NEW YORK -- Retailers have long known that today's hot chef or restaurant offering very often becomes tomorrow's supermarket darling.
In anticipation of the National Restaurant Association's annual Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago, SN interviewed several chefs from all over the country to get a jump on the next "big" item.
Food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman, who has also given cooking demonstrations at supermarket chains, is delighted that supermarkets now carry "fresh herbs all the time."
"It makes my life easier to have herbs like cilantro, lemon grass, savory, dill and mint available all year-round," he said, noting the availability of either fresh-bunched or packaged formats. "There's a huge difference between fresh and dried, and the ease of preparing fresh herbs is unsurpassed. You just put them into your food. "
Recently, the Connecticut resident was scheduled to make three appearances at Wegmans Food Markets in Allentown, Pa., Bridgewater, N.J. and Princeton, N.J., to prepare the traditional Tuscan dish of sauteed sausages with grapes that appears in his cookbook, "How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food" (Macmillan, 1998). For these type of demos, Bittman likes to choose dishes that are "really easy," requiring two or three ingredients only.
The traditional Italian cuisine Bittman will profile has also inspired Amy Scherber, founder and owner of "Amy's Bread" in New York City. Scherber, a nominee in this year's James Beard Foundation Awards in the pastry chef category, has created a new line of "crusty, very rustic Italian" artisanal organic breads.
"New York had always been a dinner roll kind of town," she said, citing the surge of new restaurant openings and the public's exposure to European "bread culture" as factors turning the tide in favor of her new, hearty loaves.
Scherber wanted to make more organic products not only for herself but also for her customers. In the process of opening her third retail outlet in Manhattan, Scherber also sells her loaves in the city's Zabar's and several D'Agostino Supermarkets. She is a big fan of letting consumers sample what bread is really about.
"Customers should see and smell bread," she said.
Chef Wylie Dufresne, the executive chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food in New York City's burgeoning Lower East Side, has been cooking with "nuts in many forms" to expand his personal culinary repertoire.
"Nuts add texture and flavor," he said. Dufresne uses walnuts, almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts in such dishes as black cumin consomme with pistachio and pistachio oil, sea bass with cauliflower and almond puree, and desserts such as apricot crumble with pine nut ice cream.
A big fan of fresh produce, he's out shopping at the city's Union Square Greenmarket four days a week, where he "likes to find out what they have and work around it."
Greg Higgins, owner and executive chef of Higgins in Portland, Ore., and another nominee for this year's Beard awards in the best chef, Northwest/Hawaii category, also believes in supporting local produce and uses his restaurant's open kitchen to share information about his latest finds.
After they eat, diners often ask him about a particular vegetable. "They say, 'I never had golden beets,' and then ask where they can buy them."
At Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., the acclaimed restaurant founded by iconic chef Alice Waters and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the emphasis is still on "market cuisine." Gilbert Pilgram, one of six chefs who run the establishment, says the latest trend is "whatever's fresh and delicious this week, because next week it's something else.
"It's about creating your menu around what's available, rather than the other way around," he said, adding that the same approach works for consumers, too.
Ideally, supermarkets would have a special corner in the produce department featuring the "buyer's special" -- the finest, premium-priced item available from distributors that week that occupies the place of prominence.