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Sriracha Nights and Quinoa Dreams
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One of my best friends from college has one of those unassailably cool, one-of-a-kind jobs that always manages to prompt a feeling of envy. His gig is to come up with menu items and specialty flavorings for huge chain restaurants. He and his team, then, cook up the creations in test kitchens, and after they have been approved, he then flies to the corporate centers for the chain restaurants and shows the chefs there how to prepare the new foods. Some of the dishes that his team has come up with are well-known to anybody who's dined at the many, ubiquitous chain restaurants that clog up the strip malls and heavy commercial zones in any American city. If you ate at a restaurant on Coliseum Boulevard last year, for instance, there's a pretty good chance that you tried something that my buddy came up with.
Of course, being a talented chef who once ran a few celebrated restaurants of his own, my friend is wholly dismissive of the products he's helped to mass-produce. He doesn't pretend that his endeavors are anything more than a technician's response to intensive marketing and research; there's not a lot of inventive culinary skill required, he's told me, when you're producing food items that are expected to appeal to millions of consumers. Which may be true, but still: it's no small thing to create something that a few hundred million people may eventually eat. Everybody likes to have an audience for their efforts, after all, even if it's a fast-food item available on virtually every street corner in the world. My friend always shakes his head when I make this point, but I know there has to be a tiny bit of pride in him somewhere, knowing that he now at least has tangible proof of his creativity being exerted, no matter how muted it might be.
What makes his job so cool to me, though, is that he has to travel and eat virtually everywhere; much of his research is hands-on knowledge and that demands that he has to explore dozens of vibrant, often obscure restaurants around the country and sample their wares. This is great for me, for now I have a reliable cicerone when it comes to discovering new places to eat whenever I travel. After I book a trip, my first call is always to my guy, who gives me the inside dope about any city's cuisine. Best barbecue in Miami? Check. Top soul food in LA? Got it. Neo-Nordic in Austin? He's got me covered. It's always a pleasure to pick up his trail when I hit a new city, discovering the restaurants that I never would have found on my own.
There's no doubt I get a vicarious kick out of his current gig, especially when he answers my endless questions about what's going on with national food trends. I'm sort of fascinated by what rises and falls in culinary America, and my friend's job gives him a pretty good perspective about what might be on the horizon. After his last visit, and after some prodding, he told me what he expects in 2015, and as a public service, dear reader, I'm here to relay what he said, along with some fearless forecasting of my own. Consider it my holiday present.
First of all, don't expect the current "Meat Mania" to quit anytime soon. While American beef consumption in general continues its decade-long decline, red meat remains the preferred protein in your upscale bistros and restaurants. High-end burger joints (Shake Shack, In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys) have thrived in the past decade and continue to show surprising sustainability — in spite of the health warnings about high cholesterol, heart disease, et al. — there's still a significant demographic that has simply decided, Screw it, I'm getting a cheeseburger. Millennials, in particular, continue to be enthusiastic carnivores, which bodes well for Fort Wayne's recently-opened burger emporium, Bravas Burgers.
You might, however, see the beginnings of a mild "bacon backlash" in 2015. Americans have become ridiculous about bacon, almost fetishistic — it's in everything now, in your condiments, in your desserts, in candy bars — but it might have finally reached its saturation point. The price of bacon rose almost 20% last year, and there's simply a lot of terrible, inferior product on the shelves and in the restaurants and that has disenchanted customers. For gourmands seeking bold, intense flavors, there are a lot of international options available now to help replace the bacon addiction, at least for a while.
In fact, expect to see a lot of bold flavorings and crazy mash-ups become huge in 2015. Savory ice creams are already gaining popularity on the coasts, and you'll start to see more of them in the future at you local tapas joint. ("Pear and Blue Cheese Ice Cream." "Lavender and Fennel Ice Cream." "Creamed Corn Ice Cream." All real-life products.) You'll also find restaurants starting to feature obscure, "specialty" vegetables zapped up with Asian peppers and exotic roots and herbs. Paella, the traditional Spanish, seafood-and-saffron dish, will show a resurgence in 2015, and the Syrian rice dish biryani will leave its usual home in Middle Eastern restaurants and jump into the mainstream. You'll find it in grocery stores, in fast food joints.
And speaking of fast food, expect to see an Indian version of Chipotle in the very near future, one that features burrito-style sandwiches with shredded lamb, tikka sauce, chickpeas, onion, etc. There's already a successful restaurant chain in San Francisco with the concept (Tava Indian Kitchen), and it's only a matter of time before the trend expands to the rest of the country. In fact, you might expect other "Chiptole"-style knockoffs as well, featuring Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese cuisines.
Other predictions for 2015: the "localcore" movement will continue to thrive, "heirloom" regional ingredients will get more popular, spelt will become the new quinoa, sorghum will start creeping into your breakfast and dinner (especially in the South), cooks will continue to take traditional comfort foods (pot pies, macaroni and cheese, tater tots) and give them the gourmet make-over, gluten-free products will become almost mandatory in every restaurant and bakery, and red wine sales in restaurants will explode to record levels in 2015. Locally, I predict that Joseph Decuis in Roanoke will continue to garner national awards, and I believe there is a 100% chance that I will nurse at least one hangover with four chili dogs from Coney Island. With onions.