July 26, 2018

How chefs keep up with cooking trends

The culinary world is especially sensitive to trends. Although some restaurants and chefs are strong traditionalists when it comes to their menus, many more cater to customers who want to try something new from time to time. Of course, plenty of chefs simply love to experiment with new ingredients, preparations, flavor combinations and plating techniques.

A chef working in a busy, steamy kitchen.Keeping up with cooking trends involves a mix of personal networking and information from the internet.

The power of professional connections

One of the longest-lasting advantages of attending a culinary school is the network of like-minded professionals you can cultivate and remain in contact with long after graduation. The people you form bonds with during your education can help you stay up to date on the most recent developments in your profession.

Cooking trends can come from a variety of sources. When a new dish or method of preparing one comes out of the kitchen of a well-known baker or chef like Dominique Ansel or Grant Achatz, it can be easy to passively pick up on the hype. However, many other trends have quieter roots and can take some time to spread. In these instances, your network is invaluable.

Staying in touch with fellow graduates and building that group as you begin your professional journey can certainly pay off. Opportunities to share industry news help you and everyone else in your network identify new ideas. Those bits of information may turn into major trends or could simply give you a new strategy for preparing a dish, even if the trend never takes off.

Looking to the internet

Decades ago, chefs could talk to other, local professionals in person, call those who lived farther away and read industry magazines and newsletters for more information. There were only so many options for finding out about trends, and none of them provided the combination of speed and coverage provided by the internet. With a variety of chef’s blogs, food industry reporting and social networking choices available to chefs in addition to their professional networks, finding out about trends has never been easier.

There are a variety of sources to consider, including but by no means limited to:

• Cooking and food websites like Bon Appetit and Food and Wine don’t specifically target culinary professionals. However, they provide timely insight into trends that reach into popular culture, which customers may start to expect to see on the menus at their favorite restaurants. They also offer a look at seasonal and classic dishes that can serve as a spark of inspiration.
• Industry websites like Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Business are more focused on market segments, financials and growth than the specifics of the farm-to-table trend or sharing tips for sous vide preparation. These sources offer key insights into how trends can impact a restaurant’s operations, how customers can be expected to react and much more.
• Blogs managed by individual chefs, like Alton Brown and John Besh, offer individualized insight into food culture and trends. There are a wide variety of blogs managed by culinary professionals out there, so seek out offerings from chefs whose work you admire or whose food you especially enjoy.
• General-interest reporting is valuable when a food trend starts rising or peaking. There are a variety of sties to consider, from those run by major news networks and their morning shows to magazines like Forbes and websites like Buzzfeed. You won’t get the detailed culinary knowledge influencing the writing as you would with a chef’s blog or industry news source, but you can gain a strong understanding of how a trend is viewed by the general public.

How Social Media Impacts Chefs

There is no denying the popularity of social media in the U.S. Between Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and a legion of other platforms. It’s not hard to see why so many people are drawn to these online portals, as they offer people a chance to connect with another and share information and passion for various subjects. Food and dining have attracted sizable interest in the online world, and people have used these platforms to exchange recipes and proudly display their dishes.

As a result of this growing interest, social media has even had an impact on chefs and culinary graduates, reshaping how these people approach the art of cooking. Aside from food trends, it’s important to keep an eye on social trends to help further your career.

Market yourself
A 2012 report from the National Restaurant Association made one thing clear: technology is a booming trend in the culinary world. Social media especially is essential to chefs of all experience levels and traditions as it’s an important way to promote and market your restaurant. Twitter, for instance, is a great way to communicate with customers in real-time, while Facebook can be a venue to offer special prizes and engage your customers more fluidly. Part of that ongoing engagement is developing an online presence with a food blog. If you provide great recipes or interesting culinary insights, people will see you as a food authority, one whom they want to visit on the regular.

Generate some positivity
In mid-2016, the communications agency William Morris surveyed 200 chefs from across the U.K. They found what many had already suspected of being true: over 80 percent of the chefs thought that social media had real value to their craft. When it came to using social media, though, there were two primary purposes:

• Generate positive customer reviews (86 percent)
• Source restaurant suppliers (33 percent)

Consider the visuals
People frequently use Instagram to take photos of food while out on the town. As Wired pointed out, the growing importance of food’s aesthetic value is having a huge impact on the restaurant industry as a whole.

For instance, some designers are putting more emphasis on plating spaces over cooking areas. Many chefs are also becoming more acutely aware of the visual appearance of their dishes and taking steps to make these meals more photogenic. Other chefs, meanwhile, utilize Instagram as a research tool, using it to discover what’s hot at restaurants the world over.

Getting back to food, an example of one practice that has had a huge impact on chefs in the past few years is the “trend” of sustainable food practices. More specifically, sharing your sustainable food practices.

Defining Sustainable

With all the eco-friendly food options and labels out there, it can be difficult to keep them straight. Sustainable means that the food was produced by local farmers using practices that maintain the health of their land and livestock. Furthermore, sustainable practices support farm-to-table buying and avoid the use of processed foods or chemicals. Sustainable farmers and producers make their products from scratch without adding harmful ingredients, supporting the health of those who buy from them.

Sustainable ingredients
Some food is easier to grow sustainably than others. Though Americans are accustomed to getting whatever produce they want year-round, a lot of those crops are outsourced. Here are products that you can get locally and a few you can’t:

Fruit: According to a guide published by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, most tropical fruit is grown outside of the U.S., including bananas, citrus and melons. In fact, you won’t be able to find many that are locally grown. Instead of choosing tropical fruit at the grocery store, reach for more sustainable options. Apples and stone fruits (plums, apricots and peaches) can be found locally and they even grow organically in the Northeast, where the climate is optimal. Look for these products as sold by local farms.
Dairy: Happy cows truly are healthy ones. Get your sustainable dairy products from local farms that let their cows graze year round. The cows’ diets can be supplemented with grain, though grass should be their staple food. If you’re looking for sustainable milk but can’t afford it, try buying from transitional farms. Federal regulations require that traditional farms switching to organic practices must go through a three-year transitional period. During this time, they can’t use the organic label even though they are using the practices. Find a transitional farm in your area for low-cost sustainable dairy.
Poultry: Choose antibiotic-free poultry when shopping. The birds should be fed a vegetarian diet and allowed to roam and graze. Visit a local farm to see the conditions in which they raise their poultry.
Meat: As with poultry, lamb or beef should not be given antibiotics. They need to graze year-round. However, if you live in a cold climate, the animals silage or bailage in winter (since grass is covered in snow). Look for packaging labels that say “grass fed.” However, “grass fed, grain finished” is also acceptable. This means that the cow lived off grass but have been fed some grains to supplement their diet in winter.

Aside from supporting area businesses and contributing to sustainable practices. Another reason to make responsible sourcing a priority is that it can set a restaurant or catering service apart from other businesses, creating a unique identity that may prove attractive to patrons.

When you commit to a more environmentally and socially conscious approach to cooking, you may also discover a specific cuisine that gives your business a memorable identity. A restaurant or catering company can define its culinary approach based on quality ingredients that are easy to find in the area. You might focus on searing fish caught wild a nearby body of water, using every part of locally raised pigs or preparing pasta sauce with ingredients from a rooftop farm.

The key to capturing customers’ attention with your brand is emphasizing what makes your food different. Successful farm-to-table restaurants make choices in presentation and atmosphere that accentuate the distinctive elements that went into a dish and encourage people to think about where their food comes from. Whether you alter the menu every week or stick to a few tried-and-true favorites, diners should have a sense of what makes your offerings more intriguing than the usual options at other establishments in town.