What's happening now -- and what's next -- in the culinary world? Successful Meetings sister publication Meetings & Conventions sought insight from eight of today's biggest name chefs: Todd English, Charlie Palmer, Iron Chef Morimoto, and others. Their wide-ranging answers demonstrate that in the current food climate, anything goes. However, a few common themes emerged.
First, menus are evolving toward more healthful fare in response to consumer demand. Second, diners -- both at restaurant tables and in banquet halls -- are looking to share meals and sample a variety of items, instead of chowing through an individual entrée. Third, the traditional rules of ethnic cuisines have dissolved; today, every plate has become an intriguing fusion of ingredients and cooking styles.
"The whole younger generation of chefs is not opposed to breaking down borders," says chef Brian Malarkey (age 45), whose stylish and sexy restaurant concepts have drawn crowds across the country. "We'd be wonderful diplomats, because when we cook, we are one world."
Trend: Asian inspiration
Chef Malarkey sees Asian ingredients and techniques at the forefront of contemporary cooking. Chief among them are yuzu, a citrus fruit that packs a sour punch; ponzu, a Japanese dipping sauce made of lemon, vinegar and soy sauce; and kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage, and other vegetables. He also sprinkles furikake, a seaweed and sesame-based condiment, on roasted chicken, and adds kombu seaweed to the brine for pork.
"The amount of flavor you can get from Asian ingredients is insanity," Malarkey says. Asian cooking techniques, he explains, call for less butter and olive oil and more acid, citrus, and herbs to bring in flavor without the fat. Foods come out of the kitchen with more char and caramelization.
"Everything has a natural sugar," Malarkey notes. "When you cook meat at a super-high temperature, you're caramelizing that meat. Between 700 and 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, you're going to get something spectacular."
Venues: Malarkey, former cohost of The Taste, runs more than a dozen high-style restaurants, including Herringbone at both the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and at Vidanta Los Cabos in Mexico, and a Searsucker restaurant at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. This summer, he opened his fourth Herringbone, in Waikiki, HI.
Trend: Instagram-worthy plating
"Food has become a show," says chef Todd English, and his menus play on theatrics, such as mozzarella whipped up tableside, or a volleyball-size meatball stuffed with spaghetti. At English's Bluezoo in the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, FL, "dancing fish" are skewered whole fish revolving on a rotisserie oven that's visible from the dining room. And some signature cocktails, topped with liquid nitrogen, arrive at the table smoking like a mad scientist's potion.
English is not only trying to please diners, he wants them to snap a photo and post it to Instagram. "You can't disregard social media anymore," he says. "A lot of restaurants now design their menus around Instagrammable dishes."
Venues: A certifiable food icon, Todd English debuted Olives in Boston in 1989. Today, Olives restaurants are as far-reaching as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Atlantis in the Bahamas and the Venetian Village in Abu Dhabi. The Plaza Hotel in New York City is home to Todd English Food Hall and, as noted above, Bluezoo.
Trend: Classics with a twist
"The only thing you can do is offer the dishes your guests already know," says chef Lorena Garcia. "We translate those dishes into the style of the cuisine that we serve."
For brunch at Chica, Garcia's new pan-Latin restaurant at the Venetian Las Vegas, she whips up a piquant twist on chicken and waffles with a five-spice waffle topped with a marinated rotisserie chicken and Peruvian peppers and slathered in agave. At dinner, her hugely popular Mac con Queso riffs on mac and cheese, mixing Peruvian corn, hearts of palm and spinach in a parmesan cream gratin. Both resemble American dishes but add flavors that represent Latin American cultures.
"I'm always going back to the basics and recreating them," Garcia says. "How can we help our guests to feel a memory?"
Venues: Chef Garcia, a regular on TV shows such as Top Chef All-Stars and America's Next Great Restaurant, became known for her successful airport restaurants in Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami and Atlanta. She operates the Culinary Loft, an intimate event space in Miami. Chica, her first Vegas venture, opened in May 2017.
Trend: Embrace the local
"Trends are not really my thing," Iron Chef Morimoto admits, but he does follow one "trend" in all his establishments. "Each of my restaurants respects and values the local food and culture, and tries to incorporate them into its service and dishes."
For example, at the Disney Springs Resort in Orlando, dishes incorporate ingredients found in the Orlando area, such as Florida oranges and lemons, rock shrimp, and lionfish.
Venues: Morimoto has brought his Japanese and pan-Asian concepts to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the Andaz Maui and the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida, among others. He is launching two restaurants in the Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach, a transformation of the former Pacific Beach Hotel slated to reopen by year's end.
Trend: Southern surprises
Chef Stephan Pyles looks southward for inspiration, importing lesser-known ingredients and dishes from Mexico and South America. "I think Mexico is the next country in the limelight," he says. "Certainly it makes sense in Texas, which can feel like an extension of Mexico."
Pyles serves empanadas with huitlacoche, a corn fungus that some call the truffle of Mexico. (Google it at your own risk.) "It's very earthy, like a really rich mushroom," he notes. For the dough, he uses Venezuelan arepa flour instead of cornmeal, giving it a fluffier texture, and finishes it with a guava sauce. Instead of mashed potatoes, he might serve llapingachos, Ecuadorean potato cakes made with olives, pickled jalapeno, cilantro, and egg.
Venues: Pyles has made a lasting culinary mark in Southwestern cuisine. The fifth-generation Texan has opened 22 restaurants over the past 30 years, including the new Flora Street Café in Dallas that recently garnered the Dallas Morning News' only current five-star review. This year, he partnered with Benchmark Hospitality to refresh all of its restaurants.
Trend: shareable feasts
Once upon a time, it was a faux pas to let everyone taste someone's meal; nowadays, no one bats an eye when a diner reaches for a forkful of her companion's dish. In light of this, chef Charlie Palmer adjusted the menu format at Aureole, his New York City flagship, in early 2017 to incorporate more seasonal ingredients as well as more dishes that could be shared. Recent shareable items have included zucchini carpaccio, cacio e pepe (which means "cheese and pepper," a cousin of mac and cheese), and salmon panzanella.
For groups, Palmer finds that event planners prefer a different kind of sharing: family-style dining. "There is something so elegant and simplistic about serving large-format cuts of meats to groups with large plates of vegetables and various other sides," he says, adding that when food is served this way, guests tend to interact more and have a much better time.
Venues: Palmer is best known for his flagship restaurant, Aureole, in New York City, but he also oversees a variety of restaurants, steak houses and bars across the country, and an event space called Upper Story in Manhattan. Many of his restaurants are in hotels, including Charlie Palmer Steak at New York City's Archer Hotel and Charlie Palmer Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas. His company also operates three boutique hotels in Northern California, including the iconic Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma County.
Trend: light and luscious
"Personally, as I get older, I want to eat healthier," says chef Richard Sandoval. He's not alone. Diners are demanding healthy foods in all the markets Sandoval's restaurants serve. Hotel menus are getting more health-conscious, too.
Put simply, Sandoval believes diners want more fish and vegetables and less meat; more low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-calorie preparations. Popular items from his menus include a chipotle and hummus tostada with radishes, and a vegan zucchini lasagna.
Sandoval's cocktails incorporate exotic fruit juices in place of excess sugar, like a pomegranate margarita topped with a float of mezcal.
Venues: Known as the father of Modern Mexican cuisine, Sandoval runs more than 40 restaurants worldwide, including La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona; Raya at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, in Dana Point, CA.; Maya at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek (CO) Mountain, and three F&B outlets at the Conrad Chicago. In 2016, he partnered with the Fairmont Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to reinvent the resort's offerings.
Trend: Vegetables rule
When chef Art Smith recently ate at a hopping restaurant in Valdosta, Ga., he saw something that shocked him. Diners were making a meal purely out of vegetables: fresh rutabaga, okra, yams, and collard greens. "If they're doing it in rural America, you can do it anywhere," he says.
In Smith's restaurants, myriad cuts and preparations of pork are going by the wayside, replaced by creative vegetable and whole-grain dishes. For example, his Blue Door Kitchen in Chicago serves a kale and Brussels sprout salad with tahini dressing. "I'm personally kinda kaled-out," he says, "but this dish just blows out the door." He also uses items like wheat berries, spelt and heirloom rices in his classic Southern dishes.
Even customers who crave fried chicken and steak still want their vegetables. At Smith's new farm-to-table Homecomin' Florida Kitchen at Disney Springs in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., a local hanger steak is served with a cornucopia of locally sourced sides: corn succotash, char-grilled asparagus, pickled onions and potato salad.
Venues: For a decade, Smith served as Oprah Winfrey's personal chef. Now, the two-time James Beard Award recipient owns restaurants around the country, like those mentioned above plus Southern Shine at Disney Springs and Southern Art and Bourbon Bar at the InterContinental Buckhead Hotel in Atlanta.