The music industry comes together at South by Southwest in Austin every year, and the film industry gathers at Sundance in Park City. So where do the big names in the culinary world flock? To the hot scene at Miami's South Beach, where they attend the annual South Beach Wine and Food festival (SOBE), presented by industry magazine Food & Wine.
More than 53,000 foodies, eaters and chowhounds attended the event last month, serving up signature dishes at hip venues around Miami.
The nearly $600 billion restaurant industry is the nation’s largest private sector employer, according to the National Restaurant Association. Sales declined for the first time in 40 years in 2009, but industry analysts are optimistic about 2011 and say consumers are starting to dine out again.
CNBC was there talking with the culinary world intelligentsia to get their take on trends in the industry. Click ahead for a virtual taste trip.
By Eileen Wu, CNBC Producer
Posted 22 Mar 2011
Comfort foods, which encompass everything from childhood favorites and dishes like “grandma used to make” to sweets and treats, have grown in popularity over the last few years. Why? Best-selling cookbook author and TV star Rachael Ray says it’s a sign of tough economic times.
“Even the greatest chefs in the world have to make their food accessible, and I think food trucks and single item restaurants, comfort foods, fancy burgers and dogs - things that harken back to your grandfather’s time or your mom’s time - are going to remain the trend," she said.
We checked into the festival’s “Shine and Swine” event, which paired barbecue with Original Moonshine—a new 80 proof clear corn whiskey. The event was hosted by Adam Perry Lang, a classically French trained chef turned barbecue expert.
“BBQ is Americana and comfort food , and during these times when things are a little tougher for some, people want comfort and bbq gives them that. It’s a heartwarming feeling to eat barbecue,” said Lang, of Daisy May's BBQ USA in New York and Barbecoa in London.
Lang said his quest to bring a new clear whiskey to market began six years ago when he first tasted moonshine at a barbecue competition. Lang and Stillhouse partner Brad Beckerman teamed up with third generation distiller Chuck Miller (pictured). "Original MOONSHINE," an all-natural and gluten-free corn whiskey, is distilled four times in a 2000 gallon Prohibition-era copper still at the distillery in Culpeper, Virginia.
Miller says moonshine is making a comeback: “People kind of like going back to the old traditional American drinks. They like something more earth friendly, something created more by hand in an authentic way.”
For many cultures, appetizer-sized portions have been a mainstay of their cuisine for centuries—Spanish tapas, Cantonese dim sum and Italian antipasto are just a few examples. But small plates are a recent phenomenon in American culture.
Todd English, one of the most decorated chefs in the world, says small portions are in vogue not only as a result of dietary reasons, but also because of tough economic times. With rising food prices, restaurants have been looking for creative ways to cut costs.
The National Restaurant Association estimates average wholesale food costs rose 5% in 2010, with beef up 14%, pork up 33%, and butter up 41%. Since individual servings cost less than entrées and patrons may order more dishes, small plates can translate into big profits for a restaurant’s bottom line.
“You’re seeing small portions because people can’t spend as much money and really don’t want to eat as much either. With food prices going up, including the price of flour and wheat, we had to be really creative and think about how we were going to give our customers value but also give them a big punch and a big “wow” when they came in.
Nancy Kershner, Research and Development Manager at Sweet Street Desserts in Reading Pennsylvania, says she is also seeing a move towards small plates in the world of sweet treats. One of their most popular desserts is individual size mousse cups that they call "pipeables."
“Pipeables are just the right size, not too big. You can get your own garnish, your own fruit, your own sauce and you can have them really light with just fruit or they can be really heavy with a snickers bar or chocolate mousse,” Kershner says.
Whether it’s reading nutrition labels or shopping at farmers markets, more and more consumers are looking to make healthier choices. Savvy consumers are subscribing to the “you are what you eat” philosophy and paying close attention to the origin of their food, thanks in part to documentaries like Food Inc.
They are thus contributing to popularity of farmers markets, which have been booming in recent years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of markets has increased to 6,132 farmers markets nationally in 2010 — that’s a 16 percent jump from the previous year.
Dewey LoSasso, Executive Chef at Miami’s The Forge Restaurant, also sees a rebirth of the farm-to-table movement, which refers to consuming locally, produced foods. He says buying local also makes financial sense for restaurants that want to trim costs. With oil prices on the rise, Losasso says shipping costs are a factor for him. He not only grows his own vegetables in the restaurant’s garden, but also buys 20-25 percent more from local farms.
Chef Ed Brown of Ed’s Chowder House in Manhattan says fresh ingredients will never go out of style.
“The next big thing in food as far as I’m concerned is the original thing—amazing ingredients cooked simply. For me, the chemistry of cooking is about simple products cooked with a lot of care and passion. It’s about finding amazing ingredients and cooking them well,” he says.
World-renowned chocolatier Jacques Torres creates chocolates that are free of preservatives and artificial flavors. He stresses the importance of eating quality over quantity.
“Quality is what people want most. They want fresh ingredients. Chefs try to pack a lot of flavor into something small so you can have a good experience without excess calories.
Just as restaurants are seeking to expand overseas, the American palate is also expanding its horizons. Vanilla is out. Chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and TV personality Bobby Flay says globally diverse flavors are in.
“We want heat, we want flavor, no more bland food in this world. We are getting influences from all over the world, from countries like India, Cuba, Mexico, the Mediterranean and Asia in terms of how we are seasoning food,” says Flay.
TV personality, cookbook author and chef Emeril Lagasse says European influences are strong. “We’ve seen the Italian trend for a long time. I think the next big thing will come from Spain,” he says.
Chef David Funaro is a member of Godiva’s Research and Development team. He has worked and traveled extensively throughout Asia and says he has seen the impact of global influences on chocolate.
“I have noticed that products with higher cocoa content are more desired than in the past. There are also more niche offerings that are inspiring consumers to be more risky in their chocolate purchase.”
At the festival, he showcased this 10-tier chocolate cake, which stood over 5 feet tall.
About the cake:
It starts with a 20" base with the next layer at 18”, next at 16” and so on.
- Deep dark chocolate cake layered with Godiva chocolate ganache.
- Covered with chocolate fondant
- Gold Godiva cocoa butter transfer decoration
- A border of Godiva chocolate and Godiva dark chocolate pearls
If you missed Miami this year, mark your calendars for Feb 23-26, 2012.
Can’t wait until then? Catch the sister festival: Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival in October.