What is in this article?:
- Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse debate culinary authenticity
- Bret Thorn's response
The two menu experts face off on the value of authenticity when it comes to restaurant menus.
In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they contemplate the value of authenticity on restaurant menus.
The value of authenticity on restaurant menus
Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse considers the use of the term “authentic” on restaurant menus.
Bret, is it just my imagination or has the trendy but nebulous term “authentic” become a bit of a lightning rod? There have been some rhetorical slings and arrows from food writers and industry analysts who’ve railed against unfettered use of that word, along with other au courant buzzwords like “rustic” and “artisanal.” While it’s true that there aren’t any accepted standards of identity that govern their use, they sure make people feel good — sort of the menu marketing equivalent of empty calories.
As for consumers, they apparently can’t get enough of “authentic” foods. Studies by researchers like Technomic Inc., indicate that authenticity is the single most important factor in choosing an ethnic dish, though it’s unclear precisely how diners judge its presence.
A few years back some leading New York City restaurateurs nearly came to blows over the question of whether it’s even possible to produce real ethnic menu items in this country. After all, many ingredients are domestically grown, the water they’re cooked in here is different, the equipment’s not exactly the same and so on. The best that we can hope for, then, is an imitation of the real thing, a dish that recalls but doesn’t honestly replicate the original.
I think that when patrons demand authenticity, what they really want is something that tastes great. Ethnic ingredients are likely key indicators, and many chains have stepped up to the plate. Rubio’s featured a special Mango-Habanero Ono Taco topped with a smoky red chile sauce consisting of guajillo, ancho and red jalapeño peppers. While that dish might not actually be found on the Baja Peninsula, the smartly chosen ingredients were highly evocative of place and taste. Similarly, Romano’s Macaroni Grill offered a Parmesan-Crusted Veal Chop finished with prosciutto and truffle-mushroom demi-glace, providing customers an inexpensive, Tuscan-inspired treat.
EARLIER: Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn address service levels at restaurants
Technomic says that having dishes prepared by someone native to the area is important, too. This suggests that operators should aggressively communicate all that they’re doing to meet customer expectations in this regard, and they should be extra smart about how they position and promote these items. And this doesn’t just apply to foreign foods: local and regional American products can be seen in this light as well.
The perception of authenticity clearly adds value. But at the end of the day, it appears that the term will join the pantheon of other powerful but undefined culinary descriptors like “natural” and “fresh.” What do you think about all this, Bret? Is it just a tempest in a teapot or is it worth serious discussion?