Labor. Activism. Fine dining. Reinvention. As a new year dawns, few industries are more dynamic, challenging, and exciting than the restaurant landscape is today. All around we see experimentation and change in a time when the future of hospitality is uncertain, from the ingredients on our plates to the very business model that has prevailed for decades.
In anticipation of 2017 unfolding, we asked some of the industry’s top restaurateurs, chefs, partners, and experts to share their predictions for the year ahead. Here, they share their visions of the future of food, drinks, workforce, and beyond. (Don’t forget to peek back at last year’s predictions to see where our 2016 experts got it right!)
FOCUS ON PROFESSIONALISM
“Hospitality included. While we have seen starts and stops with a few restaurants this year, industry trailblazers like USHG have stayed the course. Many guests and more staff are not ready, but this will end up being one of the biggest game changers in the industry. While it is going to be hard to execute, it will in the long run be the best for our fun but crazy industry.”
— Bobby Stuckey, Partner, Frasca Food & Wine
The decision by Danny Meyer’s restaurant group to transition to a tipless model made big waves in the industry over the past year. And it’s likely to be adopted by more restaurants and groups in 2017. Adds Michael Anthony, chef at USHG’s Gramercy Tavern: “The changing economic landscape of the restaurant industry and rising costs of labor across the country will encourage many restaurants to implement innovative initiatives like Hospitality Included at Gramercy Tavern. This gives us the opportunity to eliminate a broken tipping system, foster a true professional culinary culture, create a more clear path to advance ambitious people’s careers, retain top talent, more effectively recruit from more diverse sources and better take care of our entire team.”
A primary goal for these initiatives is to evolve the restaurant business to be more professional, a viable career path for talented young cooks and front-of-house employees alike. And a professional industry needs a professional workforce that is valued and appreciated as the experts they truly are.
For example, Bobby calls out the need for seasoned, veteran managers, maitre d’s, and sommeliers. “The industry needs to retain and talk about the few veterans that are left on dining room doors. I just had a young sommelier go to NYC and dine at Le Bernardin, and her biggest impression of the week was Aldo Somm and his team. She was blown away by how great it was. Why aren’t there more spots like that? The more we speak about and recognize the veteran, the more they may stay in the craft. Hopefully starting in 2017 you will have a rising tide of this.”
And finally, diners, too, need to gain more respect for the restaurant industry and take more responsibility for the part they play in its success. Bobby hopes for more consumer awareness around “no-call, no-shows,” which he dubs “one of the biggest killers in the industry.” People wouldn’t think of no-showing for hair or dentist appointments; why should a restaurant be any different?
“The restaurant industry is becoming much more socially active. I think that we are going to see a lot more purpose-driven businesses that support causes in the food space. Using organic and farm to table are just the tip of the iceberg. Now that chefs have more of a voice, they can help make a difference in their community and the industry as a whole. There’s a purpose and it’s not just about making food any more, it’s about educating people while you feed them.”
— Ellen Bennett, Founder, Hedley & Bennett
Chefs are more visible in media and pop culture than they’ve ever been before, and that means they have an audience they can educate and influence. Ellen cites charities like Chef’s Cycle, No Kid Hungry, and the Heritage Grain Project as causes chefs will continue to back, and also notes Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s Locol as an example of accessible food with a cause.
FINE DINING vs. FAST CASUAL
“Fine-dining and classic style restaurants will continue to play an important role. We saw that with places like Le Coucou, Vaucluse, and Gabriel Kreuther. And at Aureole our experience is that our most desired tables are in the dining room.”
The split between fine and casual continues to grow, and this year it seems the divide will become more pronounced than ever. More chefs and restaurants are focusing on prix fixe menus, says Chef Traci Des Jardins, but casual dining is also thriving and growing more innovative. “I think a lot more restaurateurs are going to adopt the fast-casual model so more people can experience the same quality food as their high-end restaurants in a quicker and less expensive setting,” says Ellen Bennett.
Chef Kevin Fink of Austin’s Emmer & Rye sees fine dining evolve into a more casual experience on the whole. “I think fine dining is amazing and fun but something most of us only want once or so a year,” he explains. “Restaurateurs are recognizing this and have started to evolve the traits that used to be exclusive to fine dining into more casual restaurants. I think you will see a great number of famous chefs move into a more casual approach.”
NEW SERVICE MODELS
“Farm to table will evolve into farm to guest, with a focus on freshly prepared food served in new formats. This will be led by successful restaurant people taking risks and jumping into the counter-service/technology-based styles of hospitality to balance the biggest issue in our industry today, which is lack of resources and talent.”
As minimum wages rise and supporting a robust front-of-house staff becomes more challenging, restaurateurs are going to have to get creative. That may mean service led by technology or facilitated by a counter model, as Tyson says.
Plus, as Ellen Bennett predicts, restaurants will build stronger connections between the front and back of the house — and more intimacy with guests. She sees more and more restaurants using their back of house employees as servers (think Trois Mec and Destroyer). “I think it’s brilliant and even more cost-effective, not to mention it gives the guests more of an inclusive experience. Because of social media and the Internet, people are so much more connected with the chefs, space, and food that having the line cooks become the wait staff is the next step in restaurants. People want that interaction and want to talk to the person who made it.”
“Grain bowls were huge in 2015, from Pinterest obsession to fine-dining menus, and justly so – they are an open formula for healthy, creative and balanced dishes that work well almost any part of day. More and more chefs are creating delicious savory breakfast bowls based on alternative grains and brown rice. Not your typical potato skillet, these are complex, satisfying and endlessly creative options that are a new piece of the American breakfast vocabulary that are here to stay.”
Menus spotlighting vegetables, greens, grains, and other nutritious ingredients show no signs of slowing down. “Vegetables will continue to grow as a source of culinary inspiration for chefs and inspire many enthusiastic eaters to pursue and explore healthy, light, local, foods that are grown seasonally, bred specifically by plant breeders and raised to increase a heightened awareness of living well and eating seductive seasonal vegetables and grains, often served in bowls,” says Michael Anthony. Adds Chef Charlie Palmer of New York City’s Aureole: “I’m hoping kale will finally fall of the trend chart and we’ll see more flavorful greens on menus as the focus on healthy eating continues.”
That could mean a transformation of traditional foods we all know and love, such as pasta, bread, and pizza. Those dishes are all based on a single key ingredient: flour.
“So much of our food uses flour, but we know so little about it. The restaurant industry is realizing investing in one crucial ingredient has the ability to singlehandedly influence almost 40% of a restaurant’s menu. In 2017 you will see chefs and restaurants get serious about grains.”
— Kevin Fink, Chef/Owner, Emmer & Rye
Also on Elizabeth’s carb radar: artisan bagels. “I am a New Yorker and have very specific opinions about my bagels and have been overjoyed to see a new generation of bakers and restaurateurs investigate this humble o of dough and give it new life, especially on the West Coast.”
…AND A MEAT REVOLUTION
From the Paleo movement to alternative meats, our experts predict proteins will look vastly different in 2017 than what we’re used to. Chef Traci Des Jardins added the Impossible Burger — a burger for meat-lovers made entirely of plants — to the menu at her San Francisco restaurant Jardinière this year, and it’s a hit. She says she’s expecting to see the trend of plant-based meat grow in the year to come.
Elizabeth Blau added Paleo 2.0 to her list of predictions: “While the Crossfit/Paleo regimen that inspired so many #fitlife Instagram posts over the past few years still has a strong following, it’s hardly new news. However, a new batch of entrepreneurs, artisans and chefs are taking the philosophies of the movement and creating healthy, wholesome snacks, desserts and meals.” She sees Paleo as an indicator of healthy, limited ingredients, and often GMO-free and organic options — less about a diet and more of a tool for conscious consumers.
And finally, cold cuts — meaning American deli meats, not charcuterie. Chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of The Progress and State Bird Provisions see these forgotten favorites making a comeback (baloney is back!).
HIGH-LOW GLOBAL FLAVORS
“Japanese food will continue to influence top chefs, and many American cooks will travel to Japan to train and work. We’ll grow more accustomed to dining at more fine-dining, contemporary kaiseki restaurants. During the year, though, we may see cooks from around the world start to follow grow infatuated with Korean food and cooking. Many talented Korean cooks who have been living and working in the U.S. and Europe for years will draw our attention.”
— Michael Anthony, Chef, Gramercy Tavern
Happily, our experts believe new, inspired global flavors will reach a wide spectrum from casual restaurants to fine-dining ones. “Mexican cuisine will continue to grow all over America, led by standouts on the higher end like Cosme NYC, or more casual like Torchy’s in Austin, Texas,” says Chef Tyson Cole. “The textures and spicy flavors of true Mexican food seem to be more American now than ever.”
Cole also sees Thai and Japanese foods growing in popularity: “Thai food will find its voice in the QSR marketplace. New ramen shops will open with a focus on lighter, healthier varieties similar to pho, like yuzu ramen.”
In New York specifically, Chef Charlie Palmer anticipates the rise of new global cuisines. “I think we’ll see even more incredible international culinary influences here in NYC, joining the ranks of Agern’s Nordic cuisine and Matt Lambert’s New Zealand cooking at Musket Room,” he says.
When it comes to beverage trends, sourcing is top priority. In addition to in-danger wine varietals, Stuart and Nicole favor spirits made with care. “We see small-batch, farm-to-bottle spirits such as Far North in Minnesota and Griffo Gin from Petaluma, California — our favorite local beverage.”
Speaking of cocktails, Chef Jonathan Waxman calls for more creativity not just in how they are mixed, but in the presentation itself. “New glassware will come into play, making cocktails more playful and exotic,” he says.