Change in Menu

It’s easy to see what’s trending on the food scene these days because it’s usually preceded with a hashtag. But how do chefs and restaurateurs set the course for the next menu-item meme, and how can peanuts play a role in the changing landscape of food trends?

One behind-the-scenes trendsetter who inspires change in culinary cuisine is Patrick McDonnell, chef consultant and senior partner of McDonnell Kinder and Associates, LLC. He is an avant-garde innovator with a keen sense of understanding and developing the food trends that make it to restaurant menus. And he’s helping to highlight peanuts in the repertoire of culinary ingredients for chefs across the nation.

Patrick began his culinary career at a young age in Europe by training in classical French cooking. “My first gig was 18 months in the Savoy kitchen with 85 chefs from various disciplines,” he said about the famous Savoy hotel in London. Then after working for Peter Morton, founder of Hard Rock hotels and cafés, he moved to the United States and opened up two restaurants, Sarabande and French Quarter. He gained notoriety when food critic Michael Batterberry wrote a piece about him in Food & Wine magazine, and from there built an astounding resume that includes Executive Chef at the Rainbow Room at Rockerfeller Center and Corporate Chef for General Foods Corporation.

Today he advises both retail and foodservice corporations on menu development and innovation. And he uses his experience and influence to set the stage for new trends on American menus. Unlike most restaurants and food companies that track point-of-sale data for clues about what’s trending in food, Patrick says, “that’s not good enough.”

“I’m not looking for food items; not looking for menu mentions. I’m looking for a general consumer-based direction. That’s much more complex. You can’t categorize it. You’ve got to look at the movement rather than the categorization.” Instead of analyzing the data sets, and pouring over food trade publications, he’s guided by other elements of popular culture to see which food trends might soon be realized.

“I’ll see some sort of a blip in an unrelated food magazine. It might be Vogue or Vanity Fair or an article in the New York Times. It may be a mention of someone who’s doing something with food, or someone who’s buying something a certain way. It’s all about understanding where the country’s going. And the best way for me to do that is by looking at articles unrelated to food; or related to food, but not the traditional.”

PBJ wings

Courtesy of Patrick McDonnell Food Photography

His unconventional approach at seeing what’s on the horizon has helped him to set food trends for chain restaurants. That’s also enabled him to perfectly position peanuts as a versatile ingredient. By understanding how to use peanut products, and knowing how to incorporate them in trending dishes, Patrick advises chefs to create inventive and popular new dishes like the PB&J wings at TGIFridays. His work has helped transform peanuts from trite bar snack and sandwich staples, into ingredients that add flavor, texture, and complexity to a dish.

“I think in a lot of ways [McDonnell, Kinder and Associates] were the groundbreaker on peanuts. If you start talking peanut flour, peanut oil, toasted peanut oil, peanut butter, treatments of different kinds of peanuts – roasted, salted, boiled – all of a sudden you’ve opened up a complete world of flavor options there. So we’ve had a lot of success with that.”

Indeed, according to a research study commissioned by the National Peanut Board, peanuts have seen a significant increase on restaurant menus over the past eight years. And Patrick has noticed creative peanut dishes becoming a trend in themselves. Independent chefs across the nation are experimenting with peanut products and are adding them to their menus with great success. From carrots in a peanut mole sauce served on waffles at Dirt Candy in New York City, to a peanut milk dessert at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, independent chefs are leading the charge in developing peanut powered cuisines.

So what culinary trend with peanuts does Patrick foresee for the future? He said there are a couple of interesting preparations that has him intrigued. But he thinks that peanut milk may be the most exciting development because it has so much potential as an ingredient. Another possible trend: pickled peanuts.

“Pickling has become a really interesting foray for independents and it’s starting to come into mainstream. Pickled peanuts are really interesting. They’re fun. But the contrast between the flavor, texture, and the acidity appeals to a lot of people.” In fact, independent chef Ian Boden at The Shack in Staunton, Va. has already begun introducing pickled peanuts to some of his dishes for an added level of flavor and texture.

Whatever starts showing up on restaurant menus in the future, innovators like Patrick will likely have a hand in populating that trend. Peanut products are in the culinary toolbox of menu innovation, and chefs have already begun to break the mold with clever incorporations in their dishes. Patrick McDonnell is their muse.

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