dishes and other eco-friendly plates that held the majority of the food samples. Guests also received paper pens from PacknWood and sticker for Stop Food Waste Day in their gift bags. Furthermore, this trend extended to the actual food, perhaps best exemplified by Blenditarian’s bison-mushroom burgers. According to The Mushroom Council, “One million pounds of mushrooms can grow in the space of just an acre, require minimal water and are ready to harvest in just a matter of days, making them one of the most earth-friendly and renewable crops available.”
6. Nostalgia for the ‘90s
Caesar salads, buttermilk ranch, funfetti cake, sun dried tomatoes—we may be in the year 2017, but we’ve got the nineties on our minds. Black Tap served miniature vanilla milkshakes in rainbow sprinkle-rimmed cups, topped with whipped cream and an upside-down birthday cake cone at the congress, and the trend extends further. Colonie in Brooklyn serves a portobello mushroom crostini, and in Manhattan’s Il Buco, Genevieve Meli is making what is perhaps the most iconic dessert of the decade: molten chocolate cake, though in the spirit of innovation, she tops it with fenugreek meringue and toasted coconut.
7. No-cook fish
Wherever you went in the Chef’s Product Fair, you couldn’t escape “raw” fish dishes in the form of poke, ceviche, and crudo. There was even a “beet poke,” a play on the Hawaiian dish typically made with ahi tuna, which was topped with Kikkoman soy sauce and goat cheese balls. Erik Ramirez of Brooklyn’s Llama Inn, known for his ceviches, served one with plantain and Peruvian tigre de leche, while guests also tried dishes like Skull Island prawn ceviche and Hiramasa Kingfish crudo tossed with yuzu and laid over horseradish buttermilk cream.