Today, whether we’re food shopping or eating at home or in a restaurant, we want to know where our food comes from, how it’s prepared and sometimes — thanks to our newfound nutrition awareness — we want specifics about its health benefits. People are increasingly being identified by what they eat or don’t eat. And forget trying to ascertain whether a new acquaintance is a Pisces or a Gemini. You can tell a lot about someone if you only know his or her primary choice of dietary fat. Perhaps someday soon restaurant dining areas will be divided by butter-eaters, lard believers, olive oil fans and canola oil aficionados.
So what are we eating these days?
The way America eats away from home is a good indicator of our current tastes. The restaurant industry claims a whopping 46.7 percent share of our food dollar, with restaurant sales expected to reach $476 billion this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. The group also reports that 91 percent of restaurants with a daily check average of $25 or more offer vegetarian entrees, and 72 percent of those with an $8-or-less check average offer them as well. A survey sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that about 2.8 percent of Americans say they are vegetarians (people who never eat meat, poultry or fish), but beyond that, it seems there’s been an increase in the number of part-time vegetarians who make occasional forays down to the meat end of the table.
Add that to the fact that in just one decade — from 1990 to 2000 — the sale of organic fruits and vegetables in the U.S. increased from $141 million to $2.2 billion, and it makes a pretty convincing case for the fact that we’re eating less meat and choosing more clean, chemical-free produce.
Johnny Mango World Café and Bar, in Ohio City and in Willoughby, saw the trend before the bean counters did. They’ve been offering lots of meatless options made with organic produce since 1996.
Welcome to the Revolution
When it comes to food today, we’re throwing off the shackles. Thanks to our desire to experience regional, seasonal and indigenous foods, we no longer are drawn to restaurants primarily for convenience or because they offer familiar styles of cooking. We embrace the new. There’s also a fun blurring of borders and boundaries as chefs and home cooks alike draw on global influences. We are putting things like wine and wasabi in our mashed potatoes, crusting our fish with lavender and macadamia nuts and making sorbet out of tomatoes and basil.
We’re also into color as well as flavor for our foods: purple Peruvian potatoes, yellow tomatoes, white peaches and gold kiwifruit come to mind. At the InterContinental Hotel and Conference Center in Cleveland, for instance, both executive chef Didier Montarou and Classics Chef Guillaume Brard incorporate purple cauliflower into a vegetable side dish. The result is a study in pink.
As restaurant customers, we no longer hesitate to order mix-and-match meals composed of several appetizers. The tapas, or small plates, trend encourages us to taste a variety of global cuisines. Sometimes it may feel as if we’re hovering hummingbirds, drawn to a sampling platter. The small tastes trend also extends to menu items such as the antipasto tower at Delmonico’s Steakhouse in Independence, which can be as alluring as a traditional shrimp cocktail.
We also have become more generous in our new interpretations of cuisine. We don’t hesitate to eat foods that blend several influences — such as the signature avocado egg rolls with tamarind-cashew dipping sauce at The Cheesecake Factory in Lyndhurst or the charred ahi tuna with ricotta croquette, Cabernet butter and seared foie gras at Blue Point Grille downtown.
This blending trend is evident in table settings, too. Restaurants around the country are using creative presentation ideas, such as serving seafood cocktails in martini glasses, offering coffee-flavored desserts in coffee cups, or presenting mashed potatoes banana-split style, in sundae dishes. At XO Prime Steaks downtown, the fried rock shrimp appetizer is served in a Chinese carry-out box.
The Pedigreed Plate
In our quest for quality, we want to know the provenance of our food — whether it’s in restaurants or in supermarkets. We see line-caught tuna and Ohio-made cheeses being promoted. Restaurants that work with specific producers pass that information on to diners. You’ll find Niman Ranch free-range pork at Chipotle Mexican Grills around town and Kobe beef cheeseburgers and New Zealand Lamb Chops at The Metropolitan Café in the Warehouse district.
On chef Paul Minillo’s menu at The Baricelli Inn, items such as Tea Hill Farms chicken breast, prime Colorado lamb chops, Ohio bartlett poached pears and heirloom tomato carpaccio appear. At Piatto in Akron, descriptions of the olive oils on a special tasting menu include information about the estate where each one is produced and bottled.
The farm-to-table connection is also evident in area farmers’ markets. People like buying from people they know, and are enthused about the link between place and plate, lining up to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Waiting for the Next Elvis
When we talk about food trends, it seems we’re usually on the alert for the next Elvis of the world of food and drink. But developments such as tamarind-o-rama or sushi-palooza usually don’t happen. Instead, we tend to glom onto megatrends such as casual dining restaurants, tapas or small-plate styles of eating where restaurant-goers can share many items. From there, we glide slowly into new eating patterns.
Global menu influences have slipped into our everyday menus. We eat breads of the world (pita, brioche, focaccia and tortillas); we slurp global noodles ranging from spaghetti to soba. World cheese styles such as Haloumi, Asiago and Manchego have brightened up our lunches. Even our tea experience encompasses English, Indian, Middle Eastern, European and Asian interpretations. Salsa now outsells ketchup nationwide and the freezer case at your local grocery store is as likely to have Japanese edamame beans and Indian samosas as peas and pot pies.
What’s Next, Kitchen Fantasy Camp?
Not long ago, this generation was thought to be hurtling toward culinary illiteracy. However, it now seems that cooking is emerging as an entertaining pastime. More and more, we don’t just want to savor the food of a particular region, we want to become immersed in it.
Anyone who needs examples of how experiential dining is rising to new heights has only to visit Web sites such as www.theinternationalkitchen.com, www.epiculinary.com or www.cooking-vacations.com. That’s where the details can be found about how to arrange vacation-time cooking classes in Northern Ireland, Provence, Tuscany, California Wine Country and beyond. “Have fork, will travel” seems to be our new motto.
In addition, television’s celebrity chefs have helped redefine the term “eatertainment.” We see the kitchen as stadium (on “Iron Chef”), as a reality TV show (the 2003 program, “The Restaurant” starring chef Rocco DiSpirito), the kitchen as classroom (TV Food Network how-to shows), and the kitchen as a stage (as in the off-Broadway show, “Cookin’”). Today, we also have TV shows such as “Iron Chef America” pitting high-profile chefs against one another on Food Network cook-offs, the 12-episode PBS cooking competition “Cooking Under Fire,” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” with British chef Gordon Ramsay.
Perhaps this type of food fling got its start a decade ago, when participants at a 1995 Chicago fund-raising auction actually bid money for the opportunity to put in a day’s work in the kitchen at the well-known Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. Today, not only is the chef’s life something that has a glamorous image, it’s also the stuff of entertainment.|!|