If the United Nations had a restaurant equivalent, it might have been Future Menus 2023, a gathering in the Netherlands last week of menu innovators from all over the world. Hosted by Unilever Food Solutions, the two-day event focused on emerging food trends. But with hundreds of working foodservice professionals in attendance, operational ideas were far from a scarcity.
Here are five innovations presenters said they’ve adopted to run better and more successful restaurants.
More plant-based items = fewer alcoholic options
A trend mentioned by several chef-proprietors of restaurants with a plant-forward bent is a tendency of meat-averse guests to also forgo beer, wine and full-strength cocktails. “More people choose a nonalcoholic beverage because they’re fresher that way,” said Emile van der Staak, chef-proprietor of the two-Michelin-star De Nieuwe Winkel.
He still offers beer and wine, but also emphasizes non-intoxicating “botanicals,” or refreshers that promise a health boost.
Fermentation specialist Christian Weij validated his fellow Dutchman’s assessment, citing the exact same reasoning. For his catering and restaurant operations, Weij tries to come up with riffs on fermented drinks, including kefir.
Have your chefs function as runners
One of the practices van der Staak has adopted for his fine-dining restaurant is having every meal delivered to guests’ tables by the chef who prepared it. There’s a slight labor savings, the chef said, but the real benefit is bringing chef and customer face to face, possibly for the exchange of a few hospitable words and a connection.
The restaurant features a display kitchen that runs along one whole side of the dining room, so the chefs only have to walk a few steps.
Think in terms of “arm candy” items
That’s the term used (and patented) by the San Francisco consultancy The Culinary Edge, which is also the parent company of the Starbird fast-casual chicken-sandwich chain. The term may be locked down, but the notion behind it isn’t. The youngest strata of restaurant consumers—“Zoomers,” in Culinary Edge-speak, as opposed to Boomers—regard an eye-catching beverage or hand-held food as a dash of personal sizzle. So they’re drawn to concepts whose products can provide that buzz.
With those younger consumers, “it’s less about the purse I’m carrying, it’s less about the watch I’m wearing, it’s more about what’s on my Instagram account,” said Erica Holland-Toll, Culinary Edge’s culinary director.
She advised attendees of the Future Menus 2023 conference to “switch up your arm candy.”
Try a “flavor painting” as a catering centerpiece
Angelique Shneinck, a Dutch master chef, provided a killer of a catering idea during the conference. She and several of Unilever Food Solutions’ chefs turned a long white tabletop into what amounted to a flavor sampling bar. The surface was covered with all sorts of unusual reductions and preps, from a Bloody Mary reduced to a bite-sized blob of tomato essence, to all kinds of unusual sauces, mousses and crunchy extras.
Attendees circled the table, spoons in hand, to sample the flavors and textures. They were also invited to use an endive leaf to scoop up two or three components that sounded as they should never be served together—only to dash the preconception that the mash-up would never work. An anchovy might’ve been smeared with a button of reduced passion fruit and topped with a slice of black carrot.
Tweak perspectives with sharp plating contrasts
The founder of the Eataly retail-restaurant hybrid concept, Oscar Farinetti, offered this off-hand advice to attendees: Give some new pizzazz to old favorites by changing the way a meal’s components are plated. Specifically, he recommended putting a large dish of one ingredient next to a plate with the diameter of a coffee cup.
Farinetti showed the example of a small plate, heaped with cherry tomatoes, positioned next to an overly large bowl of pasta. It gave the meal a slightly Dali-esque feel without being weird.