Ethnic preparations rank highly among operators and chefs looking to add more distinctive culinary notes to their menus. This growing trend is reflected in the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast, which finds the term referenced several times in various places. Seventy percent of the nearly 1,600 chefs who participated in this year's study characterized “Authentic Ethnic Cuisine” as being a Hot Trend in the foodservice industry, while 71 percent said “Ethnic Condiments/Spices” were hot. Fifty-nine percent cited “Ethnic Fusion” as a Hot Trend.
While ethnic foods possess a diverse range of flavor profiles, chefs have found that chicken easily combines with a vast global arsenal of ingredients, spices, herbs and other components. According to the Tyson Menu Economics Survey — a recent study that polled commercial and noncommercial foodservice entities about how various proteins performed on their menus — chicken remains a favorite in many ways.
According to the survey, which was conducted in February by Penton Research, 53 percent of commercial operators said chicken performs the best overall when protein versatility is being measured, while 80 percent of noncommercial operators believe it performs best when evaluating the same metrics. In addition, when chicken's ability to be used in “Multiple Menu Applications” is measured, 53 percent of commercial respondents say it performs best, while 78 percent of noncommercial operators say it performs best.
Pita Pit, a quick service/fast casual hybrid based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, specializes in made-to-order sandwiches that feature Mediterranean ingredients like Lebanese pita bread, falafel and hummus. One of the nearly 600-unit chain's most popular items is Chicken Souvlaki, which can include a variety of components such as seasoned, freshly grilled chicken, feta cheese, hummus, kalamata olives and tzatziki sauce.
The Chicken Souvlaki has been so popular Pita Pit decided to broaden the line with three chicken-based variations in the third quarter, says Patrick O'Dell, director of brand marketing. The three selections are Savory Asian Chicken, Signature Zeus and Smokehouse Chicken.
O'Dell points out that while Mediterranean-influenced dishes are trending right now, ethnic fusion also “is a good way to go. People are looking at healthful items, but they want flavorful and wholesome, not low calorie [items]. These new items should play right into that.”
Pita Pit's Savory Asian Chicken fuses several culinary cultures by combining souvlaki-style chicken, teriyaki, horseradish Dijon sauce and and several other ingredients such as cilantro and banana peppers. The Signature Zeus also offers a range of choices including chicken, roasted red pepper hummus, black olives, feta cheese, Tzatziki and Sriracha. “We recommend the pairing of the two sauces — Tzatziki and Sriracha,” O'Dell says.
At Fresh to Order, a 15-unit fast-fine concept based in Alpharetta, Ga., chicken-based ethnic preparations also populate the menu. “Chicken is a widely consumed protein that is perceived as being good for you,” says Jesse Gideon, chief culinary officer and chief technology officer at Fresh to Order. “It also absorbs other flavors well, and it's easy to keep juicy and moist.”
Fresh to Go, which showcases high end cooking in a more fast casual environment, offers several ethnically oriented dishes like its Fire Grilled Chicken with Coconut Sauce. The dish calls for a chicken breast to be brined and grilled, and served with a sauce of coconut curry, kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk and potatoes. It is accompanied by a wheat berry rice blend and fresh corn cilantro relish. “It has a lot of textures and flavors,” Gideon says. “It's also sweet and spicy. We try to do food like that. We like well-rounded flavors and textures.”
The menu also features Chicken Wild Mushroom, a main dish that has its roots in French cooking and pairs a 9-ounce grilled chicken portion with a mushroom cream sauce and mashed potatoes. The recipe calls for shiitake, cremini and portobello mushrooms.
At the Tampa, Fla.-based Little Greek chain, president and majority partner Nick Vojnovic, says dishes based on authentic Greek recipes dominate the menu at the concept's 28 locations. For example, the second most popular dish is a Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken. The selection features chicken breast that has been marinated and char-grilled, and served with feta cheese, olives, tomatoes, green peppers, red onion, pepperoncini and potato salad.
Chicken skewers with marinated and grilled chicken also are popular, accounting for 21 percent of sales. Two skewers are served on a bed of yellow rice and with a small Greek salad. “You can't just put a plain chicken breast on the menu,” Vojnovic says. “Customers are more sophisticated and want more flavor.”
Commercial concepts are not the only foodservice venues focusing on ethnic flavors. At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., international dishes are extremely popular with students, says Adam Millman, director of Yale's auxiliary operations, which oversees 12 residential dining halls, retail operations, and catering and events. “We have a global student demographic,” he says. “It's a well-versed, well-traveled population used to ethnic cuisine who want bold flavors.”
Millman says Yale foodservice pursues a plant-based approach to recipe development, which incorporates proteins like chicken as more of an accompaniment than center of the plate items. “Chicken works well because it's so neutral that it can pick up a wide host of flavors,” Millman says.
One example is chicken souvlaki flavored with basil, oregano and lemon, and served with feta cheese, Greek olives and roasted peppers. “Mediterranean aligns well with health and wellness — it features great products simply prepared,” Millman says.
Beyond chicken's ability to blend well into virtually all culinary cultures, experts appreciate its other positive qualities. “It's healthful and has a great flavor profile,” Vojnovic says. “And it's still an economical protein.”
“It can stand up to any cooking process and naturally fits well into all styles and processes without requiring manipulation,” Gideon adds. “You can do anything with chicken. It offers a perfect storm of good qualities.”