In anticipation of the new year, we asked several chefs and restaurant industry insiders to share their thoughts on culinary trends to look for in 2020 in Connecticut. Here are the seven that came up again and again.
1. Fast casual and quick service
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Get used to ordering at the counter. More chefs are interested in opening fast-casual spots and quick-service restaurants (QSRs), the industry name for fast-food establishments. These types of restaurants don’t have traditional waited service but they are not skimping on the food, as might have been the case in the past. “I think we are seeing a real revolution among the quick-service restaurants, kind of an overflow from the food truck movement,” says Ben Dubow, executive chef of Bistro on Main in Manchester and a part owner of Blue Plate Kitchen in West Hartford. “People want quality, interesting food, but don’t necessarily want, or want to pay for, the full restaurant experience. I also think the changing dynamics of labor costs and other issues are forcing chefs and restaurateurs to be more creative. Right now, in my top five go-to restaurants, two of them are QSRs.”
2. Here come the cocktails
Angelina Scarpello, owner of A&S Restaurant Consulting, says craft cocktails have eclipsed craft beer as the type of drink restaurateurs are most focused on. She’s working with several new cocktail bars in Connecticut that are merging the speakeasy vibe with the increasingly popular fast-casual feel. “The food is quick; the places are built to be a little uncomfortable so you don’t stay forever,” she says. Scarpello adds that with increasingly skilled bartenders comes more high-priced drinks. Customers are “not going to be paying $9 or $10 for their cocktails anymore. They’re going to be paying $12 or $15.”
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Assocation, says cocktail mania is spilling over into non-alcoholic offerings. “There were less options for non-alcoholic consumers in the past,” Dolch says. “But restaurants are now looking to use the talents of their bartenders to create custom mocktails for those guests who might be looking for creative, healthy and or non-alcoholic options.”
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3. Not just pizza delivery
“I think people used to think of take-out as primarily about convenience, but increasingly people want the same quality food they get in a full-service restaurant delivered to them,” Dubow says. “People are cooking less, but there are only so many nights you really want to go out and eat in a restaurant. So home delivery, meal kits, ready-to-heat/eat foods — these are all important growing segments of the industry.”
Dolch notes that the delivery portion of this trend has been facilitated by apps like UberEats and DoorDash but that restaurants want to negotiate better fees. “I think other companies will continue to pop up and some larger restaurant groups might even try to take on their own delivery service,” he says.
4. More farm-to-table product, less farm-to-table talk
The farm-to-table phrase became so popular among marketers of restaurants, it has been stripped of much of its original meaning. But farm ingredients aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re more popular than ever. Jeff Taibe, co-owner and executive chef of Taproot and co-owner of Holbrook Farm, both in Bethel, says, “There’s a lot of young, passionate farmers out there who I think inspire chefs to really want to use good local product.” He adds that, at the Westport Farmers Market, he’s seeing many more chefs than in the past. “When I was going there five, six years ago, you would see the same three chefs and that’s it. Now on any given Thursday you can see 10, 20 different chefs at the market.”
But fewer of these restaurants are using the farm-to-table moniker. “There’s no more farm-to-table term amongst the community who actually use the farm,” Taibe says. “The only ones who actually use the term are people who actually don’t buy farm products.”
5. Fermented everything
Fermented vegetables and other foods have a seen a resurgence nationwide in recent years. The nutrient-rich preserved foods contain probiotics which can help gut health. But the ancient preservation technique also creates interesting, acidic flavors in fruits and vegetables that are increasingly sought after in Connecticut. While fermented foods isn’t a selling point restaurants are building concepts around, they are increasingly part of some chefs’ bags of tricks. “Many restaurants and chefs are experimenting” with fermentation, says Taibe, noting, however, that the practice can be held back by health department codes. “There are some techniques in fermentation and curing which require room temperature preparations.” Even so, many chefs are finding creative ways to play with fermented foods.
6. More meat-less
If a meatless burger sounds like an oxymoron, you haven’t been paying attention to the meat-free revolution that has been supercharged by grassroots interest and high-tech vegetarian brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. “You are seeing these everywhere, from fast food and QSRs to full service and fine dining,” Dubow says of the Beyond and Impossible burgers. “And it is not vegans who are eating these things, but meat-lovers who are trying to eat a little less meat.”
Scarpello says that this demand for high-quality meatless offerings is definitely in and has joined other dietary trends that chefs need to take into account when designing menus. “Now people are looking at offering those meatless meats and dairy free, and gluten free,” she says. “It’s actually become really challenging for chefs, but as challenging as it is — I think that some might get irritated with it — I think it forces them to think outside the box.”
7. Global cuisine
Taibe says that he’s noticed a trend toward upscale taco places in the vein of Bartaco, a chain that started in Connecticut but can now be found in eight states. “I don’t know if it’s the next big thing, obviously it’s been a thing for a while, but I just see more and more chefs talking about the food of Mexico, actually going to Oaxaca, going to Mexico City, things like that,” Taibe says.
But Mexico isn’t the only global cuisine to watch for in 2020. Vietnamese food remains popular and we’re also seeing an increased appetite for other flavors from Asia and elsewhere, Dubow says. “Korean flavors are definitely in. So are African flavors. I think those will be big in the coming year.”