The annual Worlds of Flavor Conference & Festival, sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America, has proven to be a reliable indicator of restaurant trends. This year’s confab, “World Flavors: Casual by Design,” revealed an industry in the midst of dramatic transformation. A new generation of casual-dining restaurants is emerging, and it has its roots firmly in the fine-dining world.
However, technique takes a backseat in the Casual 2.0 kitchen. According to a dazzling roster of Michelin-starred, James-Beard-recognized chefs on the program, it’s no longer an end in itself. Schooled in the culinary techniques and military discipline of the classic kitchen, chef after chef endorsed today’s more collaborative environment that aims to create food that is accessible and approachable to a broad audience. Michael Fojtasek, chef-owner of Olamaie in Austin, Texas, said that the preoccupation with “how many tricks you can put on the plate” has given way to utilizing technique in service to the product — the finished dish. The objective, he said, is to create food that surprises and delights, yet somehow feels familiar. See his Olamaie Deviled Egg, an egg yolk cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees Celsius, mixed with pickled celery, mustard seed and a smoked pepper mix to deliver a mouthwatering marriage of molecular gastronomy in a Southern staple.
In a similar vein, Chicago chef Matthias Merges, who had a successful career at the apex of white-tablecloth dining before opening Yusho, his casual Japanese grill and noodle house, argued that consumers should not have to pay $300 per person to enjoy the benefits of fine dining, the pillars of which he defines as consistently well-crafted food, a well-crafted beverage menu, professional service and an inviting ambiance. He maintained that these should be available to everyone, a democratization of the full-service dining model that was echoed repeatedly by his fellow presenters.
In Casual 2.0, rustic is the new black, and it’s popping up everywhere. Numerous chefs characterized this updated version of casual dining in terms of rusticity. Niklas Ekstedt, chef-owner of restaurants in Stockholm, cooks with live fire, which, depending on the wood used, becomes a key ingredient and flavor factor in his dishes. What’s more, he typically cooks in a cast-iron pot or skillet that goes directly into the fire, a back-to-basics approach straight out of his great-grandmother’s kitchen.
Jonathan Wu, chef-owner of New York City’s Fung Tu, explained his version of rusticity, in which he celebrates browns and reds and other “unpretty” food colors that signify heat, flavor and true tastiness. Like others on the program, he insisted there’s no place in his casual kitchen for tweezers, considered by many chefs as emblems of gastronomic pretension.
Since presentation looms large in delivering authentically rustic dishes, chef Javier Plascencia from Tijuana serves some items right in the molcajete, the traditional stone vessel in which they are prepared, while Indian-born chef Maneet Chauhan dishes up her take on Southern meat-and-three meals in the classic, tiered Indian tiffin boxes at her trendy Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tenn.
Casual 2.0 is hyphenated cooking that reflects a mashup of ethnic and American flavors. Chauhan has embraced the cayenne-powered approach to fried chicken to create her Nashville Hot Pakoras, a type of Indian fritter. Jonathan Wu’s China-quiles is a “hangover dish” that combines steamed eggs with Szechuan pork sauce and yucca chips, which stand in for the crispy tortilla chips of the Mexican classic. The Kerala Fried Chicken from chef and cookbook author Asha Gomez proves that it’s a small world after all, and illustrates the commonalities of kitchens in the south of India, from which she hails, and the southern United States, where she’s lived for 20 years. Marinating the chicken in buttermilk and frying it in a cast-iron skillet are standard in both locales, but Gomez pays homage to her heritage with a finishing drizzle of coconut oil and a garnish of curry leaves.
And this year’s “a-ha” ingredient discovery was culantro. Not to be confused with cilantro, the aroma and flavor of the culantro herb are more intense. It graces many Caribbean and South American dishes, as demonstrated by ebullient Panamanian chef Elena Hernandez. The great news, she proclaimed to attendees, is that it’s becoming more widely available here in the U.S.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the U.S., she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.