When eating and drinking one’s way through a conference that’s all about food trends, you’re bound to come across some surprising menu ideas that can work for your operation. Here are seven “aha” moments operators and industry folks shared at FoodService Director’s MenuDirections conference in Charlotte, N.C.
1. Labor-saving sauce hacks
Start with a bottled sauce, add three or more ingredients and create an umami-rich signature sauce without much effort. Chef Andrew Hunter demonstrated several combinations, including a teriyaki yuzu that blends teriyaki, yuzu juice, pepper and a few other seasonings, and a pineapple lime sweet-sour, a mix of sweet-sour sauce, pineapple juice, lime juice and ginger. The ingredients do not have to be cooked before they’re mixed in because they get cooked in application—when the teriyaki yuzu is added to a stir fry, for example, or the pineapple lime sweet-sour sauce is brushed on poultry during grilling.
3. Grab-and-go poke snacks
Operators looking for an innovative way to serve handheld foods may want to consider eco-friendly bamboo cones, which fall in line with the growing snacking trend. One vendor downsized poke—the on-trend prep of marinated, cubed raw fish usually available in bowls—and served it in the cones for a grab-and-go snack.
4. A cool dessert display
Tiny ice cream balls speared on bamboo picks are a sweet way to offer dessert at a catering event, and squeeze bottles of different sauces allow guests to customize the mini treats. Using scraps of granite salvaged from a kitchen remodeler for the display surface helps keeps the ice cream frozen.
5. Oatmeal with a Mexican spin
As all-day breakfast continues to rise in popularity, savory oatmeals are getting more play as an alternative to eggs and pancakes. In a session on the breakfast boom, Ina Pinkney—aka “the breakfast queen”—shared black bean and avocado oatmeal as a menu idea. It may be time to step out of the brown sugar rut and set up an oatmeal station with savory additions and ethnic variations.
6. Locally made Asian noodles
Sourcing local ingredients is a priority of Fahrenheit, one of the restaurants showcased on MenuDirections’ dine around. Although nearby farms provide plenty of local produce and meats, it was surprising that a Southern city would have a steady source for scratch-made Asian noodles. But the restaurant’s slow-braised short ribs are served over teriyaki lo mein, prepared from fresh noodles made by a small local producer. The dish is rounded out with roasted wild mushrooms, baby bok choy, apple syrup and toasted sesame seeds.
7. Inspiration for a chef’s table
During the Chef’s Council panel, senior living chef Nicola Torres shared how he replicated an experience he had at Alinea, the experimental upscale restaurant in Chicago, for a dinner service surprise at The Garlands of Barrington in Illinois. He set up a chef’s table and coursed out the meal like they do at Alinea, complete with some of the aromatherapy components. To enhance the experience of one course, a mushroom dish prepared with seaweed was accompanied by a small pillow infused with an ocean scent. Torres created the meal to excite residents with a different kind of dinner service and a unique sensory experience.