Chefs and Trends: A Close Relationship

Chefs predict trends, embrace them, spread them or reject them. That’s a fact. “Chefs absolutely drive trends, they are very knowledgeable about what other chefs are doing,” says Darren Tristano president of Technomic, a food research and consulting firm based in Chicago. “They go to other restaurants, they borrow ideas and make them their own. Those who travel make the process global.”

They also adopt fads and guide them through the marketplace.

What’s  the difference between a trend and a fad?  That’s a question Tristano often gets asked.  Longevity is his simple answer. Trends linger and often move into the mainstream while fads burn up like a lit match.

The biggest difference between a trend and a fad is sustainability or how something lasts in the marketplace. Things may start as a fad but become a trend if people can continue to get the product and see it as part of their lifestyle. The examples Tristano gives are donuts, which he considers a fad. “No one is thinking much about  donuts any more except maybe in New York City.” As a trend he mentions frozen yogurt, which goes back to the 70s and has become a real trend for the past six years.

Jay Ziobrowski, CEC, is corporate chef Eastern region of InHarvest, a provider of artisan grains, rices and legumes, based in Bemidji, Minnesota. As his company’s go-to chef for large customers like Sodexo, Aramark and others, it’s his job to keep up with trends. He believes they occur when people get interested in something. “They usually start regionally, then through social media and other outlets other chefs pick them up,” he explains.


Trends also often go hand in hand with other trends. Among the top 20 trends for 2016 cited by ACF chefs responding to the National Restaurant Association’s survey “What’s Hot in 2015 are natural ingredients and minimally processed food (ranked number 5). It’s no surprise then that locally sourced meats and seafood (1) locally grown  produce (3) hyper-local sourcing (4) healthful kids meals (7) and ancient grains (15) are also top trends. All are healthy eating trends.

The ancient grains ranking pleases Ziobrowski. His company sells them. The trend, he believes, grew out of the popularity of whole grains and the admonition by health experts to “eat your whole grains.” To diversify the offerings, chefs turned to good tasting but little known grains to enhance their menus. Qunioa and now freekeh or farik, made from roasted green wheat and others like them entered the picture. “Ancient is basically a buzz word,” he says. “All grains are ancient.”

And most locally sourced fruits and vegetables are heirloom, according to Ed Witt, who will open Katharine Brasserie & Bar in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, next month. He, by the way, believes French bistros and brasseries are upcoming trends. “If you bought apples from a local farmer, they were almost always heirloom,” he says.  Availability, he believes is a key reason for the locally sourced trend. He also believes that while trends are definitely chef driven that public relations and advertising play a large role as well

That pr and advertising aren’t always as accurate as it could be, according to Dawn Viola, CEC. She’s a  former Le Cordon Bleu instructor and now founder and owner of This Honest, which offers private wellness and cooking classes and research and development services. Like Ziobrowski, staying up with the trends helps her serve her clients better.

Viola doesn’t agree with all of the current trends, but is particularly gratified by the healthful trends today, especially the one promoting healthful kids’ meals.

“Healthful restaurant meals for kids have been around for a while,” she says, “maybe as long as ten years.” But, she notes, recently parents have been demanding not to know just that the meal is healthy but what makes it healthy. The natural ingredients and minimally processed food trend then is being driven, at least in part by consumers.

Not all trends, however, are driven by health or source concerns. Sirracha is an example. A condiment used widely in Asian kitchens for years, some say it has replaced ketchup  probably once a trend itself, in popularity with Americans. That’s a little hard to believe but there’s no doubt more and more people are reaching for it to season their food. ACF chefs recognized that and cited ethnic condiments number 11 in the NRA’s survey. Witt doesn’t necessarily believe Sirracha is all that special. “It’s been in my kitchen for years. There are other hot sauces that are just as good or better.”

Tristano says Sirracha’s days as a trend has probably passed. “Once Subway put it on the menu it moved into the mainstream,” he explains. It’s fast becoming like soy sauce, once a trend and now so widely used that people forget it came from Asia. Similarly, since kale salad joined Chick-fil-A’s menu, kale is no longer a hot trend.

Trends that don’t move into the mainstream eventually disappear. According to Witt, adorning food with froths and foams is one such trend. “Once customers had experienced them a couple of times, they were sick of them.” When else do trends die? “When people stop writing about them,” Witt says.

By Suzanne Hall