Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
What are your predictions for the next five years in terms of food and culinary trends? Are there specific flavor profiles you see declining?
I believe we'll be moving away from heavily processed options with more emphasis on what's prepared fresh with simple ingredients. There will also be a transition toward transparency when it comes to calories and nutrient content. This disclosure of information will lead to service changes and high margin items such as, French fries may decline in sales. Both will affect how restaurateurs write menus and set prices.
Access to more information will shift our behaviors due to an increase in people, especially urbanities, using restaurants as a more frequent meal time option, as opposed to meals being made at home.
However, I don’t see specific flavor profiles declining. I think food, being as eclectic as it is, already keeps flavors interesting and in-demand, especially in larger cities. There’s so much variety and I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere anytime soon.
In what ways do trend predictions influence restaurant menus and consumer habits?
It depends on the type of chef you are. Food trends generally come from experimental chefs who travel the world or keep abreast of new foods and techniques in other ways bring back interesting ingredients while learning how to use them and experiment with them.
When you get into the mainstream market, I’d say trends certainly have an overwhelming influence but the time between someone doing something innovative and the result becoming a mainstream trend can be fairly long. However, the range between the two does not really have a pattern or set length. It can be very individual and even localized. For example, Middle Eastern flavors and trends are developing more quickly in Canada than the United States due to our friendlier immigration policies that welcome refugees starting new restaurants and catering companies.
Also, when the taco trend came about during the Olympics in Vancouver, there were Korean taco trucks all over and it has only now become mainstream.
When people hear about certain foods, they may want to try them but it isn’t always easy. If a chef can’t find a consistent supply of an ingredient like harissa, they cannot put it on their menu so it becomes more difficult for these specific foods to start trending
McCormick puts our the Flavor Forecast® annually with predictions for the coming year. This year, we are anticipating a global spin on breakfast, Mediterranean cuisine for the 21st century, the pairing of sweet with black pepper, and sizzling Plancha grilling. What is your take on these predictions?
I think the McCormick Flavor Forecast® predictions are great. Congee is something I’ve been watching for a while and it’s definitely growing out of the whole idea of savory oatmeal bowls. Here you have chefs who are very familiar with oatmeal; they know how to cook it but are now realizing, “hey, it doesn’t just have to have brown sugar or maple syrup on it.” What has traditionally been called fusion is being made more accessible by adding an interesting twist to foods and concepts that have some familiarity with consumers.
I feel that the forecasted Plancha trend is probably more seasonal while, on the ethnic side, they may have under-emphasized trends like Korean flavors. The next predicted trend, Modern Mediterranean cuisine, is spot-on. This is something that is growing very quickly and will continue to do so.
Another trend worth mentioning is avocado toast. The ideas of these open-faced sandwiches came from origins of Australia and they are very popular, especially in coffee shops. This is much different from the peanut butter toast I had as a kid, which was the closest I ever got to the trend!
What is your process for identifying food trends accurately year-over-year?
I make it a priority to attend trade shows like the Fancy Food Show, Restaurants Canada Show, National Restaurant Association Show and the Natural Food Products Expo. These events showcase where consumers and larger businesses are seeing opportunities and how they’re banking on where to find growth. Also, a large number of suppliers are vendors at these shows as it provides them with the opportunity to feature their new products. This allows me to be on top of the ingredients they are importing into the country while identifying trends.
Ultimately, when identifying trends, you need to be exploring what’s around you, what’s being experimented with and where the markets are to create value for the trends you are considering trying to leverage in your business.
How do you recommend chefs and restaurant owners reconcile being on-trend and having timeless staying power in a hyper-competitive industry? What's the secret to longevity?
Brand positioning is crucial. If you’re a restaurant known for coming up with new and innovative menu items, you have to be on top of your brand image and positioning. Whereas, if you are known for cooking within a certain food category, stick with it. Changing your well-recognized brand is a recipe for disaster. Know yourself, your brand, your identity and then figure out if following trends is a beneficial match or not.
If you are taking on new or trendy menu items, test them out as an appetizer as customers are more likely to try lower ticket menu items.
Consumer research should be a constant in your restaurant’s lifetime. A restaurant that thrives for decades will always have a changing demographic and must be continually aware of who their diners are and then be able to cook for them.
For some chefs, commercialization is seen as the ultimate pie-in-the-sky. What tips can you give up-and-coming chefs who want to bring their vision to the greatest number of people?
Quite frankly, this goal has never been easier to attain. When I was starting out as a chef, you were nameless and faceless when you worked in a restaurant; people only knew the executive chef. Now you have social media and the game has changed. Social media has given chefs the opportunity to develop their own personal culinary brand and take their career to new heights. Chefs just need to know what they want to be known for and promote their brand that way.