It’s sweaty, spicy, saucy – and totally gratifying – work to whip up the annual Seat 1A list of food and restaurant trends, and 2016 was no exception.
It started with some 35 potential top trends based on observations from restaurants all over the U.S., which were evaluated by an esteemed panel of culinary experts to get to the final 10:
- Linda Burum is a freelance food writer and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications for decades, and author of the landmark book A Guide to Ethnic Food in Los Angeles. She’s a frequent judge for the James Beard Foundation awards.
- Christine Couvelier is a global culinary trendologist, executive chef and culinary executive. Through her consulting company, Culinary Concierge, based in Victoria, British Columbia, she assists clients in launching food products and menu items.
- Robin Selden is the current president of the International Caterers Association and was named their Chef of the Year in March. She is Managing Partner & Executive Chef of Connecticut- and New York-based Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning, whose clients include companies, celebrities, and dignitaries. (Full disclosure: Robin and I are cousins.)
- Mike Thelin is a food and hospitality expert and advisor to many leading brands and organizations. He is co-founder of Feast Portland, one of America’s top culinary festivals.
- Bret Thorn is senior food & beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News with responsibility for spotting and reporting on food and beverage trends across the country. He has also studied traditional French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Some of the trends on past lists remain popular: all-day breakfast, poke, fried chicken, avocado toast, lobster rolls, truffles, kale, Brussels sprouts, bitters, copper mug cocktails, customizable fast food, upscale vegan cooking and restaurants filtering and bottling water on site. Click for previous lists from 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011.
And see the end of this story for some ideas on the horizon that may end up on future lists.
1 – Asian Twists on Comfort Food
Even five years ago, Korean kimchi and gochujang, Japanese dashi stock and Sriracha hot sauce were seen as exotic in the U.S. mainstream, but now they’re everywhere. “Bottles of Sriracha are becoming as ubiquitous to diner condiments as ketchup and Tabasco sauce,” says Mike Thelin (Linda Burum notes that they’re even in Mexican fast food restaurants, where presumably there are other hot sauces), “and ‘kimchi mayo’ doesn’t require an explanation.”
Part of this, Thelin says, is that “fermented foods and chili sauces add depth and complexity that marry incredibly well with classic comfort dishes.”
Case in point: Robin Selden calls her small plate of chicken and waffles with kimchi slaw and Sriracha maple syrup “one of the best things we make.”
Bret Thorn calls this trend “a popular way to put a new twist on classics” that “grounds consumers in something that seems safe, and thus gives them the freedom to be more adventuresome.”
2 – Better Butters
This category is actually sort of a double header, between restaurants culturing their own butters in house and compound butters, with other ingredients mixed in. “A good local or European butter softened to room temperature and a fistful of herbs is all it takes” for a compound butter, says Mike Thelin. Truffle butter is a classic, he says, but compound butters can be “the bases for loads of possibilities and experimentations.”
Some of Robin Selden’s favorite compound butters are wildly diverse: nori, toasted sesame and ginger; lemon, tarragon and popped capers; madeira and shiitake; even double chocolate and hazelnut. “Taking butter to another level is an easy special touch,” she says, “particularly when served with a great bread.”