Q&A: London Produce Show preview - Chef Gerry Ludwig talks "veg-centricity"
This article originally appeared in Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit.
One of the great benefits of events such as The London Produce Show and Conference is that we gather intelligence from all over the world, thus saving attendees from a lot of time and cost in traveling themselves. Rarely is that as true as with this year’s Keynote Presentation at the event’s Foodservice Forum by Chef Gerry Ludwig of Gordon Food Service.
Chef Ludwig conducts an annual tour de force of research, as he and his team visit new restaurants in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- all with the goal of identifying new trends and new menu options for the customers of Gordon Food Service. He presented the results of this research at the New York Produce Show’s “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, and the information has been extraordinarily well received and featured in our sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS.
This year, we bring him to the Foodservice Forum at The London Produce Show and Conference — held the day before the trade show on Wednesday, June 7 — to give attendees insight into what is hot and happening with fresh produce in the USA.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Q: Your keynote presentation in London will bring new perspective and spice to the diverse and burgeoning UK culinary scene. I revisited the dynamic Q&A we did back in 2015 for your first keynote at the New York Produce Show’s Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum. It turns out you were incredibly on point in your menu projections, and quite brilliant in pointing out the important produce trends and menu solutions for competitive advantage.
A: We covered a wide range of issues that will be of interest to the London Produce Show attendees and we spelled out a lot of background information on our proprietary culinary research and development program.
Q: You’ve continued to stay ahead of the curve in foreshadowing produce-centric, foodservice trends in the U.S. and translating them to winning strategies. Since you target trend-setting U.S. cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, how will your menu insights be applicable to a London Produce Show audience?
A: My talk will revolve around the latest updates to my presentation at the Ideation Fresh in New York last December. I am certain that attendees, when they hear my talk in London, will find the ideas compelling and run with them in ways that make sense for their markets.
I am not going to speculate on exactly how these opportunities would translate into restaurants in the various European cities or countries, but food culture is increasingly global. Many of the restaurants we study have chefs that trained in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and many showcase cuisines from around the world. In today’s global food culture, there is an enormous cross-pollination of ideas.
Q: That’s fair to point out. At the same time, The London Produce Show proves to be a stimulating global venue for interactive brainstorming and resourcefulness among a wide range of leading industry specialists.
A: I feel much more comfortable with that approach, as opposed to me saying, this is specifically what you should have on your menu. Then if that’s okay, I can go through the trends, and as people develop questions, we can open the discussion.
Q: I think that’s great. Let’s get started with a preview of your key points…
A: I’ll open my talk by addressing a major problem in the produce industry, or what I call ‘the produce monger’s dilemma.’ I’ll cut to the chase: I have been talking more and more to produce industry groups about “veg-centric” restaurant trends and the importance of rethinking how produce is used on menus. But produce executives always go back to the topic of increasing produce consumption, and the traditional business of selling produce.
Q: How are you defining veg-centric?
A: The whole idea with vegetable-centricity is that the vegetables, and to a lesser degree, fruit have to be pulled to the center of the plate. However, if you restrict yourself to a meatless scenario, it doesn't provide the flavor arsenal, the ingredient arsenal that you need to create vegetable or produce-based dishes that have had the same level of credibility as protein-based dishes.
You don't have to overload them with meat protein. You can just use a very small amount as a flavoring ingredient. That takes these dishes over the top.
Q: In that scenario, the produce and protein proportions essentially are flipped 180 degrees. So, when you say produce executives need to rethink how to reach restaurant consumers, are you suggesting they need to jump outside the produce industry silo, and stop viewing meat and other proteins as the enemy?
A: If you view meat proteins as your partner, it is going to be a winning relationship going forward. In theory, there's nothing the matter with an idea like Meatless Mondays. The problem is… it really hasn't picked up traction. I believe the reason is because when you're taking things away from people, they think they're being denied something. Whereas with vegetable-centricity, they're still getting everything that they're looking for.
I can't speak to the retail side, but I can tell you, as far as selling more produce to restaurants and lifting consumption in that segment, veg-centricity truly is the answer.
Q: And you have evidence through your latest research to back this up?
A: I’ve projected this veg-centric trend for many years. A conclusion from this year’s presentation is that we're just seeing continued acceleration of more and more chefs jumping on board, and dining consumers are following their lead very enthusiastically. The solution with vegetable-centricity is banishing that meatless mindset and realizing you can pull vegetables to the center of the plate and then judiciously add proteins. That is really the key to getting consumers in restaurants to eat more produce.
Q: Why exactly? Is a vegetarian menu limited to niche market segments?
A: Being a consultant to restaurants, I am always thinking about the foodservice customer base. As I have been talking over the past few years to restaurant operators about vegetable-centricity, I have stressed to them that they should not think of it as a restaurant theme or a restaurant concept. It's really a new menu category.
More and more operators are eliminating the category of produce side dishes. They're just relegated to the bottom of the menu as an afterthought. Then they're actually creating and instituting a very carefully thought-out category of vegetables on the menu.
That said, I have been proven wrong with that assertion. Although, I still believe that's how the vast majority of operators should view it. Quite surprisingly, some very, very high profile chefs just over the past year have opened vegetable-centric restaurants. The entire theme is built around vegetable-centricity.
Q: Could you provide examples?
A: There’s a new restaurant on Randolph Street in Chicago called Bad Hunter. It's kind of a cute name. Bad Hunter is Native American slang for a vegetarian. It has been an absolute runaway success both from dining critics and from consumers. Likewise, Chef Dan Kluger just opened a restaurant in New York City called Loring Place. There are some seafood dishes on the menu, but it is primarily a vegetable-centric restaurant based on the wood burning grill.
In Los Angeles, Joseph Centeno has opened a restaurant called P.Y.T. We don’t know exactly what that stands for. The waitress said it might be Pretty Young Turnips. P.Y.T. is strictly dedicated to vegetable-centricity. When Chef Centeno was interviewed about the restaurant he actually said, ‘You won't find animal proteins center stage in P.Y.T. Instead they'll be singing in the chorus.’
To me that's quintessential veg-centric. It's what we've been talking about all along.
Q: It sounds like a phrase you might use…
A: Yes, absolutely. In Chicago, there's a small group of chefs that have gotten together. In a few months they are going to be opening a vegetable-centric restaurant called Daisies. Dan Barber, who is the very famous chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan, has established a vegetable-centric offering at his bar.
Up until this point, Dan Barber has primarily been a vegetarian chef. With his new bar menu, basically he's putting vegetables and all greens at center stage with meats being used mostly as a condiment.
Q: What’s happening in restaurants traditionally focused on protein dishes?
A: Another thing we saw in our latest research that was really surprising was the large number of new restaurants in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles following this trend of eliminating the category of side dishes; and then prominently displaying the offering of vegetables either in the center or the top of the menu.
Some extreme examples would be a new steak house called GT Prime in Chicago. It has eliminated its category of side dishes and created a very well thought-out vegetable offering on the menu. It is no longer just your conventional steak house basic greens, spinach, or broccoli with hollandaise sauce…things like that.
Q: Could you describe some of the departures from conventional greens?
A: GT Prime does a spit-roasted cauliflower with ricotta, pepper relish with pine nuts. They do a classic vegetable-centric dish of grilled Brussels sprouts. It's topped with shards of crispy Iberico ham with maple butter and long peppercorns.Then, grilled maitake mushrooms that are topped with melted brie and local honey.
Q: You’re making me hungry…
A: The one we found really surprising in Los Angeles was The Cannibal Beer & Butcher, which started in New York. This is a nose-to-tail, meat-centric restaurant, and even they instituted an extensive menu category of vegetables. And once again, no longer any side dishes. Some interesting choices include a farmer’s market tomato salad with watermelon, cucumber and chilies. All of that is tossed in a fish sauce vinaigrette. It’s a great example of how the chef is integrating just a little bit of protein. With the fish sauce on, it’s no longer a vegetarian vinaigrette.
These are not your old typical, steakhouse sides anymore, which is why they are in their own dedicated category of vegetables.
Another unbelievable dish was whipped grilled broccolini. It was topped with a Calabrian chili and a bagna cauda, which is a classic Italian vegetable dip. It's simply made by combining olive oil, chopped butter and chopped anchovies.
Q: This isn’t the first time you’ve highlighted the trend of bagna cauda on restaurant menus…
A: You recall our original interview, where I had talked about the person who really started the entire trend in vegetable-centricity, Travis Lett at Gjelina. He was the first person to use bagna cauda. It was on the menu the first day that Gjelina opened. It was either grilled radicchio or grilled treviso that he brushed with bagna cauda as it was on the wood grill. All the chefs have picked up that flavoring ingredient, bagna cauda. I've got a dozen examples or more of vegetable-centric dishes where bagna cauda has been incorporated.
What we're seeing now is what I call this third wave of vegetables with an expansion of the number of protein addition that we're seeing on these dishes.
One would be lardons,which is the cured Italian back fat — the pork fat. For instance, Cafe Marie Jeanne in Chicago does grilled maitake mushrooms with pine nuts. Then they rest thin shavings of the lardon on top, which just melts all over the mushrooms.
We had talked about the crispy Iberico ham that was being used on top of the Brussels sprouts at GT Prime. Café Medi in New York did these beautiful wood roasted heirloom carrots. They were just roasted to an ideal caramelization — with the whole stem on and skin on. Then they were topped with thin shavings of Iberico ham that had been left to crisp in the oven until it was crispy-crunchy.
Q: You seem to be keen on Iberico.
A: Iberico is arguably the finest and certainly the most expensive ham in the world. It comes from Spain. It basically is the breed of hog. It's a black-footed hog that they feed in just a diet exclusively of acorns. That makes the hogs really fat. The acorn gives the fat a tremendous amount of flavor. That's what the Iberico ham is all about.
Q: Thank you for that prolific description in my admittedly produce-filled world!
A: Another protein ingredient that we're seeing is 'Nduja. It's a spreadable spicy Italian salami. This is really a unique product. Even though there's a smoked and cured salami, there's so much fat in it that it remains spreadable even after it's cured. Chefs are using this in a variety of different veg-centric applications. A great example would be Roberta's Restaurant in Brooklyn.
Q: Oh, I've been to Roberta's. Actually, it was a hit with New York Produce Show attendees during one of our urban agriculture tours.
A: The reason I'm calling this one out is because the chef took this 'Nduja sausage and made a vinaigrette with it. He took sweet onion and he cut it into pieces so that the pieces of onion fold like little cups. He poached the sweet onions in white wine, then chilled them. Then inside of these onion cups he put a half of goose berry. Then drizzled it with the 'Nduja vinaigrette.
Q: How creative…
A: I tell you it's one of the best dishes we tasted. Another example is a restaurant called Mardi in Los Angeles. They did wood grilled chicories with bitter greens. Then they topped them with a very small amount of a braised lamb ragu. It was actually ground lamb and they just made a savory sauce with it. Then they finished it with a sprinkle of the chopped pistachios.
We're also seeing liquid protein elements that are being used for flavor, like that fish sauce vinaigrette that was on one of the dishes. Another item we are seeing in dishes is XO sauce.
Q: Asian influences?
A: Yes. Basically it's an Asian sauce that is made by simmering fish or shell fish, pork and soy together. Obviously there are some other elements, but those are the three basic ingredients. It really is a seafood-based sauce, very value-rich. For instance at Ocean Cut, a restaurant in Chicago, they grilled green beans and then tossed them in this XO sauce with a little bit of crispy roasted garlic. Another example of this liquid protein element is dashi. Of course, dashi is a combination of kombu seaweed and bonito flakes — shaved tuna flakes. They're simmered together. Normally, it’s used for Ramen noodle soup, things like that.
Well at Rose Café in Los Angeles, they crispy fry Brussels sprouts and then they serve them in a pool of dashi broth. You’ve got that rich broth that combines with the crispy crunchiness. It just works perfectly.
We also saw a lot of vegetable separate dishes simply topped with bonito flakes. An example of that would be at Restaurant Roister in Chicago. They're doing a house-made Yukon Gold fried potato garnished with ricotta cheese and just a generous topping of the bonito flakes.
Q: Okay. What other influences can you point to?
A: Of course, we're also seeing even more different cured meats, bacons and things like that being used as protein elements. A couple of interesting ones. Restaurant Animale did a sauteed Brussels sprouts topped with a soppressata Italian sausage they crisped in the oven. Likewise, restaurant Giant in Chicago serves a sweet & sour eggplant that's topped with bits of crispy pancetta.
We're continuing to see innovation with vegetable-base sandwiches. It’s an entire section in my presentation. Let me just talk about a couple that were really standouts. One of them is at restaurant Republique in Los Angeles. They did a maitake mushroom toast, but it was so over the top. It was just absolutely irresistible. It was garnished with thin shavings of country ham, scrambled eggs, wilted spinach. Then it was drizzled with hollandaise sauce and a red wine Bordelaise.
Q: Fancy sandwich…
A: Another one was at High Street on Hudson, in New York. The sandwich was grilled king oyster mushrooms with braised kale, honey-crisp apple, Gruyere cheese, and white truffle mushroom mayonnaise. It was unbelievable.
In a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles called Erven, I had a crunchy cauliflower sandwich. They literally fried the cauliflower till it was crispy. Then they topped it with a pine nut caper spread and golden raisins. We saw a fair amount of sandwiches that were based on cauliflower and this probably was our favorite. It is actually from just a deli in Brooklyn, called Foster Sundry. It was a grilled cauliflower on a baguette with pickled red onions, manchego cheese and chimichurri sauce.
Q: It is interesting because all these different descriptions you are giving are very multi-layered and complex. Is the trend to get more and more complex? Isn’t something to be said about focusing on the simple purity and natural flavors of fresh vegetables?
A: What consumers value most when they are dining out are the sorts of dishes they can't make very easily for themselves. I think these more elaborate dishes, where it is layer upon layer of flavor is really something the dining consumers appreciate.
Q: Right, because there is no way they are going to do that at home... What is happening specifically on the produce front… Are there any new or unusual fruits or vegetables making headway on menus?
A: The next section of my talk is what I call, “They are Everywhere.” These are produce items that were popping up on dishes all over the place. There were three of them. The first one was watermelon radishes. We did have one dish at Erven that was strictly based on watermelon radishes called pickled slaw.
In the vast majority, the watermelon radish was really being used more as an addition to the dish or a garnish. In one instance, watermelon radish was thinly sliced and stood up on top of a hummus with assorted vegetable crudites. There were also several instances where a sandwich contained watermelon radish as one of the ingredients.
One dish that we thought was really interesting was a gypsy salad from the restaurant Café Henrie in New York. This was basically a salad of market vegetables, avocado, chickpeas, and olives. Then, the salad was dressed with a beet tahini sauce. Really cool because they took a watermelon radish and put it on a spiral slicer. There was this long accordion of watermelon radish that ran through the salad. They have a very unique and really eye-appealing look to them.
Q: So, watermelon radishes, and what’s the second produce standout?
A: We've already identified several dishes that contain them, but maitake mushrooms were absolutely everywhere. We were seeing them in three different forms. I had talked about the maitake mushrooms that were covered with brie and the honey at GT Prime. Then also, we saw braised and stewed maitakes served on top of polenta, either crispy polenta or just a very nice smooth polenta.
Since maitake grows in big bunches, chefs would take very, very large pieces, what almost looked like a whole head of maitake mushroom and roast it or wood grill it and serve it in the center of the dish.
Mardi in Los Angeles first took a large head of maitake mushroom. And deep fried it until it was completely crispy and crunchy. They served that with whipped garlic ricotta as a dipping sauce. One of the chefs in our group commented, “This is like a mushroom version of a blooming onion."
Q: And what’s Number 3?
A: We encountered over a dozen different vegetable sunchoke dishes in our research this year. One of the reasons that we continue to believe that sunchokes are popular is because a lot of chefs are realizing they simply have to just score them up. Leave the skin on. Cut them in half. Oven roast and then there are all sorts of different things that you can do with them. One of the restaurants in Chicago is called St. Lou's Assembly.
One of the vegetables on their menu was simply roasted sunchokes tossed in brown butter. Then there was Restaurant Sauvage in Brooklyn, same M.O., just cutting the whole sunchokes in half and oven-roasting. Here they tossed in that 'Nduja vinaigrette just like they served in Roberta's.
We had a fascinating dish of caramelized sunchoke soup at a restaurant called Destroyer in Los Angeles. You get this creamy sunchoke soup, but they caramelize the sunchoke and really give it a lot of flavor before they puree that. To really put it over the top, they garnish the soup with thin slices of raw sunchoke and thin slices of banana.
Q: It’s inspiring to hear your passion…
A: When you take a piece of raw sunchoke and a piece of raw banana and put it in your mouth, it is one of the most heavenly flavor combinations. How this guy stumbled upon it, I have no idea. We thought it was absolute genius.
We also saw several dishes in salads that were garnished with pickled sunchokes. Either thinly sliced or julienned and then just very lightly pickled used as an ingredient in salads.
Then the final one… It's a new steakhouse in New York called Quality Eats. Instead of doing a scalloped potato, they did scalloped sunchokes, which is absolutely dynamite.
Q: Okay. You have a fun job.
A: Yes, that’s true, but it takes a large amount of time.
Q: When you’re eating so many variations of different dishes, do you find it hard to distinguish the taste profiles after a while?
A: You have to stay focused. You can't develop a flavor memory unless you taste it. As a matter of fact, we were experimenting with our own recipes with 'Nduja, which is extremely spicy. I tasted 10 different versions. You just drink some sparkling water in between the tastes and go on from there.
Q: So, after you discover all these delicious menu items and trends, how do you connect this back to helping your customers?
A: We are doing research in casual and casual-upscale restaurants so we can consult our customers that are specifically in those segments. The translation is not all that difficult. However, just like almost everything that we talked about, if we're seeing more sunchokes on menus, that's not a trend, that's just a menu opportunity. Trends are really few and far between.
Examples of those would be like American comfort food that continues to evolve. That's a macro trend. I believe vegetable-centricity is a macro trend where we're just now at the very beginning of it.
The bottom line is that a lot of these concepts we're only going to be directing to our more key casual, and casual/upscale, operators in the larger metro cities at this point. I think it's going to be a while before this whole style of eating and this whole concept really makes its way through -- the secondary, the third-tier cities, and then on into the more remote parts of the United States.
Q: It will be interesting to get feedback from London Produce Show attendees on how this veg-centric phenomenon impacts them. What are the key messages you want attendees to take away from your talk?
A: One thing that really hasn’t changed. That old habits die hard. At The New York Produce Show and other produce events that I attended in 2016, I consistently got this message that people in the produce industry still consider themselves to be the underdogs. Really, that is not true anymore. Now, obviously it's an evolution, not a revolution.
Vegetable-centricity is going to evolve in the next decade and even further out. However, people in the produce industry really need to change their mindset. Produce is no longer the supporting act, and that is true by everything we've seen with the younger demographic groups, the Millennials, the Gen Z’s.
Produce is poised for a dramatic role on food service menus by everything we’ve seen with the younger demographic groups, the Millennials, the Gen Z’s… Even today we're seeing it with Baby Boomers. They're discovering all these vegetable-centric dishes. They're tasting flavors in vegetable dishes that they've never experienced before.
Produce can no longer be viewed in the industry as an accompanying ingredient. The fruits and vegetables have come to the center of the plate. People in the produce industry need to lose their meatless mindset and appreciate that their absolute best friends are animal-based proteins. They really need to become advocates and promote this partnership.
Q: Quintessential veg-centric…
A: It really is a simple as that. You take a look at these unbelievable vegetables that are being served. This truly is the road ahead. I guess the last point is that, people in the produce industry should be very confident in this direction.
The produce industry doesn’t do a great job of selling to foodservice. Produce venders are conditioned by retail to assume demand for their product. They know that Tesco needs grapes or citrus or apples or berries. Yet, foodservice is different. The volume is heavily concentrated on only a few items such as potatoes, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. If you want to sell even the most tasty peach, even at an incredible value, one needs to get the item on the menu first.
Few produce companies are well equipped to be persuasive in this area. They don’t often have their own research chefs or experts in menu planning. And, besides, the process can take years. Plus, with commodity products there is always the fear that having spent money and worked hard to get an item on the menu, the producer that did all the hard work may not get the business.
Yet for a hundred years in America and most of the western world, the trend has been a steady increase of the percentage of consumer dollars spent on food to be consumed out of the home. That is schools, hospitals, business-and-industry feeders, prisons, and, especially, restaurants of all type.
Chef Gerry Ludwig’s research points to a very bright spot for the industry. It indicates that vegetables especially are increasingly becoming the center of the plate.
This is, of course, the key answer to moving the needle on foodservice use of produce. As long as produce is relegated to a side dish, that boom in, say, kale, is likely to just mean a decline in spinach sales, as restaurants substitute one produce item for the other.
But if we can move consumers to things where the produce is the main ingredient and proteins are used for a little flavor, we can expect dramatic changes in produce consumption.
There is much to do, of course… many of Chef Ludwig’s veg-centric restaurants are a bit upscale. How this translates into more down-market and more rural restaurants has yet to be determined. But the opportunity is clear and we hope you will join us in London to see how America’s newest restaurants are innovating with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Please join us for a robust discussion on the implications of this for the UK, European and the global efforts to increase produce sales through the foodservice channel.
And you can book your hotel at The Grosvenor House, where the event is held and networking is best, right here.
We look forward to meeting and working to move the industry forward at the Foodservice Forum of The London Produce Show and Conference.