U.S.: Fresh produce “no longer the support act” on menus
How to increase fruit and vegetable consumption is the million-dollar question for many in the industry. Opening proceedings at the London Produce Show's Foodservice Forum, Gerry Ludwig of Gordon Food Service says he has found the answer - at least for the restaurant scene.
For the past 15 years, the U.S.-based food writer and trend tracker has conducted intensive, street-level culinary research involving visits to hundreds of leading restaurants.
In his latest research project, which entailed sampling dishes at more than 100 new restaurants in the biggest trend-setting cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, his most prominent finding was the rapid expansion of "vegetable-centric" menus.
He said the trend had been gaining significant traction over the last three years in the U.S., from where consumer habits often spread to the U.K. and Europe.
"We really consider vegetable-centricity to be one of the very few macro trends - overarching trends that play out over long period of time," he told the international crowd during his keynote speech.
"It's still in its genesis and it is going to very seriously influence commercial foodservice for as far as the eye can see."
He explained the movement involved chefs taking fresh produce - primarily vegetables and secondarily fruits - and promoting them to the center of the plate. Vegetables often now have their own category on menus, instead of being relegated to the 'side dishes' section.
"One of the main changes we are seeing is chefs are treating fresh produce with the same high regard that they formerly reserved for animal-based proteins," he said.
Ludwig added chefs could not only vastly increase their flavor arsenal with this new concept, but also create far more beautiful meals.
However, he emphasized these new dishes were not necessarily vegetarian or vegan, as many entailed meat or seafood.
"They are targeted at the vast majority of dining consumers in America who are carnivorous and who would eat vegetable-based dishes in restaurants if only they had more compelling flavors. It doesn't have to be either vegetarian or meat-based - you can have both," he said.
Brussels sprouts and kale are two vegetables he said could be found in a significant number of the restaurants targeted as part of the research. But some others have come into prominence recently - watermelon radishes, maitake mushrooms and sunchokes.
Topping Ludwig's list of most under appreciated produce items was the persimmon.
The implications for the fresh produce industry, he explained, were powerful, as fruit and vegetables begin to take center stage.
"I can say with 100% certainty that fresh produce is no longer the support act," he told the audience.
"In all my time doing presentations it’s almost like there’s this apologetic tone or perception of being in the produce industry as opposed to the meat industry, that it's somehow second banana - pardon the pun.
"That certainly is no longer the case. Truly, you folks are in the cool school now."
He concluded that as a growing number of people discovered the joys of vegetable-based dishes, the mindset that food had to be either vegetarian or meat-based would be continue to be challenged.
"If you want to increase produce consumption in restaurants and in foodservice, you have to lose that meat-less mindset and realize that proteins are your partners," he said.
"The more that chefs do that, the more produce consumption we are going to see. I think consumers are absolutely ready."