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by Allen J. Sheinman | January 26, 2012

The list
chefmason2At the 917-room National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va., a beehive of activity with more than 265,000 square feet of meeting space, award-winning executive chef Craig Mason often is tasked with producing more than 3,000 meals a day, so he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to food. Here are some of the chef's predictions for what he sees as the top trends of this still young year.

1. Farm-to-table will gain momentum. Indeed, Mason says F2T (we might have just coined that term) is on track to become the new normal. He doesn't necessarily believe organic will be the standard, but foresees farmers markets increasingly becoming the source for venues.

2. Flavored vinegars will catch on. "We'll see it more in restaurants first," Mason says. "Weird flavors such as pomegranate, house-made vegetables and fruit pickles will be among those that start the movement." The chef believes branded bottles in groceries will follow this trend.

3. Look for more far-out wines from far off. For 2011, Mason predicted an emphasis on local wine, but this year he says there will be a high demand for higher-quality, value-priced wines from places like Spain and South America.

4. Special diets will run riot. Mason notes there's already a confusion of preference vs. dietary restrictions. This year, he says, consumers will be even more caught up in dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free and rice-free menu options as a personal preference rather than a dietary taboo.

5. Outdoors is the new black. Or something like that. "This year will be one of leaving behind the stuffy restaurants and sitting outside in a fun atmosphere, a place where people can have great food in jeans," says the chef. (Why anyone would want to have food served in a pair of jeans is beyond us, but hey, he's the expert.) Mason also sees a big comeback for beer gardens; count us in.

Source: Meetings & Conventions