The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, October 12, 2002
Page: E12
Section: The Citizen’s Weekly: Style
Byline: Janice Kennedy
Source: The Ottawa Citizen

In Guelph last week, professional foodies — those serious sensualists who live and breathe texture, taste and sybaritic good looks — crawled recklessly out on limbs to predict the shape of dining experiences to come. Among other things, they said, gourmets and gourmands can look forward to an evolving bean cuisine, more comfort food and bottles of Chilean wine ringing in at a walloping $75.

The occasion was a panel discussion on food and beverage trends in the 21st century, a session of Cuisine Canada’s annual conference. Bringing together food professionals from across the country — chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, processors, promoters, writers — “Northern Bounty V” looked at the state of eating and drinking in Canada, past, present and to come. The panel on trends, moderated by cookbook author and columnist Bonnie Stern, brought together wine expert Tony Aspler; chef Michael Bonacini (of Oliver Bonacini, which runs five of Toronto’s trendiest restaurants); Doug Fisher, restaurant business consultant and co-owner of a new Toronto barbecue restaurant; and chef Dinah Koo, caterer and restaurant owner.

Despite some past misses, the food futurists came armed with solid credentials. True, Aspler is still waiting for sherry to become fashionable again, a prediction he’s been making for years. But he takes great satisfaction in the current excellence of Canadian wine, which he foretold as a leap of faith back in 1982. Koo predicted the comeback of cocktails, though she bombed on the idea of pouched water. “People just won’t suck on a plastic bag,” she observed dryly.

Fisher’s best prediction, made in the early 1990s, was that steakhouses were going to rise from the ashes of their decline. At the time, their gross sales in downtown Toronto rang in at $8 million; today, the figure is more than $40 million. And Bonacini, a Welsh native who bet that there would be an enthusiastic market for fresh regional Canadian cuisine, has seen his Canoe restaurant become one of the World Class City’s cherished culinary destinations.

Stern said she was proud of having pointed out years ago that some foods would eventually be prized for their medicinal properties — anyone for a little garlic? — although she also confessed to at least one failure of her crystal ball. Desserts, she once declared, were going to get smaller. She has since watched in dismay as they’ve grown and grown, spawning such phenomena as dessert restaurants where the sweet treats are not just an end-of-meal specialty, but appetizers and entrees as well.

And for what foods do the panelists see bright futures?

Comfort foods will continue to gain in popularity — macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, meat loaf, roast chicken — although with occasional elaborate variations. In a related vein, the Slow Food movement (started nearly two decades ago in Italy and devoted to the idea that life — and good food — shouldn’t be rushed) will gain momentum. Vegetarian requests show no signs of fading (although vegetarian restaurants are not considered a good investment, given their small margin), and health-consciousness will continue to shape eating habits. That will be reflected in a surge in organic food buying, as well as more baby foods and even pet foods made at home.
That does not sound the death knell for beef, however. “Red meat is back with a rage,” says Koo in what amounts to a majority opinion. At the same time, there is an increase in the use of formerly lowly cuts of meat, says Bonacini. His restaurants, which offer unusual combinations on their menus, pair braised oxtail with sea scallops, smoked pork bellies with razorfish. Bonacini also predicts that, increasingly, cooks will come up with more creative uses of dried beans, and we will see more farmed fish like tilapia on menus.

Exotic new flavours, at least for our part of the world, will be Latino and Indian, and we can look forward to more and more dishes influenced by coriander, ginger, cardamom, fenugreek. And ethnic foods of all stripes will continue to come into their own — but authentically, without the taint of fusion.

What else will catch our culinary fancy?

Decadent food, says Koo, things such as foie gras and artisanal chocolate “to fuel that sense of entitlement.” In fact, there will be a vastly greater demand for artisanal foods generally — breads, cheeses, olive oils and the like, lovingly created and marketed by small producers.

Cheese, says Bonacini. Full cheese service and great boards with broad variety, including smoked cheeses. Restaurants with full-time fromagiers.

On the beverage front, look for bigger bites out of the wallet. Apart from more cocktails and martinis, says Koo, premium sake is gaining enthusiasts. And Aspler says we’re on the verge of moving our good-wine threshold, the amount we spend when we want a decent bottle to accompany a decent home meal, from $10 to $15. Ninety-four per cent of Ontario’s wine dollars used to be spent on bottles under $10; now the figure is 86 per cent. Aspler also predicts increased popularity for New World wines and says that the day of the $75 Chilean vintage is not far off.

Look too for more non-oaked wines (wines processed in stainless steel which, he says, are “much more food-friendly”) and more wines with screw tops or artificial cork, since real cork has a history of tainting up to 10 per cent of the wine it stoppers. Sparkling wines will be brought out for more than just celebratory toasts, flavoured spirits (including fruit-flavoured cognac) will win fans, organic wines (those made with chemical-free grapes and bottled without added sulfites) will become more popular, and drinking spirits with a straw will become acceptable. Oh, and stubbies — those squat little beer bottles of some decades ago that have started to quietly reappear — will be seen more and more. That, says Aspler, is the future of beverage consumption.

In entertainment, Koo says there will be more and more charitable fundraisers, because charities are getting fewer and fewer dollars. And home-meal replacement, personal chefs and take-out from upscale restaurants will rise dramatically as people find less and less time to spend in the kitchen. (Stern noted the irony. Food magazines, books and television shows have never been more popular — and people are cooking less than ever before.) Intimate dinner parties with food-and-wine pairings will become more popular, predicts Koo, while large crowds will be serviced with grazing tables and no sit-down. Caterers will want to grab on to such growing trends as costumed and/or choreographed waiters, fun presentation and packaging (food served in cones, boxes, trays) and a variety of tasty items served small, such as miniature club sandwiches.

As for restaurants, the immediate future is written in demographics. “Only one market is driving the trends these days,” says Fisher, co-owner of Dipamo’s Barbeque, which has carved out a niche in the under-served Deep South category. “Baby boomers.”

According to Fisher, who also helps would-be restaurateurs plan and launch their businesses, boomers are discovering more time and leisure for eating. This is resulting in a decline in fast-food establishments (except for Tim Horton outlets) and a rise in casual restaurants (such as Kelsey’s and East Side Mario’s) and fine-dining places. Over the next decade, he predicts, QSRs (quick service restaurants) will shrink from 65-per-cent market dominance to 50-55 per cent, while the casual and fine dining sectors will see increases from 15 to 25 per cent, and two to five per cent, respectively.

Bonacini predicts that fine restaurants will be offering more tasting menus (sometimes even built around a single item, numerous dishes focusing on corn, for example, or tomatoes) and more prix fixe menus.

As for the the fast-food places, look for an evolution, a process that has begun already. Witness McDonald’s new salad and vegetarian choices (driven in part by the losses it has posted recently and the impressive gains of rival Subway), and the fact that it is currently experimenting in the U.S. with full-service restaurants within existing restaurants. Look for more fast-food variety, too, says Fisher — including noodles, better wraps and sushi. The announced expansion of Manchu Wok from food court to drive-through may be part of this trend toward more diversity.

The culinary future is also looking more glamourous than ever, according to Bonacini. “The desire for the X-treme kitchen is growing at an immense rate. It’s almost as sexy as a sports car.” And the popularity of chefs — who “have become prime-time entertainment — or eatertainment” — has also interested more men than ever before in the arcane mysteries of the kitchen.

All of which, he says, is a good thing. “Cooking is pure. It’s time well spent. It’s therapy. There is something very nurturing about a simmering pot of soup.”

In the food-loving world, it seems, much that is old has become new again.

Janice Kennedy writes for Style Weekly.