by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 01, 2016
Chef Victor Albisu's grilled seafood smoke box (pictured) features char-grilled oysters with chorizo butter.
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Choosing a menu that will impress the masses is all-important -- and increasingly difficult. Just like fashion, food trends are fickle. Last year's must-have spice can easily lose favor when an exotic new ingredient gets the spotlight. And today's diners are more demanding than ever. Easily bored, eager to have their taste buds challenged, self-proclaimed "foodies" are everywhere.

What will impress attendees in 2016? M&C asked several hotel and restaurant chefs for key trends planners should keep in mind when devising menus this year.

1. Vegetables are the main attraction. Veggies are no longer just side dishes. Sure, meat proteins are still in the picture, they just aren't getting all the attention. It's no small wonder that last August, Bon Appetit named the tiny 46-seat Al's Place in San Francisco's Mission District, under the guidance of chef and owner Aaron London, best new restaurant. The eatery's unusual, even quirky, menu places most meat, including brisket and duck, on the side-dish list, while vegetables -- like cucumber grilled or sautéed in brown butter, and yellow eye bean stew with torn bread -- get star billing.


Because vegetables are so seasonal, says Gian Nicola Colucci, executive chef at the 200-room Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, they allow chefs the opportunity to continue to keep their menus fresh and exciting throughout the year. "It's not a trend to eliminate meat from one's diet, but rather adding high-quality, plant-based foods to enrich your health and boost energy levels," Colucci says.

According to an October 2015 report on food-and-beverage trends by the Chicago-based Culinary Visions Panel, vegetable-based sandwiches, where protein is merely a garnish, are a popular choice with Millennials. "Consumers are telling us they are ready for delicious, flavorful veg-centric sandwiches," says Sharon Olson, executive director of the Culinary Visions Panel.

Chicago's Parson's Chicken & Fish in Logan Square is already ahead of the trend. Its vegetable club sandwich, made with pickled beets, radishes, cucumber, herbed cream cheese and pea shoots, hits all the right notes.

2. Ancient grains are new again. According to the Whole Grains Council, 50 percent of the calories eaten worldwide come from grains. With health-conscious eating habits on the rise, chefs are looking to a whole new lineup of these ancient foods -- grains that have not been crossbred or genetically altered -- to introduce to diners.

A decade ago, the average consumer would not have known what quinoa was, much less how to pronounce it ("keen-wah"). Today, thanks to the gluten-free boom, this Peruvian grain has gained status on menus, from college cafeterias to swanky reception halls. At the 195-room Peninsula Beverly Hills, quinoa linguine with tomato sauce is the most requested item on the hotel's gluten-free room-service menu.

Other venerable grains, such as kamut, millet, sorghum spelt and teff, also are popping up on menus. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an 80-acre farm 30 miles north of New York City, well-known chef and co-owner Dan Barber makes a rice-free risotto of unpearled barley, buckwheat groats and spelt, and has a fondness for hardier specimens such as rye. "It's an incredible grain with an amazing rich flavor, but we don't eat enough of it in this country," Barber says.

There are no menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which includes a 22,000-square-foot greenhouse, two silos and 33 bee colonies. Instead, guests are offered a "Grazing, Rooting and Pecking" tasting menu featuring the farm's current produce. (The price: $218 per person, not including drinks.)