Predicting Next Year’s Food Trends from The Ex

Gourmet burgers are soooo 2013. Tacos? I thought they peaked last summer. What’s next year’s hot dish going to be? When will our current bacon craze go belly up? (pun intended) Important to us hoteliers, if we have a vague semblance of where food trends are headed, then we can plan menus accordingly and harness the ‘hype’ surrounding on-the-up cuisines for an extra marketing boost.

The Ex, short for the Canadian National Exhibition, is Toronto’s (my hometown’s) annual carnival event and provincial fair, held during the tail end of August at Exhibition Place near the city center. It also happens to a massive gathering for food trucks and countless other avant garde culinary pioneers. Having long since considered the rickety mechanical rides and games as juvenile, I’m one of thousands who visits The Ex solely to try several esoteric snacks.

Congregating in the convention-sized Food Building where deep-fried Mars bars, blooming onions and other treats you definitely shouldn’t tell your doctor about are all but perfunctory, I find myself each year on the hunt for the newest, wildest creations. Last year I sampled chocolate bar-stuffed pastries, cocoa-infused fried chicken with chocolate-infused ketchup (surprisingly tasty!) and peanut butter sriracha rolls. The year before that was enfeebled by an E. coli breakout traced back to a vendor selling cronut burgers.

Most of these crazy creations are one-and-done; you try them once and for whatever reason you aren’t drawn to them again (aside from sheer novelty). However, these foods are predictive in a lot of ways of what will soon reach the chic downtown restaurants as gourmet menu offerings and various chain eateries sometime down the road. For this reason alone, annual fairs like The Ex or any other food-oriented symposiums are worth perusing.

Go by yourself or with your family, give someone on your culinary staff a good measure from the petty cash fund to write a report, or make it a fun team outing. You can take a broad approach, looking for general trends like adding bacon to nearly everything or the over-smattering of chocolate on traditional comfort foods. Alternatively, hunt down one or two unique meals that stand a good chance of working with your current inventory and making an impact on your menu.

It’s an exercise in staying slightly ahead of the times and in finding a food item that will get people talking about your restaurant. After all, F&B is a relatively inexpensive way to experiment when compared to other operations.

Although novelty generates headlines and draws in the crowds, the key here is to find foods that are both inventive and tasty enough to warrant repeat visits. Seek out fare that is familiar with only one or two mildly eccentric additions. For instance, red velvet pancakes work because they taste like their ordinary fluffy counterparts but are scarlet in color instead of yellowish-brown. Deep-fried mac and cheese is another winner as the savory, creamy flavors of the pasta are gastronomically compatible with the salty goodness of boiling batter. Éclair hot dogs on the other hand? Sorry, but cheap meat and refined sugar just aren’t meant for each other in that way.

The best litmus test is to try each of these for yourself, and then get a few other trusted opinions. Dig deep – that is to say, there may be admirable elements in a certain snack that are hamstrung through detrimental combinations. If this is the case, look to extract what works and brainstorm as to how they might be applied elsewhere.

Lastly, food research is a consummate process. My journey to The Ex only happens once a year. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not out on the town for the other 50 weeks of the year actively trying new restaurants in search of other creative new cuisines – ones which may or may not draw their inspiration from gluttonous food fairs such as The Ex.

While the food at The Ex may be a story of year-over-year one-upmanship, there are always ingenious chefs about to unveil the next big thing at a restaurant near you. With this, my concluding point is: in order to have an adventurous F&B menu that guests will remember, you must first be adventurous with your own palate. And if you don’t succeed, then try, try again!

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in eHotelier on July 3, 2015)

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