For the past 15 years we’ve taken customers on our “Chicago Trends Tour” every April, visiting restaurants that exemplify the best in foodservice styles. I always visit ahead of time with a team of Gordon Food Service specialists. There was a time—not long ago—when every dish I tasted in January would still be on the menu in April. But times have changed.
Cooking by the Calendar
Restaurants today are so seasonally driven that very few of the dishes we sample in January remain available in April. This is a good thing. Today’s diners are keen to see menus they perceive as natural and minimally processed. Customers are savvy to seasonal ingredients, and seek out restaurants that keep things garden-fresh. Chefs are stepping it up creatively, putting to good use global influences and smart combinations to deliver flavor. Of course, the biggest benefit to sourcing seasonal ingredients is quality, but you’ll also get the best flavor (and the best price) when you buy them in season.
But it’s not enough simply to source seasonal products. You’ve got to put them to better use than your competitors. The grilled-nectarine salad at Gjelina in Los Angeles is adorned with burrata, Treviso, arugula, and prosciutto plus a drizzle of aged balsamic. It’s a smart combination of textures and temperatures, a little sweet, a little salty; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
You Say Tomato, I Say Persimmon
One of the most shockingly delicious sandwiches I tasted recently was a grilled cheese with poached persimmon, pecorino, and arugula at The Corner Door in Los Angeles. Swapping out the standard tomato slice for persimmon—with its mildly sweet, earthy flavor—showed what’s possible when chefs reach beyond conventional crops. A wealth of super-flavorful, seasonal produce is available besides tomatoes, corn, and strawberries. Brussels sprouts—now a staple of bistros and casual dining—are a great example. Sunchokes, kohlrabi, and persimmons all offer lots of possibilities for menu differentiation. The Ladies’ Gunboat Society in Los Angeles features sunchokes two ways—roasted and puréed—with chimichurri and shaved pecorino. Cadet, also in Los Angeles, dresses up kale salad with thin slices of fresh persimmon, pecans, and a walnut vinaigrette. Ada Street in Chicago serves a salad of shaved kohlrabi with a creamy preserved-lemon vinaigrette, grapes, and pecorino romano.
Even wintertime can be an exciting season for fresh, bold flavors. Cabbage, hard squashes, heirloom apples, and specialty citrus celebrate the season while keeping color, flavor, and textures at the forefront. A bright citrus salad of blood oranges and cara caras (red-fleshed navel oranges) in an herb vinaigrette with thinly shaved red onion at Via Carota in New York was simple and outrageously flavorful.
Canning and preserving offer excellent opportunities to embrace seasonality. A bit of summer saved, put up at the peak of the season, is a welcome addition to winter menus. The easiest method is freezing (this works well for berries), but pickling is another great way to trick out your dishes during the colder months. These precious bits of summer can be used in special dishes throughout the year. Be sure to highlight them because they’re a sure way to make your menu stand out. Consider offering a house-pickle plate that features a mix of quick refrigerator pickles made from cold-weather stock (cauliflower, carrots, or even a pickled egg) and canned pickles made with summer produce.
Sound complicated? It’s not. With a bit of planning and innovation, you can incorporate flavorful, seasonally driven, and cost-effective items into your menu year-round.