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Comfort food, condiments, and a joyful, over-the-top return to indoor dining.

By Regan Stephens
December 14, 2020
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Food Trends 2021
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Late last year, we talked to dozens of chefs who predicted trends that ranged from family-style dining to tasting menus with non-alcoholic juice pairings. Of course, no one could have predicted the way 2020 played outthough San Francisco chef Angela Pinkerton did anticipate we’d be eating more bread.

As we close out a year that’s brought upheaval and devastation to an industry we love so much, we revisited the conversation to try to imagine, with a little more humility, what next year might bring. Below, chefs weigh in on the biggest restaurant trends they predict to find in a post-COVID-19 world.

Special occasion dining

“When we do dine in, it will be memorable. More exclusive types of dining experiences in the dining room—think tasting menus, private dining experiences that go above and beyond with ingredients and access. People will go out for a truly memorable dining experience where they feel safe and can expect an experience unlike anything they’ve had before.”— JoJo Ruiz, executive chef at Serea Coastal Cuisine and Lionfish in San Diego

"With all the cooking at home going on during the COVID-19 pandemic, dining out is starting to feel super special occasion again—tasting menus with wine pairings are a fun step in the opposite direction." — Cassidee Dabney, executive chef of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee

“In response to all that has happened this year, I believe next year will bring two polarizing approaches to dining. One that embraces the need for simpler, comforting and soul-nourishing cuisine and the other that functions as an escape and embraces frivolousness—allowing patrons to be both fancy and indulgent.” — Gemma Kamin-Korn, chef of Bar Beau in Williamsburg, New York

Deeper dives into Black foodways

“I believe that folks are taking more interest in the African diaspora and specifically what African-American foodways are in the scope of the American culinary market. I think we'll see a more focused conversation around ingredients like sweet potatoes and various greens or biscuits as they relate to Black folks and more specifically how they come from our agricultural and more agrarian roots. Families like the Conyers family in Manning, South Carolina, growing heritage sweet potatoes come to mind, or The Carter family of Philadelphia who have been growing watermelons and selling them on the corner of 84th and Lindbergh in Southwest Philadelphia for 50 years. Cybille and I served those very melons for the Black Labor Day pop up that we did on September 8th. I also think that there will be a rekindling under the fire of indigenous cuisines in America. Trends will be less "trendy" this year and more rooted as we look back on a year that has grounded many of us and brought our foundations and truths to the surface, in my opinion.” — Omar Tate, chef and founder of Honeysuckle Projects in Philadelphia

“I think the current state of the industry leaves the door wide open for more diverse voices and cultures from within the African Diaspora to thrive. We’ll see a lot more folks embracing the cultures that either aren’t often lauded in the mainstream or those that aren’t too concerned with the aesthetics of 'perfect plating' and pretension. Instead, properly centered narratives and stories celebrating the roots, histories, and traditions of these cultures such as the cuisine of Haiti or that of the Fulani people will get the reverence they deserve. As a result of this I also think there’ll be an even stronger push in specialty products from these cultures being packaged and more readily available for anyone willing to experiment. Perhaps a small batch Haitian Epis might catch your eye on a grocery store shelf, or you might even purchase a specially crafted Yaji spice from an online vendor. Either way, we’ll certainly find more ways to celebrate and support the chefs and artisans dedicating their talents towards bringing more awareness and assertive acclaim to these cultures.” — Cybille St.Aude-Tate, chef of Earthseed Provisions and Honeysuckle Projects in Philadelphia

Individualized tasting menus

“As diners feel more and more comfortable going out, the same old menus just won't cut it anymore. Dining out will really become something sought out for a unique experience. They want something created just for them, making it truly a reason to get out of the house and celebrate.” — Mariah Posadni, pastry chef of Common House Richmond in Virginia

“Small-group private dining will be hot. Restaurants that can provide safe, intimate spaces for small groups will be sought out at a premium.” — Ravi Kapur, chef and owner of Liholiho Yacht Club and Dear Inga in San Francisco

Heritage cooking

"I’m glad heritage cooking is trending, but it should be a trend that is here to stay. We (first-generation American chefs, immigrant chefs) didn’t 'show up' overnight and start cooking. The rise in recognition for immigrant cooking and heritage recipes has been a long time coming, and to be able to cook their families' food and to be showcased properly for it, is something first generation American chefs and immigrant chefs can celebrate. It’s high time these talented cooks get the spotlight they deserve and the spotlight on their cultures those vibrant cultures deserve. Overall, in the New Year, I expect people will start seeing cultures more holistically through food (e.g., Vietnamese food beyond banh mi and pho). When it comes to exposing diners to the new traditions—what it means to be Burmese-American, Filipino-American, Ethiopian-American, or Vietnamese-American—I look up to what chefs including Charles Phan, Tom Cunanan, and Andrea Nguyen have done for Filipino and Vietnamese chefs. They’ve opened a door to us being better represented this year and for the years to come." — Kevin Tien, chef of Moon Rabbit in Washington, DC

At-home restaurant experiences

“This year we, and many other restaurants across the globe, had to quickly pivot to expand into takeout and delivery, and I don't see that trend going away anytime soon. In 2021, it will evolve as chefs are creating new and interesting ways to bring the restaurant experience to life at home for guests. At our restaurants, paella became one of the most popular items on our to-go menu. The paella pan fit perfectly into a pizza box, while keeping the rice hot, so you had this element of presentation you'd get in the restaurant.” — Rick Billings, executive chef of José Andrés ThinkFoodGroup

"Restaurant-style meals packaged for the family will definitely keep trending in the year to come. Plant-based, healthy vegetarian dishes with seasonal ingredients and global flavor are here to stay in the future. Wonderfully curated meals with soul, taste, and creativity can be picked up at a favorite restaurant and ready on the table in a split second."  — Daniel Boulud, chef of Daniel, in New York City

“Chefs and restaurant owners will find a way to safely provide cool experiences in customers' homes. Some creative take-away options will emerge, and I’m hopeful that some risk-taking and more challenging concepts will trickle out towards the end of the year." — Evan Gaudreau, chef and owner of Post House in Charleston

“The biggest trend next year is going to (continue to) be how to be creative with to-go food. I think as much as I can about what I can do to make to-go dining more attractive to diners, whether it’s what we’re using for flatware and silverware or what we can do to appeal to a family for weeknight dinner, or a special 'date night' in.” — JoJo Ruiz

“It’s probably no surprise this year’s biggest trend (and likely next year’s as well) was to-go. Restaurants across the country, including fine-dining restaurants that rely heavily on presentation and overall experience, are having to pivot to provide these fantastic meals in guests’ homes. I don’t see this changing as we enter 2021.” — Gavin Fine, owner of Fine Dining Restaurant Group (opening a new concept in spring 2021 at The Cloudveil) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

“In response to guests looking for more privatized experiences, we're transforming our carryout options to include more whimsical and casual dishes that guests can enjoy at their leisure and in a place of their choosing.” — Chris Huerta, executive chef of Old Edwards Hospitality Group in Franklin, North Carolina

More virtual cooking classes

"Online, chef-driven virtual cooking classes—with accompanying chef food boxes for their recipes—will continue to expand in 2021. Many people will keep this fun way to get together with friends and family and be entertained at home while preparing a good meal and cooking along with a chef."— Daniel Boulud

Food Trends 2021
Credit: Getty Images

“With everyone having been hunkered down, more and more folks turned inwards about cultivating their own food resources and began cooking more as well. There is a thirst for knowledge again that we saw 10 years ago where cooking classes were really popular. I could see this as a launch point for more classes, as well as more community-based  and home gardens rising up.” — Geoff Rhyne, chef and founder of Red Clay Hot Sauce

Condiments

"With so many more people preparing more meals and washing more dishes than they have in decades, I think cooking with condiments and sauces will be a big trend. Whether you make your own chimichurri or sauerkraut or buy chili crisp by the bag-load, adding pre-prepped flavor to simple ingredients means dinner comes together easier and is often more exciting to eat. Plus condiments often have long shelf lives and can be stretched over a number of meals.” — Vivian Howard, television personality, cookbook author, and chef of Handy & Hot in Charleston

Tofu

“Sure, demand for tofu as a meat substitute is on the rise, but dishes like Andrea Nguyen's Mapo Tofu Spaghetti or sweet, spicy, crunchy Korean tofu and silken tofu (like we have on the menu at Moon Rabbit) will make people think about tofu in a whole new light in the New Year.” — Kevin Tien

Comfort food

“For 2021 the trends will go towards comfort and simplicity. This is due to the pandemic, and everyone looking for a sense of comfort and normalcy. Unfortunately, restaurants are also just trying to survive and have limited resources and staffing now, so that will also impact what we all do moving into 2021.” — Michael Schulson, chef and founder of Schulson Collective

“I think people will run to comfort food. Anything that reminds them of what it used to be like. Classic pizzas (no pineapple), burgers without a bunch of crazy toppings, real tacos (not fancy wraps), old-fashioned barbecue, mac and cheese, country fried steak, fried catfish, biscuits and gravy … you name it, as long as it tastes good, someone else makes it, and it’s not at your house!” — Erik Niel, chef of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga

“Given these new ways of 'dining,' I believe we will see a return to meals that focus on comfort. These comfort foods will cross all continents as people search for a variety of options. For example, I think birria tacos will have a big year 2021.” — Mary Attea, executive chef Musket Room in New York City

Birria Tacos Recipe
Credit: Greg Dupree

“[We’ll see] a return to comfort foods— including in an elevated way. Daube is an old heartwarming slow-cooked dish Louisianians cook in our homes, but now you'll see that type of cooking in restaurants. Other dishes like coq au vin will also take note in the new year.” — Meg Bickford, chef at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans

“I think restaurants and home cooks will continue to move into interesting but comfortable foods. There will likely be a greater focus on stew and curry. Curry can offer so much to the diner. It’s interesting, exciting, and comfortable and accessible.” — Matt Greene, executive chef of Common House Richmond in Virginia

Kindness

“2021 is the year of kindness. Without perspective and acts of kindness, we won’t move forward as an industry. No longer is it appropriate and enough to be the “only one in the room.” If you can connect someone to a publication, a brand opportunity etc., that might be the very thing that helps a business or a person survive.” — Paola Velez, pastry chef of La Bodega, Compass Rose, and Maydan in Washington, DC

Diversified businesses

“I think there will be a focus on chefs and restaurants looking to generate revenue through untraditional models. One tactic I can see being big is hosting zoom classes and building a meal kit/to-go brand. It would be similar to Blue Apron, but specific to the chef or restaurant. More and more of us in the restaurant industry are having to get more creative to be profitable—especially with diners being restricted from eating in restaurants due to local and state COVID regulations.” — Jorge Guzmán, chef/owner of Petite León in Minneapolis

“As we quickly started shipping food all over the country and doing zooms regionally and nationally we also were developing products to be sold online (cocktail mixers) or in stores (our own coffee). These businesses are very different to manage and require different skill sets than serving you brunch at Commander's Palace. So re-organizing businesses in our industry with an eye toward talent with different skills will be a need.” Meg Bickford, chef at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans

"Meal kits, virtual dinner and theater, and to-go tasting menus are all ways to reach a larger audience than just what you can fit at your restaurant.” — Mary Attea

More fermenting, preserving, and canning

“Fermentation is becoming really big again, same with canning and preserving. We saw a huge climb in this technique during COVID lockdowns, and it allowed us chefs to still be able to support our farms. We were able to buy ingredients farmers had on-hand even though we were not able to use them in the kitchen due to restrictions on dining. So we canned, preserved, pickled and fermented as much as we could. I think a lot of us fell in love again with this way of preparing food.” — Jorge Guzmán

"Preserving and canning all those herbs and veggies that you grew in your ‘quarantine garden.' Also seed and seedling swaps with friends and family." — Cassidee Dabney

"In the past year, you had millions of people getting really comfortable in the kitchens in ways they hadn’t before. So I think people are going to get a little more brave at taking on long-term projects like fermenting. Fermented veggies of all kinds—not just turning cucumbers into pickles—can elevate all kinds of dishes or be a really interesting snack on their own." — Robert Irvine, chef and host of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible

Political advocacy

“2021 will see independent restaurant chefs and operators settle into a more long-term form of political advocacy that isn't just reactive to the pandemic. More than ever before, 2020 presented opportunities to shape conversations on things like economic and tax policies, public health, and food insecurity. That's been one of the double-edged swords of the pandemic: while our businesses were being gutted during shelter-in-place, many of us had an opportunity to come up for air and notice our lack of representation for the first time. And then try to start fixing it.” — Tyler Akin, chef-partner of Le Cavalier in Wilmington, Delaware, and chef-owner of Stock in Philadelphia

Restaurant industry overhaul

“We believe that the future of the restaurant business is an unseating of our pasts. Restaurants are unstable and unsustainable. This truth has been being realized for years and reached its current zenith in 2020. What has emerged from the trauma and turmoil of our collective stresses have been restaurants pivoting into models that are more hybrid, take out, and curated grocery. This change is quite possibly permanent. Think of concepts such as Broham Grocery by chef Jonny Rhoades in Houston or the Grey Market by chef Mashama Bailey in Savannah. These models are an evolution that are a vanguard of what's possible. We are taking a very similar approach with our new concept to be called Honeysuckle Projects in West Philadelphia. We have seen a refocus on community and combating food access. There has been a recentering; food is human. Politics and social hierarchy that's clouded that purpose are being put to bed in favor of an awakening to a universal realization. That food and the service of it are an integral part of our being and not a luxury. While elegant plating and the beautification of food is not going anywhere—nor should it—we find that the fuss of food is being undressed, becoming approachable and egalitarian again.” — Omar Tate and Cybille St.Aude-Tate

“I think there will be an emphasis on practices to support the health and vitality of the restaurant industry, including an examination of overall price and tipping structures. I hope to have continued conversations with consumers on how they can help promote sustainability in the industry. We’ll see even more reliance on local sourcing and investing in the local economy. Chef collaboration and conversations to promote greater understanding of culture and cooking. And in the latter part of 2021, I hope we’re bringing joy back into dining experiences.” — Amy Brandwein, chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina in Washington, DC

“If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that our entire system, from top to bottom, is simply broken. The pandemic exposed so many cracks in our industry and our society, and we cannot continue operating as we did before. In 2021 I think we will see—or I really hope to see—restaurants stepping up for their communities in big ways. Community outreach and charitable initiatives will be baked into the business model of restaurants ranging from your local neighborhood spot to big dining destinations.” — Daniel Humm, chef of Eleven Madison Park in New York City

“Well, none of us could have predicted 2020, so I am reluctant to predict anything for 2021. That said, one can hope that one of the gifts of this tumultuous year will be a more equitable 2021 and beyond. That 2021 will bring with her a place for everyone at the table. 2020 exposed so many vulnerabilities in restaurants, but we also came together like never before.” — Katy Kindred, chef of Kindred in Davidson, North Carolina

Destination restaurants

“Given the current circumstances of things, It seems that more and more people will be looking to seek refuge from the city and search out dining destinations in more secluded areas where they can have a high quality experience with a bit more space to themselves. Between the need for open spaces and restrictions on international travel, I think that domestic and drive-to destinations will become much more popular in 2021.” — Eric Leveillee, executive chef of The DeBruce in Livingston Manor, New York

Mushrooms

"As planet-based and flexitarian diets become more popular and people seek out foods that are equally good for the environment and themselves, there is no doubt that consumers will turn to products made from the best, sustainable ingredients, like mushrooms. For our flagship Eat the Change snack product, we created a mushroom jerkywood-smoking portobellos and criminis with hickory wood so that they absorb all those traditional smoky flavors you’d get in a meat jerky, and then infusing habaneros and mustard seeds. Mushrooms are an amazing canvas to take on other flavors." — Spike Mendelsohn, co-founder and chef, Eat the Change

Alternative sugars

“While sugar alcohols have ruled the alternative sugar market for a long time, new alternative sugars in granulated and liquid forms are beginning to make a major debut. A favorite of mine is maple sugar. It's an excellent alternative to regular sugar with a low glycemic index, so it's great for diabetics and it doesn't taste too much like maple but still offers a full body of flavor. It is my favorite alternative sugar, especially in our Keto brownies. Another great one is coconut sugar, which you can also find as coconut brown sugar now.” — Chef Simone, founder of Art Delectables in Los Angeles

Hygiene precautions

“Even after everyone’s vaccinated, I don’t see restaurants overbooking and cramming as many guests in as possible just to earn a quick buck for a few years at least. Sanitation, spacing, and an overall concern for the guest’s comfort levels will remain a high priority, not just in practice but also in showing—I think it will also bleed into new restaurant build-outs and concepts. Pricing of food and beverage will need to be vetted with more scrutiny because the old thinking of how many seats can we fit in here to increase the bottom line may not be so cut and dry anymore.” — Malcolm McMillian, chef de cuisine of Benne on Eagle in Asheville

"There's no doubt that 2021 will be the year for comfortable outdoor dining. By adding single-use throws to chairs, updating heating systems, and adding beautiful fire pits and inviting overhead lighting, restaurants like The Wine Garden and Madison's are able to stay open longer into the winter, and open up earlier in the spring.” — Chris Huerta, executive chef of Old Edwards Hospitality Group in Franklin, North Carolina

FW Pro | How Restaurants Are Preparing For Coronavirus
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"I think the biggest thing I foresee is the permanent shift to single serve items and a heightened sense of environmental impact, partially brought on by COVID's impact. Shared bottles are going to be shifted away from, and you will see more and more single serve portions that will then result in a more focused effort on waste/sustainability. (Think about straws). — Geoff Rhyne, chef and founder of Red Clay Hot Sauce

Even more local

Supporting local is more important than ever. At Commander’s we are always doing so, supporting our quail guy and working with our friends doing amazing herbs and vegetables nearby, but continuing to do so will be even more important as we head into 2021.” — Meg Bickford

“Communities will go to the extra effort to support local businesses and put money back into their communities.” — Ravi Kapur

Quick service and delivery-only

“The quick-service restaurant space will continue to explode due to COVID-19, with people’s inability to experience fine dining … and the want to support small businesses. With restaurants finding more ways to stay alive, we will see fine dining, ghost kitchens, QSR, and delivery meld into a very happy place. I’m here for it!” — Khoran Horn, chef and founder of Stripp’d and forthcoming Guard House Cafe in Philadelphia

“Ghost kitchens, delivery, and home meal sectors will continue to increase with a desire to have restaurant experiences at home—and hopefully travel and dining will bounce back rapidly when COVID is contained with people ready to enjoy socializing with friends and family.” — Truman Jones, executive chef at Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia

Cities Capping Restaurant Delivery Fees
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“I think we are going to continue to see the creation of new delivery-only brands. We started talking about the future of delivery technology and developing C3 almost two years ago, and when we launched in February of this year, it just happened to coincide with the pandemic. With these delivery-only brands, we will continue to see comfort food like burgers and fried chicken because the demand is high and those foods travel well, but will also bring innovative—experimental food that’s less familiar. Maybe it will take the form of experimental cross-cultural combinations we haven’t seen before, but that work because you don’t have to run them through a restaurant.” — Martin Heierling, chief culinary officer at sbe and C3

Hope

“My trend prediction for next year is more of a hope. I think the trend will be dining in restaurants, at tables, with servers, and people all around you!” — Erik Niel

“We as an industry have always been ready for a challenge, and we have a very big one ahead of us. The wounds of 2020 are not likely to heal in 2021, and the scars will last much longer than anticipated. But, we as an industry have always been resilient. We thrive on the rush of a busy service and we pride ourselves on the fact that when all else fails, we can put our head down and do the work. That is what we have always done, that is what we are good at.” — Emily McDaniel and Rob McDaniel

"All we know is that we don't know what is in store. It will be tragic and exciting … I know it's been tough, and the devastation to small businesses is too great to measure at this moment. However, as we've seen throughout history possibly the greatest innovations and evolution will happen after tragic and traumatic events.” — Ravi Kapur