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Local Chefs Prognosticate Food Trends

4 min read

The National Restaurant Association last week released its “What’s Hot 2020 Culinary Forecast,” joining a host of other restaurant industry-related organizations in predicting food and dining trends for the year. And that led me to pick the brains of Arkansas restaurateurs and chefs to divine what diners will be demanding.

One trend on which almost all agree, including the national prognosticators, is plant-based proteins and plant-based menus in general, including vegan dishes.

“The world wants more options,” said Scott McGehee, executive chef and partner in Yellow Rocket Concepts, the Little Rock company behind Big Orange, Local Lime, Zaza and Heights Taco & Tamale restaurants and Lost Forty Brewing.

“Our No. 1 priority is to make delicious food that people want,” said Amber Brewer, brand manager and creative director at Yellow Rocket. “Currently, people are wanting more plant-based options. And we realize that sacrificing taste isn’t going to win you any points.” That means that Yellow Rocket is looking at its restaurants’ menus to see how the company can add to or make simple revisions to a few existing items “to make them more delicious and more plant-based,” she said.

Yellow Rocket’s approach is not to jump on a trend bandwagon. “We’re only going to offer a few more well-considered options as we work through them,” Brewer said.

“I think you will see a strong continuation of veggie-based meats, not just beef,” said Mark Abernathy, owner and executive chef of Loca Luna and the Red Door restaurants in Little Rock. “The model for creating faux beef lends itself to lots of options. While the health aspects are important, the negative environmental impact of beef and pork production is considerable and will become an issue.”

PattiCakes Bakery in Conway also serves salads, sandwiches, soups and prepared foods like casseroles for takeout. Owner Patti Stobaugh says her customers have been asking for more plant-based and keto-friendly items, referring to the ketogenic diet, which is high in proteins and fats and low in carbohydrates.

Stobaugh said there also was increased interest in “meal prep,” in which a restaurant prepares a whole meal ahead of time for the customer to heat and eat at home. “It kind of goes hand-in-hand with our take-and-bake casseroles,” she said. “We will be getting more into meal prep that falls within the keto range.”

Rob Nelson, executive chef and owner of Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie in Bentonville — with plans to open a location in North Little Rock’s Argenta Arts District this year — says, “I still see strong shifts towards the flexitarian diet and intermittent fasting.” A flexitarian diet emphasizes plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and legumes and whole grains, but also incorporates some meat and dairy products.

“Smoked meats, not just in barbecue joints, will be seen more on chefs’ menus,” Nelson said. “Using organic essential oils to finish dishes will become more present. The kitchen and restaurants in general will be more aware of the waste created and will work to lessen the businesses’ carbon footprint.

“Vegetable and fruit fermentation is going to be a big thing both in the kitchen and behind the bar,” he said. “You will see more bar programs practicing spirit-free cocktails. And lastly, I see a lot of people both young and old eating a lot of ice cream!” (It’s probably not a coincidence that Nelson also owns Trash Creamery, a Bentonville ice cream shop.)

Capi Peck, owner of Trio’s in Little Rock, thinks “interesting appetizers that can take the place of an entree when paired with a substantial salad” will be popular and agrees that pre-prepared meals are having a moment. “Even though we don’t participate in any of the many food delivery systems, more people are ordering takeout and want food that won’t be complicated to reheat or plate at home,” she said.

Peck also predicts the “incorporation of global flavors and dishes such as tagine, shawarma, kofte, anything with za’atar, labneh, sumac.” Space prevents my describing these. Google is your friend.

Abernathy sees interest in “veggie butters, lots of stuff made with different peas. I think we’ll see more things done with rice and soybeans, which is good for Arkansas. Poultry will remain very strong as a protein option, which is also good for us.”

Also likely to be popular, Abernathy concluded: “Weird pizzas.”

Peck, like others I visited with, says local food sourcing will remain important. “Our foundation is keep it simple, keep it creative and keep it local,” McGehee said.

Ice cream, weird pizzas and local — I can dig it.

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