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From fermented foods to matcha, gourmet burgers to poké, food trends are as fickle as they are fabulous. By Angela Tufvesson
Five or 10 years ago, who would’ve thought a virtually unknown and bitter tasting green vegetable like kale would become synonymous with a health movement that’s changing the way diners eat—and so ubiquitous that, perversely, it pops up in everything from chips to McDonald’s salads? Likewise, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of trends like fermented foods, matcha, gourmet burgers, craft beer, fried chicken, freakshakes, gochujang and poké on the local dining scene.
Forecasting food trends is a fickle business, perhaps even more so in our wide brown land where culinary traditions matter less than in places like Europe and Japan, and well-travelled diners demand innovative dining experiences.
So where do food trends come from? Food writer Dani Valent says both chefs and diners influence the ingredients and dishes that become popular on restaurant menus.
“A lot of chefs, if they have creative license, will be looking at following their own interests,” says Valent. “Let’s take fermenting. A lot of chefs geek out on the possibilities of fermenting food. There might be a dish from their apprenticeship and they think, ‘Could I add a fermented element to this?’ There’s that joy of experimentation and trying new things.
“From the customer side, people are interested in things they’ve tried in other places. Food trends travel and travel quickly. Australia is not at the end of trends; we’re quite early adopters and we’re quite good travellers. So when people have tried things overseas like poké or matcha in Hawaii or Japan, for example, they’re looking for those dishes here.”
Crucially, Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at market intelligence agency Mintel, says trends aren’t dictated to the masses using a top-down approach.
“It seems in the last few years there has been a shift in the evolution of food trends,” she says. “While previously many food trends would start at the top in fine dining restaurants and then make their way into casual dining and limited-service restaurants and retail, now we are seeing trends evolving from all segments.” She says supermarket staples like Sriracha sauce and free-range eggs are symbolic of this shift.
“People are interested in things they’ve tried in other places. Food trends travel and travel quickly. Australia is not at the end of trends—we’re quite early adopters and we’re quite good travellers. So when people have tried things overseas like poké or matcha in Hawaii or Japan, for example, they’re looking for those dishes here.”—Dani Valent, food writer
More broadly, food trends are very much a product of how consumers dine and where, which is influenced by a range of factors, from technology to pop culture, the economy and the modern workplace.
“If times are tough and people are trying to save money, they may turn towards cuisines that can be more frugal,” says Valent. “Vegetarianism, street food, food trucks and some of the regional Chinese cuisines tap into this. Australian diners are pretty mature and demanding so if we want to eat more cheaply we won’t necessarily be looking for traditional fast food options—we’ll be looking for cheap and good.”
Topper says increasing consumer demand for snacking, all-day dining and casual meals is reflective of a move away from structured lifestyles and traditional nine-to-five jobs. Cue the popularity of high-end food courts, extended trading hours and what Francis Loughran, managing director of food and hospitality consultancy Future Food, dubs “gourmet accented” food.
“It’s basically taking popular food concepts and elevating them,” he says. “Chicken and hamburgers are great examples—we’ve had fried chicken for many years going back to KFC and fast-food style hamburgers, and now we’ve got gourmet burgers and more upmarket fried chicken.”
No discussion about food trends is complete without mention of Instagram—indeed, Mintel research reveals 62 per cent of millennials enjoy discovering food trends on social media—and Topper says the photo-sharing behemoth is a breeding ground for food trends designed to go viral.
“The visual nature of Instagram especially lends itself to trend development, and younger diners in particular are using social platforms to discover the next food trend,” says Topper. “Many of the ‘dishes of the moment’ originated on social media, such as avocado toast, charcoal lattes and ice cream, and over-the-top milkshakes. Knowing the impact social media has on creating food trends is also impacting the way foods and beverages are presented. This influences everything from the restaurant’s lighting and colour scheme to [takeaway] packaging and tableware.”
Ultimately, restaurateurs looking to keep abreast of food trends should look past fads towards movements that capture consumer sentiment across a broad range of industries. Valent says health and wellness is a classic example—think activewear, organic beauty products, wellness tourism, workplace wellbeing and the aforementioned kale.
“Many of the ‘dishes of the moment’ originated on social media, such as avocado toast, charcoal lattes and ice cream, and over-the-top milkshakes. Knowing the impact social media has on creating food trends is also impacting the way foods and beverages are presented. This influences everything from the restaurant’s lighting and colour scheme to [takeaway] packaging and tableware.”—Amanda Topper, Mintel
“The dishes are going to be fickle—turmeric latte or coconut water is almost shorthand for a joke about clean eating—but the broader trend that they’re talking about is an interest in health, which is something that has more staying power,” she says.
“Restaurateurs need to look at what the ‘it’ dish or ingredient is saying about people generally. Turmeric lattes will have their day, but the fact is that people are interested in things like toxins, clean eating and immune boosters—and that stuff is going to stick around.”
Loughran agrees, explaining that classic cuisines like Japanese and Italian will guide consumer expectations about how these macro food trends play out.
“A trend is something like healthy eating that gains momentum, whereas a fad is something we’ve enjoyed fleetingly, like cupcakes, cronuts or macarons,” he says. “We’ve got to be very clear that there will always be the classical cuisines, and elements of those will be reinvented into specialty dishes or products that speak to these trends.”
And in much the same way as skinny jeans aren’t for everyone, Valent says restaurants should stay true to their ethos.
“What restaurateurs always need to do is stay true to who they are and what they’re about, and don’t follow trends too much,” she says. “People want to have a feeling they’re not dining in the past but they don’t need to eat on the very edge.
“Most people are going to eat food they’re comfortable with most of the time, so it’s important to keep abreast of what’s out there but only engage with trends if they are part of who you are at your core. Don’t sprinkle matcha over something because you hear it’s trendy. If it doesn’t really, really work, leave it alone.”