Stirring the Pot ~ Spotting and Translating Trend: A How-To Discussion

A curious group of members and guests enjoyed the hospitality of Joie de Vivre’s Hotel Vitale and Americano Restaurant & Bar while getting an insider’s peek into how various culinary professionals think about, track and translate food and beverage trends. On June 6 I had the great pleasure of assembling a smart and articulate panel of savvy culinary professionals representing both the foodservice arm and magazine and cookbook publishing world in our profession. They generously shared their best practices with our audience with verve and humor.

I kicked off our trend exploration by explaining the Center for Culinary Development’s five-stage Trend Map, which offers a framework for understanding where food and beverage trends are operating on a spectrum of emergence and acceptance. We saw how many trends start in the restaurant world, move through food media and specialty retail, to chain restaurants, into women’s magazines and finally into the mainstream. The key to thinking about trend acceptance is to look for the drivers, the forces that propel trends into the mainstream by meeting a wide variety of consumer needs, like convenience, wellness or even flavor adventure.

From there, our panel discussed the ways trends work in their businesses. Morgan Plant, vice president of F&B for Joie de Vivre, talked about how she follows Twitter and chef blogs, and eats out a lot, to get ideas for menus and restaurant concepts. Her company also works with communities and consumers to find the best restaurant fit for new hotel properties. Sometimes the first idea doesn’t work, she explained, and needs to be tweaked to fit the locale and moment. For restaurant menus, she can react more quickly, such as seizing on the booming food truck-meets-pie scene and adding cute “pie holes” to a dessert menu.

Ida Shen is responsible for preparing thousands of meals each week at UC Berkeley as the assistant director-executive chef of Cal Dining. She follows about 20 blogs and soaks up the many food photos she accesses through social media and the web to get an idea of what her very vocal students may want to eat. Although Cal vegans weren’t delighted with one day’s pork festival, she routinely thrills young palates with international cuisine and trend-forward dishes, including ones that “smash” two cuisines together, like Korean tacos, though she notes that comforting dishes like mac and cheese are always crowd pleasers.

Amy Machnak, recipe editor, was clear about what Sunset magazine looks for: fresh, newsworthy stories that fit with the mission of the esteemed magazine focusing on the West, the second oldest in the U.S.! It’s got to be new, it’s got to be hot, yet it still must meet the needs of longtime readers. She and her fellow editors look for topics that appeal to them, that are cool and noteworthy and haven’t been covered before at Sunset. Amy pointed out how timing can be everything, illustrating with an example of covering the Portland food truck scene long before the current food truck mania hit — thus precluding additional coverage during the peak of the trend. At the same time, recipes must meet the needs of folks looking to cook a great dinner and still have some time left over to enjoy life.

Jennifer Newens gave us an inside look into Weldon Owen Publishing, a company that has an incredible catalog of cookbooks, many for Williams-Sonoma. Jen’s relationship with buyers at the gourmet retailer provide her with insight on what people are buying and cooking, whether it be the quirky aebelskiver pan, the classic slow cooker or even the newly intriguing pressure cooker. It turned out that publishing an aebelskiver cookbook gave the company one of its biggest sellers, despite the esoteric nature of the tasty Danish pancake ball. Look out for Jen’s upcoming cookbook with the Voltaggio brothers using modernist cuisine techniques.

Our lively evening concluded with an even livelier reception featuring a delicious selection of trend-forward appetizers and desserts, including a marvelously decadent mini salted caramel chocolate tartlet, provided by the Americano, and three fine wines from SImi Winery, generously donated by our Gold Sponsor Constellation Wines. I also relished our happy hour cocktail the Americano bar prepared with donated Svedka vodka. It featured lemon, fresh basil and elderflower liqueur, a tasty trend in itself.

By Kara Nielsen

Stirring the Pot: Japanese Ingredients where you least expect them

By Linda Yoshino
Photos by Rory Earnshaw

I attended the May 25 Stirring the Pot with trepidation – as a sansei, (3rd generation,) who speaks more Spanish than Japanese, I was pretty sure I needed to learn more about Japanese food.

This entertaining and educational panel was moderated by Elaine Corn of Capital Public Radio, and included Mr. Yoshi Tome, the CEO of Michelin-starred Sushi Ran in Sausalito; Chef Seiji Wakabayashi, the chef of Michelin-starred Bushi-Tei in San Francisco, and Mr. Eric Gower, a writer, teacher, and private chef who spent fifteen years in Japan.

After warming up the panel with a quiz defining various Japanese ingredients for the audience, the conversation turned to the evolving definition of “authenticity.” Mr. Tome has two chefs: one traditional Japanese and the other, a “white boy,”so he feels it is his job “to make sure they don’t fight,” and to use their differences for creativity. Similarly, Chef Wakabayashi is known for his balanced combination of French technique and Japanese ingredients.

SFPFS Organizer, Nona Lim, and moderator Elaine Corn

What trendy ingredients should we be looking for?
• Yuzu, a small citrus, is turning up everywhere, bringing its grapefruit / lime / meyer lemon-flavored zest to brighten dishes. It is used in Japan in ponzu sauce, marmalade, and for beverages, but now there is a shortage. It is on a similar trajectory with balsamic some years ago, so expect other regions to jump into the market, and a resulting wide span of quality.
• Japanese mayonnaise is light, tangy, firm for broiling, and full of MSG (and therefore, umami). A popular dish in Japan is Mayo pizza with squid and corn!
• Umami in general – what is it? That “deliciousness that causes drooling” from middle-of-the-tongue receptors that sense savory items like grilled meat, aged gouda, mushrooms, and fish sauce.
• Natto – an acquired taste. Fermented, sticky soybeans. (take my word for it, ICK!)

Following the panel, a truly impressive spread of food was laid before us in the Ketchum kitchen that has hosted Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, et al. We were served an impressive buffet, including beef sushi, wasabi potato salad, tonkatsu, spicy burdock salad with konnyaku, and wine and sake. In addition, Kikkoman provided goodie bags with samples of yuzu products.

Thanks to Gold Sponsors Kikkoman Sales USA, Constellation Wines and Numi Tea; Silver Sponsor Ketchum; and NA Sales (sake), and JETRO (Japanese External Trade Organization).

Stirring the Pot: The Future of Chinese Cuisine in the U.S.: A Panel Discussion

A dynamic panel of Chinese food and culture professionals came together at the Chinese Culture Center on January 23 to discuss the current state of Chinese cuisine in the U.S. for our first Stirring the Pot of 2008. In a discussion that ranged from current food passions to the lack of visas offered to international chefs since 9-11, panelists Albert Cheng, Nicole Mones, Alex Ong and Martin Yan, alongside moderator Olivia Wu, dug deep into the long history of Chinese food in the US discussing ways in which that history, along with current cultural patterns in the U.S. and China, influence what we eat at Chinese restaurants in today.

Agreeing that it is impossible to make a blanket statement about why it is so hard to find authentic Chinese cuisine here, the panelists offered key insights.

1. Over sixty years of excluding Chinese immigrants (1882-1943) meant most food in this period evolved from earlier immigrants who hailed predominantly from southern China. Immigrants prior to 1882 created a unique, local cuisine – Moo Goo Gai Pan, Chop Suey, and the like – with whatever ingredients and spices were available to them. This hybridized cuisine is now considered comfort food to many Americans, Chinese-Americans included.

2. There is no continuous supply of labor. In China, there is no CIA or CCA. Training to be a Chef is akin to a high school vocational program, though panelist Martin Yan is working to change this by setting up a school in Hong Kong to train professional chefs. (For more information, visit http://yancancook.com/.) In America, many Chinese families who run restaurants do not encourage their children to stay in the business – consequently the skill set is not transferred to the next generation. Many chefs in these family restaurants do not speak English – another barrier to knowledge transfer.

Other thoughts included a lack of branding and hospitality by restaurants, an emphasis on low prices over quality or ambiance at restaurants, the wide cultural disconnect between American taste expectations and the real flavors of the cuisine, an American aversion to fish served whole, poor menu comprehension by English-speakers of what authentic dishes might be available, the rise of Thai and Vietnamese food and its bright, bold flavors, the reliance of many restaurants on one or two basic sauces served with numerous dishes, and finally a lack of regional restaurants focused on one dish or one region.

So, what is the future of Chinese cuisine? Panelists agreed that Kung Pao Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork will stay with us and have a firmly established place in our melting pot food culture. We are, however, in the midst of an American taste revolution – consider the rise of regional Italian, French and American food over the last 15 years. It will take time, but Americans can expect to see here what is currently happening in China and Canada – the rise of the gourmet, regional Chinese restaurant, restaurants with a decent wine list and a bar, and a front of the house staff trained to communicate the cuisine and its unique flavors to an open-minded audience.

A reception immediately preceded the discussion and featured modern Chinese food paired with Spanish wines. Attendees agreed the future of Chinese food is at hand.

By Christina Mueller Weller
Photos courtesy Matthew Carden