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Culinary trend-tracking


FEA food30p A Dec. 30, 2003-- Food feature on trends for the new year. Blade photo by Andy Morrison

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The celebrity chef is motivating consumers across the nation to start cooking. Television cooking shows are introducing home cooks to new ingredients while smart local supermarkets are stocking shelves with the latest foodstuffs or customers will seek out specialty markets.

In the midst of all these products, food marketing is aggressively enticing consumers with labels that tell buyers what they want to hear - low carb, no carb, high protein, etc.

These are the latest food trends.

Celebrity chefs

Once it was the number of high-profile restaurants that a person could visit in a year that drove what's popular. Now, it's the public persona of celebrity chefs, the search for specialty ingredients, and the savvy marketing of ingredients, foods, and food-related products that determine what fills the shopping cart.

Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger restaurant in Boston is advertising an authentic line of Asian foods and cooking utensils for Super Target stores. Michael Symon, chef-owner of Lola in Cleveland, is pictured in Bon Appetit launching the new Calphalon One Infused Anodized cookware. Cookbook author Ken Haedrich creates a special cake with a surprise ingredient - pickled beets - for Aunt Nellie's brand.

"Celebrity has different meanings," Todd English, chef-owner of Olives restaurant in Charlestown, Mass., told food editors at their annual meeting in Boston in October. In the last 10 to 15 years, he has added five Olives, 5 Figs dining spots, and four other restaurants. On Jan. 15 he opens Blue Zoo in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. He has written three cookbooks and has been a guest on top TV cooking shows. "Chefs are looked at as entertainers," he says.

Many chefs with television shows have cookbooks, and vice versa.

Among the most popular is Emeril Lagasse, who is chef-proprietor of seven restaurants - three in New Orleans, two in Las Vegas, and two in Orlando, Fla. He joined the Food Network in 1993 and celebrated his 1,000th show with the network in 2001. From Emeril's Kitchens (Wm. Morrow, $27.50) is his seventh cookbook. He has his own line of cookware.

Rocco DiSpirito of Union Pacific restaurant in New York City starred in the NBC reality television series The Restaurant and in Melting Pot Mediterranean on the Food Network. His book Flavor (Hyperion, $35) has a visual style of recipe writing and includes flavor pairings with recipes such as Scallops with Beets & Mache.

Jamie Oliver, also known as the Naked Chef, set up a restaurant Fifteen in East London that is also a school for young chefs, and he made a TV show about it. His Jamie's Kitchen (Hyperion, $39.95) cookbook teaches cooking techniques and includes a recipe called Surprise Cake - made with raw beets, fresh ginger, honey, and polenta. Oliver also has his own cookware, the Jamie Oliver Professional Series by T-Fal.

From Seattle comes chef-restaurateur Tom Douglas with Tom's Big Dinners (Wm. Morrow, $32.50). Drawn from special meals with family and friends, the book brings together 15 favorite feasts. He and his wife, Jackie Cross, have three restaurants and the Dahlia Bakery. Recipes include Sauerkraut and Down Home Collard Greens.

Indeed, "the food industry is changing dramatically," Michael Schlow, chef-owner of three Boston restaurants including Radius, told food editors. On the postitive side, "there's interesting and good cooking."

On the negative side, staffing restaurants is a challenge. "Candidates for a job should dress properly. We hire someone and then they don't show up. You have to show that job respect," he says. "We hope to create something special for customers." The secret to success is "finding chefs with the same chef values the owners have."

Gourmet supermarkets

Celebrity chefs through their restaurants, cookbooks, and television cooking shows have introduced the public to new ingredients. Getting the ingredients at the local supermarket has not always been easy. Thus the growth in specialty market and mail-order sources.

Formaggio Kitchen is a large cheese shop and deli in Cambridge, Mass., co-owned by Ihsan Gurdal. Working with top cheese makers and maturers in the United States and Europe, he is an active supporter of U.S. farmhouse cheese making and is on the board of directors of the American Cheese Society.

In 1978, "we were a mom-and-pop start-up in Cambridge," he told food editors. Now the company supplies 200 restaurants with a variety of cheeses. (For mail order,

He believes that customers need to support American producers. European producers are very consistent. In the United States, there are new and upcoming cheese makers who have come from other businesses and need support to get started.

"You can't be a fair day fan. You must buy it," says Mr. Gurdal. "Use it for cooking or make sandwiches. Support in the early days. Give gentle advice when giving feedback. Pricing will be higher. Support it with the hope they can get more consistent."

"Our goal is gatekeeping. Anybody can find a good product. The question is: Can you take care of the product?" says Mr. Gurdal.

For a cheese, that means storing it at the right temperature, humidity, and conditions, and cutting and moving it properly. For produce, it's trimming it so that it's as fresh as possible for the customer. For other perishables such as meat, poultry, and fish, it's not selling them past their shelf life. This also applies to gourmet supermarkets or food shops in middle America.

"Four of my ex-employees have opened up cheese stores," says Mr. Gurdal. The secret to success: "Find a great producer, take care of the product, and serve it at the right stage and time.

"You must also train the sales staff how to handle it. You have to tell the story behind the product and what differentiates it. That's where we make our niche."

Marketing foods

Savvy marketing of ingredients and foods often has piggy-backed on diet trends. This may confuse consumers.

Diets that emphasize low-carbohydrate foods have spawned a new group of products and specialty stores. Before the holidays, I was inundated with calls about how low in carbohydrate cocktails are.

"Is it low in calories?" I asked.

"No, but it's low in carbohydrate," was the answer.

"Calories are calories, whether its fat, protein, or carbohydrate," was my reply.

Even eggs are involved, even though eggs have no carbohydrate. One brand of eggs says each contains only 180 mg. of cholesterol compared to 215 mg. in regular eggs. This means nothing to people on low-carbohydrate diets, yet the marketers link the eggs to low carbohydrate.

Food labeling

Food labeling, which was once so specific, has now become deceptive in some cases. The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls it food trickery. "That's because a regulatory free-for-all gives good manufacturers carte blanche to claim that a food or supplement can affect the structure or function of the body, as long as they don't claim the food prevents or treats a specific disease," according to the center.

Foods that are low in sugar will be lower in carbohydrate. So foods made with sugar substitutes - such as ice creams and pickles - will be lower in carbohydrate.

Some would say that the food label has become a minefield of information. It's important to read those labels looking at calories, carbohydrates, and fats. Note that few labels (I did find Keebler and Nabisco cracker products were exceptions) include figures for unsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. If total fat is one number and saturated fat is another, the difference must be unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and the most destructive fats - transfats. In 2006, labeling of transfats will be required by Food and Drug Administration. Until then, it's your guess. (See Sunday's Living section for the skinny on fats.)

As you may have guessed, the humble beet is turning up on trendy plates or as an ingredient in assorted dishes.

Among the trends that cookbook author Nina Simonds sees are "British-French-Asian fusion and Indian cooking," she told food editors. "The boom will continue; there's more money in London from all over the world."

She also notes that "people want to know the origin of their food," who grew it, where, and how.

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