For the past decade, I was the guy who accidentally helped set trends in the American food world.
As the restaurateur and chef behind the Refinery in Seminole Heights, I would often get asked by trade and consumer publications “So, what are you doing that’s interesting lately?” When the Refinery opened in 2010, it was one of the first chef-driven restaurants in that part of Tampa, now a culinary hotbed. It led the Tampa Bay area in emphasizing locally sourced ingredients. Although it’s not what I set out to do, from new or revived techniques, ingredients or styles of cooking, the Refinery often helped set trends in the food world.
These days, in my role as a restaurant consultant, I’m in the position of having to peg the trends before they happen to help my clients get out in front of what is coming down the pike. I don’t paint myself as a great prognosticator, but here are some of my predictions for what you’ll be seeing at restaurants in the coming year.
Wellness and self-care are at the forefront of food trends. One of the most noticeable moves in this category will be toward alcohol-free cocktails. Across the board, restaurant patrons are trading quantity for higher quality of beverage choice, and customers, for a variety of reasons, are seeking inspired zero-proof beverages with increasing frequency.
Much like the dated idea of a vegetable plate as the sole vegetarian or vegan offering on restaurant menus, the one-off mocktail of incongruous, high-calorie fruit juices on a bar menu is losing acreage in favor of thoughtful, flavor-conscious spiritless cocktails.
While shrubs (fruit and vinegar fermentations), bugs (the fermented basis for such beverages as ginger beer) and scobies (the substance responsible for kombucha) have been in play in bar programs for years, we’ll see more house-made herbal tinctures and booze-less spirits. Craft bartenders across the country are spending their research and development time trying to perfect the nonalcoholic gin and tonic, utilizing in-house herb and aromatic infusions, instead of trying to invent the many twists on Old Fashioneds that have dominated the bar scene for the past half-decade.
Fewer ‘fine-casual’ restaurants
We’re going to continue to see fewer restaurants of the “fine-casual” type in the coming year. Edison bulbs and reclaimed barn wood interiors are fading as quickly as they came to prominence. Chef-owned restaurants are not going anywhere, but they are changing their faces and themes. Whether by attrition or by focusing on launching new concepts in the quick-service or fast-casual areas, the prominence of ingredient-driven menus will decline.
High labor costs, rising rents in once transitional neighborhoods, a skilled labor pool run dry and especially an economically stretched, value-conscious dining public are causing smart owner-operators to examine more casual outlets with lower overhead and faster service times. Think imaginative food trucks turned brick and mortar.
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Filipino cuisine goes mainstream
Speaking of mainstreaming, 2020 is going to see even more global ingredients hit more tables. In past years, diners have leaped from the exoticness of sriracha to gochu-jang, tahini to za’atar. This coming year? Except to see Filipino cuisine and ingredients as the breakout star. Evolved from Malaysian, Chinese and Arabic cuisines, with a healthy supplement of Spanish colonialism thrown in, Filipino cooking is very forward in salty and sour. That includes flavors American diners have become accustomed to via fermented foods such as krauts and kimchis — without the underlying sweetness and chile heat of many of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Bagoong, a paste made of small, fermented fish, is a common condiment that can add depth to soups or stews or be served raw with fruits or rice. Familiarity with its by-product, patis (fish sauce), may draw in diners who may be hesitant.
Other familiar-ish condiments such as banana ketchup — bananas simmered with tomato and vinegar — add to the approachability of the cuisine. You might notice the prominence of condiments here, as Filipino cooking is based mainly on the idea of seasoning the flavors to one’s particular liking at the table. Adobo and lumpia are the most well-traveled dishes; keep an eye out for unsung heroes such as Daing na Bangus — dried fish soaked in vinegar and peppercorns overnight and then fried crisp — and kare kare, a familiar yet intriguing curried oxtail stew flavored with peanuts, bok choy, long beans and eggplant.
One of the more anticipated local restaurant openings in the works is Lasing Kitchen, a Filipino kitchen specializing in kamayan-style eats (dishes largely eaten by hand) from Noel Cruz and the group that created the many iterations of Ichicoro in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Did you get your goat? While goat is a regular table feature throughout much of the world, its popularity in Western culture is limited. Often it is perceived as a tough, culinarily rigorous, barnyard meat reserved for impoverished diners. But I think we’re missing the boat.
Goat is a significant protein source throughout Asia, Central and South Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the highest and humblest kitchens. Properly prepared, goat meat defies the preconception of being tough, stringy and gamey — and it just might help save the world.
When comparing the sustainability factors of raising goats versus raising cattle and pigs on a wholesale level, the goats are clear winners. Goats can forage in even the most marginal of environments and are typically rotated frequently to new ground. The net result is less grazing ground necessary when compared to cattle, minimizing the need for clearing forests to increase production, and the frequency of rotation doesn’t deplete the land as quickly.
Add to that the nutritional benefits of a lean protein source that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and goat fits nicely into the trend toward wellness. Watch for it to make its move from small, ethnic restaurants into the mainstream in 2020.
Although it is at times a hard sell to Tampa Bay area diners, some chefs have braved the waters with this protein. Rooster and the Till in Seminole Heights opened with a pasta dish of orecchiette and goat with smoked butter and hazelnuts, and has found ways to utilize the off-cuts in their charcuterie offerings, such as goat head cheese.
App-based menus for more customization
Perhaps as clapback to the fading of the “no substitutions” menu style and the surge in quick-serve and fast-casual concepts, industry pundits are predicting the rise in popularity of app-based menus.
More than just a digital representation of a paper menu, these app-based offerings are designed to enhance the customer experience beyond waiting in line to place an order. By clicking a few tabs, customers can filter the menu to show specific items, and see categories such as vegan, gluten or dairy-free. These menus are also intended to allow quick customization of dishes to fit specific dietary restrictions, such as paleo or keto, without requiring interaction with an employee who may or may not be fully trained on the specific nutritional components of each dish.
Additionally, digital menus allow for real-time updates, reflecting price changes or giving the capability to remove sold-out items from the offerings for the day, avoiding disappointed customers who may have had their hearts set on an unavailable dish.
Greg Baker is a chef and restaurant consultant and is the principal of the Chef Greg Baker Group (CGBG) based in Tampa. He has been a James Beard Award semifinalist in the Best Chefs in America category five times, from 2012-2016. chefgregbaker.com.