Let's face it, restaurant customers are finicky. And we are all customers. We want trusted dishes. But we want new dishes that are interesting. We want to be entertained. But we don’t want every meal to be an adventure. We like some pieces of the menu to be thought-provoking, but don’t want to be confused and frustrated with whackadoodle inventions.
Let’s all agree that innovation has a place, albeit controlled and calculated. Innovation does not mean the latest kitchen gadget, either. Innovation is as much technique as it is the tools in your hand.
So, how can chefs stir customer interest when they want it to be stirred in 2019?
3-D Food Printing
Definitely not something that will ride the wave of tenacity and ubiquity, but interesting, nonetheless.
Think of 3D food printing much in the way chocolate fountains were kinda cool when they first started dribbling their goopy chocolate all over tablecloths at weddings far and near. Novel? Yes. Technology-driven? For sure. Practical? Debatable.
But there are serious chefs latching on to the technology. For example, Paco Pérez at Barcelona’s Enoteca has unleashed 3D printed dishes. The Michelin-starred chef uses printing technology in place of design work that would be nearly impossible to accomplish by hand.
Do you really need a sneaker printed out of marzipan? No. But you also don’t need a big-ass block of ice carved into the likeness of King Tritan leaking water all over the floor, holding up chilled shrimp. But we still do it.
For now, it is something to talk about it. We did the same thing with those pictures printed on rice paper and layered onto sheet cakes. Why? Because we can. And, yeah, it sells.
Tofu. Chickpeas. Almonds. Hemp seeds. At casual dining restaurants like Firebird’s, Red Robin and Chili’s, healthy halo dishes are flourishing. And it isn’t just vegetarian dishes. It is the dynamic flavoring as much in demand as their meat-based counterparts.
Zaytina, for instance, menus a stew of green chickpeas and tomatoes. Not a timid offering for the likes of José Andrés. Then there's the flourishing fast casual darling, Honeygrow, big on noodle, rice, and greens as the basis for their popular bowls, but takes tofu one step further with a roasted, spiced treatment. Veg-centric is a macro-trend that is pervasive with strong ties to plant protein menuing.
Digital/Continuous Temp Logging Tools
A real piece of technology that we can - and should - hook our food safety talons into? Anything dealing with improved food safety. And a technology piece that takes some of the human factor (translation: labor) out of the cost equation is definitely on the menu. T
aking temperatures of refrigerators, freezers, low-boys, and walk-ins is a forgettable annoyance at best and tedious at worst. But it needs to be done. Or should be done!
Logging temperatures is a health department requirement in many municipalities or shortly will be. And it is good business sense to keep an eye on equipment performance to prevent failures and hella costly repairs or replacements. Continuously record temperatures of in-place equipment and get alerts to keep things smooth. While it takes 30 seconds for a cook to log temps, he can forget or fake it. Yes, I am looking at you. Take the risk out of this risk factor and sleep easier.
Tableside Cooking - What’s Old is New. Again.
Not every innovation is new. Some developments are reinventions from the by-gone days. Remember Dover sole prepared tableside? Or crepes in a copper pan set aflame to the "oohs" and "ahhs" of onlookers? The novel element of tableside cooking is much akin to the allure of open kitchens.
Guests like to see the action that it takes to make Aunt Stella’s alligator pie get flambéed. If Chicago’s Tony Mantuano is doing tableside dishes at River Roast, then it must be cool.
The Wayback Machine
Classic French fare is not going to replace braised short rib, jackfruit tacos, or quinoa bowls today. But it is getting a refreshed nod. The demise of jacket-and-tie restaurants is no secret. Like tableside cooking, though, what is old is new again. Elevated French food is the highwater mark for classically trained chefs. But what about for the new crew of kitchen renegades? Well, they appreciate - and execute - a good confit like their predecessors. Most recently, a refresh to French-grounded menus with structured appetizer, entrée, dessert formats is reemerging.
Small plates, shareables, and communal dining are not fading. New York’s Benno, the recently opened namesake of Chef Jonathan Benno, brings acclaim to classical French (and a dollop of Italian) to the notorious trend epi-center of the U.S. The turn to classic dining as a mainstream option is still a ways off. But it does hold enough novel individualism that it is new to people that grew up without fitted suits, button downs, and carpeted dining rooms devoid of Edison lights.
A little flourish to the ordinary keeps customers interested. Yes, eighty-percent of sales will still come from the top 20 percent performers. But giving customers something to keep them involved is what has chefs, customers, and Instagrammers asking for the “what’s next.”