This article originally appeared in the September 26, 2006 issue of Stuff@Night.
If you want the inside scoop on what many Americans will be eating next year, attending the “Flavor, Quality, and the American Menu” conference at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the Napa Valley will give you a head start. Every year, the CIA holds a high-level retreat that brings together 100 or so executive chefs from corporations like Burger King, the Cheesecake Factory, Denny’s, Jack in the Box, and Walt Disney World, along with the directors of many university dining services, major food producers, secretaries of several state and federal agriculture departments, and a very select handful of internationally known chefs and cookbook authors — this year including our own Ana Sortun of Oleana. The idea behind the conference is to get the entire range of power brokers in the US culinary and agricultural worlds together in the green of Napa Valley to discuss coming trends in American eating habits. This year I was invited to sit in.
Greg Drescher, the organizer of the conference, is the senior strategist at the CIA. His perspective is that we are rapidly mutating from a “nation of bland-food eaters to a nation that loves heat — preferring salsa to ketchup.” (Who knew that last year more bottles of salsa were sold in the US than bottles of ketchup?) Evidently, Asian, Latin, and Mediterranean flavors are no longer considered ethnic or exotic: average Americans eating at the major casual-dining chains and fast-food outlets chow down on dishes laced with soy, basil, cilantro, and salsa, never thinking of them as “foreign food.” The new American palate isn’t about fusion, Drescher says, but about adaptation. The big problem facing responsible members of the food world is how to nudge the newly adventurous and always ravenous American diner away from the high-fat, meat-centric eating habits that have turned us into waddling tubs and toward a way of eating that focuses lower down on the food chain.
As Boston diners living in one of the few areas in the country that enjoys a rich bounty of independent bistros and chef-driven establishments, we’re pretty used to the idea that fresh is best, and that food cooked with olive oil trumps butter (at least from a health standpoint). But it turns out we’re a tiny minority. Most Americans eat one or two meals every single day in restaurants that have hundreds, even thousands of cookie-cutter locations across the country. According to the statistics presented by California secretary of agriculture A.G. Kawamura, 130 million Americans eat out every day, often consuming multiple meals outside the home. What those 130 million Americans eat is what these corporate cooking titans put on their menus. Change the menu offerings and you can change how the country eats. But the corporate chefs feel caught between what they know Americans should be eating — lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains — and what people actually will pay for, like fries, burgers, beef, and beer. So for three days at the CIA conference, they struggled with ways to instill “stealth health” in their corporate menus, learning about the benefits of Eastern Mediterranean food from chefs like Sortun; Greek flavors from author Aglaia Kremezi and chef Jim Botsacos of Molyvos in New York; and Latin flavors from Roberto Santibañez of New York’s Rosa Mexicano. They’re all culinary traditions that rely on lots of vegetables, beans, rice, and whole grains, and use meat as a “condiment” rather than as the focus of the plate. The corporate chefs listened attentively to the presenters, but they admit that they struggle with how to make plant food “sexy” to Americans. “We have a whole new page of lifestyle selections on our menu — salads and other health-conscious choices,” says Scott Randolph, corporate executive chef for T.G.I. Friday’s, “and what flies out of our restaurants are the loaded fries, the chicken wings, and the onion rings.”
Kirsten Bird, the senior director of marketing at Unilever Food Solutions, made one of the most illuminating presentations. Every year, data grunts at Unilever comb through thousands of menus and the consumer and trade food press, and they count every time a trend, ingredient, or recipe is mentioned. They crunch the data and compile an Annual Flavor Forecast that predicts which flavors and foods will be “hot” on restaurant menus in the coming year. According to their research, every significant food trend in America evolves through three successive stages: emergent, proliferation, and mainstream.