My thoughts on food trends

read ingredient label

There’s always something new and exciting in food. But is it any of it any good? Are these new products and approaches to food here for awhile, or are they a flash in the pan? And how do you distinguish between something that is built to last, or will be gone by next season?

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Food trends are a big part of my business as a chef and particularly as a research chef. Companies hire me to help them develop their next “big” food product. As a result, I spend a lot of time in grocery stores and restaurants, watching people make food choices, and so I can check out different food products and concepts.

A few of the things I have noticed or have learned in my trend watching and travels:

- On average, families have an average of 28 minutes to get dinner on the table for the entire family, which is not a long time. Even though the time crunch is on, expectations are high. Families want well balanced meals that taste great and deliver value. The definition of value can change depending on the day of the week; cheap and cheerful on weekdays, a willingness to “treat” yourself on a Friday, and more savory, time intensive cooking on the weekend. This reality influences the recipes and food products I create for my clients.

- Most people like to cook, but what they don’t like is: the prep work, handling raw chicken, chopping garlic. Everyone just wants to cook like Gordon Ramsey. Make it look and feel easy, with minimal effort.

- For most people, cooking is treated as a hobby more than a life skill. Because of this, it’s important to find ways to make food and cooking fun.

- People are reading labels more, reviewing the ingredients that go into what they eat.

- The big growth in processed food products will be in the premium and discount categories.

- There will be more and new uses for iconic products. For example, crackers are becoming coatings and toppings.

- Heritage chicken is making more of a presence in markets, stores and on dinner tables.

- People are looking for smaller portions so they can try a wider variety of foods in one sitting, instead of filling up on the 12 oz steak.

I spend a lot of time in the grocery store or in restaurants watching how people interact with and experience food. When I was a kid growing up, McDonalds, A&W and Harvey’s were all considered “treats”, not a substitute for a home cooked meal. Whereas today, a fast food meal often fills in for what could have been prepared at home. I don’t say that as a criticism, but as an observation about how we view family meal times.

I also go to four to six food shows/conference a year; from the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, to the annual Research Chefs Conference held in different parts of the US. These are places where I get to see the products that are going to make it on the shelves in the near future. It’s a heads up on what’s next.

I am very fortunate at KITCHEN because my clients and guests let me try new things with the food I cook for them. I like to think outside the box, cooking just beyond the perimeter of where most people think about, prepare and cook food. At all times, I focus on making food approachable while still giving it a funky “Brad” twist. For example, I just came back from the Research Chefs Conference in North Carolina. My travels and dining out there inspired me to play around with different Southern flavors. As a result, I created my own version of a dipping sauce I had at a Carolina restaurant one night. The end result was unveiled last Friday at a KITCHEN Party. I can confidently say my new “Devils Butter” was a hit.

Whatever the trend or product, I encourage you to experiment and see how new ideas, ingredients, flavours or approaches to food can inspire you to cook more and taste new things. At the very least, it will create great conversations points around your dinner table.

 

Seeing our food through someone else’s eyes

Chinese food

Who doesn’t remember as a kid going out with your parents for Chinese food? Back then, Chinese food was the only Asian-style cooking available. There wasn’t much Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, etc. And this was years before we distinguished Chinese food by the region it came from in China – Szechuan, Hunan, Cantonese and others.

Now the tables have turned on us, so to speak.

I recently had the privilege to host a group of tour operators from China at KITCHEN. These travel professionals sell tour packages to visit Edmonton and Alberta to people living in China. And from what I gathered from this group, interest in travelling to Edmonton, Alberta and Canada is growing.

Much like us North Americans who explored the Asian food scene first with “western” Chinese, then Szechuan, then Hunan and so on, the Chinese have a growing interest in our cuisine. Their hunger has progressed beyond the typical North American burger and fries.

For my guests, there was as much excitement in seeing a bison or moose for the first time, as there was in tasting bison or moose for the first time. While there is more than beef in Alberta, beef is what we are known for. When I served braised boneless short ribs from Spring Creek Ranch with locally made Brassica Mustard, my guests were amazed that the ranch where the beef came from was only a hundred kilometres away. They were equally impressed that the beets were locally grown, served with honey from a town just a short drive away (Wetaskwin). Potatoes from The Little Potato Company were a fascination because of their size, and in part because they were topped with horseradish cream fraiche. With a Saskatoon tart for dessert; a berry virtually unknown in many other countries, served with homemade honey ice cream, their perspective of Edmonton, Alberta and Canada went from good to great.

My time with these international travel professionals was proof that Canada and Alberta are becoming known for more than our environment and beautiful surroundings.

This KITCHEN party was an eye opener for me. It made me realize how important “the experience” is. It was cool to watch people from other cultures experience and enjoy what we have to offer. It also reinforced the idea that if we celebrated our food a little bit more and really told its story, more people would be more interested in exploring what we have in our own backyard. You don’t need to leave the city or province to experience and taste something new.

And finally, this experience made me realize that sometimes you need to see your world through someone else’s eyes to truly appreciate what we have – including our food. We are fortunate to have so many great food products in Edmonton and around Alberta.

No matter where you come from, it is food that connects us all.

Food, Wine, Bridges and Ball: New York City

Yankee feature photo

Two weeks ago, my wife Leanne and I, along with our friends Rob and Danita, jetted off to NYC for the Food Network Wine and Food Festival. Going to New York at anytime is great, but for a wine and food festival was even better!  Although there were many exciting events and food evenings from “Meatball Madness’ to “Tequila and Tacos” with Bobby Flay, the following were my top 5 NYC experiences, in no particular order.

Eataly

Eataly is the Holt Renfrew of foods and reminds me of the Harrods Food Halls in London. If it comes from or is made in Italy, you can get it at Eataly.  Fish is flown in fresh daily, as are truffles, aged cheese and fresh cheese is made right in front of you. This is a grocery store/restaurant of epic proportion. Like any other grocery store, it is broken into areas of produce, meat and dairy. But that’s where the similarity ends. In each of these areas are eating stations where they will cook a meal for you, like tossing you a fresh salad if you are in the produce section. It is also a great place to have a glass of wine and rest your bones after shopping. I will always remember the smells, the sight of a perfectly manicured and dressed chef slicing prosciutto on a hand cranked berkel slicer, and the taste of the real barista brewed, creamy rich cappuccino that was served in a warmed cup.  If you go to New York City, you got to go to EATALY.

Guy Fieri

It doesn’t matter if you like his TV show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Guy Fieri is hands down one interesting dude. We watched his live demo at the festival and he had the crowd enthralled. He had guests running down the aisle, “The Price is Right” style, to receive a gift certificate. He actually gave away the fry pan that he was using to someone in the audience. The guy was crazy cool. The food he cooked was simple, looked and smelled really good. He was engaging, and taught the class relevant pertinent cooking methodology and useful tips. He marinated pork shoulder with a concoction of fish sauce and army of pantry stable items, making this amazing Asian pulled pork that smelled and looked (and I am sure tasted) outstanding.

I am sure he inspired more than one person in that audience to go home and cook, instead of having fast food. He was that good. And I loved the fact that he was looking forward to heading home to hang with his kids.

Jacque Torres

Jacques Torres is one of my all time favorite chefs. When I was the “bread and pastry guy” at the Hardware Grill, I would often watch him on PBS or refer to his amazing pastry cookbooks. His recipes were fool proof and easy to follow. We signed up for his cooking class at the International Culinary Center, and I have to say it was a culinary thrill to meet and cook with him. The nicest part is that he is one of the nicest, kindest, funniest, celebrity chefs that I have met. It is so rewarding to meet someone you put on a pedestal for many years, only to realize that they don’t just meet those expectations, but massively exceed them.

 

 

The Brooklyn Bridge

Not sure how this happened, but due to construction and lack of communication we ended up going across the Brooklyn Bridge four times while in NYC, once by subway, twice via taxi and one time we were walking. Words cannot describe the view. It is amazing to see this city and everything around it – from the other bridges, to the Statue of Liberty, to the New Freedom Tower.  Walking across I was thinking of the chick flick “Kate and Leopold” and couldn’t help but imagine what New York was like 200 years ago.  New York is truly a city that documents how North American society has progressed, for good or bad, over the years in the technology, architecture and humanity. The view from this bridge puts everything into perspective.

The Yankees

When we were in NYC, it was MLB playoff season and we had never been. There was a late afternoon Yankees game so of course, we had to go. To be honest, the game was not all that exciting (the Yankees lost 2-0), but watching the fans and people around us was amusing. Their dislike for their teams’ efforts was both visual and vocal. There was no better place to be a winner, and no worse place to be a loser, than in that stadium. Every fan had an opinion and they were not afraid to share it…complete with many bad, bad words!

Now it wouldn’t be a baseball game if your mind didn’t turn to food. There was everything: ribs and fries, crisp wings, New York style 100% Hebrew hotdogs, cold beer, Cuban sandwiches, née style pizza, and more. It was all very good quality and I had one of the best hot dogs ever! Great food, great company and bad baseball made for a memorable (but not cheap) afternoon, especially when you spend $11 for a draft beer. The one interesting thing was that all menu items had the calories beside them. I couldn’t help but think, do you really care about calories at a baseball game?

 

If you haven’t been to NYC, put it on your bucket list. And if you can, go for the food and wine festival. It is good event in a truly great city.

While I must admit that I like London better, and Leanne prefers NYC. We are 1 for 1….guess we will have to see how we end this tie-breaker.

My favourite London food experiences

london 2012 001

I had the great honour of being Alberta’s head culinary representative at the many events our province hosted in London during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. It was an extraordinary opportunity to represent Alberta food products at the Olympics, AND be in London, England.

The experience of preparing menus and meals for our province as it showcased itself to the world, and being in London where the eat local movement started and celebrity chef restaurants reign supreme, was a food lover’s dream.  There were so many great food experiences during my official Olympic duties, and in the vacation days I took after all of the events were over. Just for you, I narrowed down my top 5 London food experiences:

1. Borough’s Market

This is the London’s legendary farmers’ market. This market has been around for centuries and it’s a phenomenal exploration of local and international produce, and some cool UK vendors. If you are in London, you have to check out the Borough Market.

2. Dinner at the Alberta High Commissioner’s House

Okay, so this is not something the average person gets to do when they visit London, but I have to count it as one of my best experiences when I was there. I was tasked with developing an Alberta-based menu for an exclusive dinner held at our province’s High Commissioner’s residence, a building steeped in history.

 

3. Barbacoa

This Jamie Oliver restaurant is billed as the UK’s first BBQ steakhouse and as a “cathedral to fire and food”. Those of you who know me well know that I have to check out a place that talks about fire and food in the same breath. There is a full butchery on site in plain sight, and the room, service, presentation and food were all beautiful. Make a reservation, book your flight and go.

4. Fish and Chips

You can’t go to London without having fish and chips. And if you ask a local about where the best fish and chips are found, you will get a 100 different answers. The reality is that we found great fish and chips in some random pub we stumbled upon. The recommendation I would give is to just explore. There’s a pub literally on every corner which means on most corners you are going to find great fish and chips.

5.  Harrod’s meat market

Visiting Harrod’s food halls is an overwhelming experience. You want to taste, try and buy everything in sight as you move from hall to hall taking in everything you would find in a regular grocery store, but amplified 12 notches in typical Harrod’s style. I was most impressed with their meat market. The selection and presentation was incredible and the butcher I talked to was unbelievably friendly. If you love shopping for food, this is a must-see.

 

PS: You’d think after you cooked for the Queen of England when she was last in Edmonton, she’d let you in for tea and crumpets when you’re in town!

 

2012 London Summer Olympics: Here I come!

In a few days time, I’m off to the 2012 London Summer Olympics. I am representing our great province, not as an athlete, but as Alberta’s head culinary representative at many of the events our province is hosting during the Games.

I had the good fortune to have a similar role at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. I remember saying the Vancouver Olympics were a once in a lifetime experience. And now here I am, about to relive that experience again. I always love the opportunity to promote and work with Alberta-based ingredients, but to be able to do that again at the Summer Olympics makes me feel pretty damn lucky.

I will be preparing menus, managing the kitchens and presenting Alberta food products at our province’s turn at Canada House, as well as at large receptions at the Alberta High Commissioner’s Residence and at the Charring Crossing Hotel. It’s going to be a whirlwind experience and I can’t wait to bring Alberta’s food to the Olympic stage.

I will be tweeting from London, so if you aren’t already following me on Twitter, you can find me at @bradsmoliak. I’ll be taking behind the scenes photos and keeping notes, so stay tuned after the Games for a few blog posts about the experience.

Dirty Apron

I was in Vancouver recently and, along with my wife, we decide to take a cooking class as it seemed like a cool way to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

Leanne registered us for the class, billed as a “uniquely west coast” themed evening. We had been wanting to take a cooking class together for a long time. We were so excited walking from our hotel to the Dirty Apron which is part of the famous restaurant team that owns Chambar, a great Vancouver restaurant.

We entered the cooking studio/delicatessen/food store and were immediately greeted by two hostesses. We had arrived early so we took our time meandering through the store that featured everything from pots and pans, to specialty salts, to impressive take away ready to eat meals, as well as pantry items, chicken stock, and demi glace. Great
idea! The store space had that rustic, warehouse look and feel to it.

The cooking studio consisted of one large island for the chef/instructor Dave Robertson to do his demos and “lecture” surrounded by individual cooking stations. Twelve stools were set up auditorium style so we could watch Dave. The focal point of the chef’s teaching station was a gorgeous WOLF four burner range, considered a Ferrari of kitchen ranges. This place had spared no expense.

We were provided with apron, cleaning rags, and all the tools for the evening lesson. Basically, this is how it worked: the chef/instructor would demonstrate the item we were to prepare, answer any and all questions, and provide some great insight and tips to the 12 home chefs. Dave was fantastic. He provided thoughtful and insightful hints that people would really use at home and he just made you feel comfortable about cooking and the approach to food in general. My kinda chef.

After we were done cooking, we took our dishes to the dining room and were served wine and water with our meal. Then, back to the studio for more cooking.

It was truly an outstanding night – full of fun cooking and great conversation. Highly recommended.

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