Looking deep inside the consumer palate

06 Sep 2015
4 min read
The ongoing ‘Future of Food’ report from CatchOn explores the changing face of hospitality and the trends that are currently tickling our taste buds. Director of Strategy for the project, Virginia Ngai, talks to FOUR about consumer behaviour and topics that will help shape the future of the industry in today’s food obsessed world…

After publishing a on CatchOn’s project, which highlighted the powerful effect that interaction with the chef can have on the food you eat, it seemed important to delve a little deeperinto the subject. We are allaware of clever marketing tricks from advertising companies that help to try and sway our opinions, but this project showed how even adding a touch of the chef’s personality to a dishbyexplaining the story behind the dish, or the provinance of the ingredients, could dramatically improve the diners perception of their enjoyment of the dish. This report shows us that trends within the food industry play an important part of shaping the future to come. By talking to Virginia Ngai, Director of Strategy for CatchOn, perhaps we can gain a little more insight in how we can identify trends and what part we play in this.

Future of Food

I’ve always loved writing and have been involved in communications throughout my career but it wasn’t a natural linear progression as I’ve been a journalist, a copywriter in an international advertising agency as well as driving digital growth for an international PR agency. This made me a natural fit for CatchOn where the hybrid nature of our agency is what makes us unique. Coming from diverse personal and professional backgrounds, we are a team of multi-disciplinary specialists with a combined expertise in marketing, journalism, branding and social media practices. We conceptualise brands and communicate them through compelling narratives, PR campaigns and witty marketing initiatives designed to win hearts and minds. Our aim is to communicate brands as storytellers and approach PR brief as brand strategists, not as publicists.

We do a lot of strategic brand and concept development work in hospitality and have noticed that food is in the intersection of everything — travel, art, design, media, wellness, etc. Several years ago, we started an exploration into the Future of Food and have published 2 subsequent reports. This study is just part of that ongoing process. Ultimately, we do this because it informs our work and helps us stay on top of trends and changing consumer behaviour.

From a chef’s perspective, it underscores the importance of communication skills to be successful today. It’s because diners crave interaction with the chef. They want to make that connection and understand what inspired the chef to create a certain dish, where the ingredients came from and if any special techniques were used. We’re more of an engaged and educated consumer today. We photograph our dishes before we eat, we experiment in the kitchen, have food blogs, make our jams, etc. We not only look for the primal experience of the food, but also the emotional association it engenders. There’s something instinctively comforting when you know who prepared your food and their intention / inspiration behind it.

I have to clarify, contrary to what’s been reported, we didn’t go into this study with the premise of “fooling” diners. We already knew chefs have so much sway. After all, they are today’s rock stars. The question was exactly how much, and if there was a way we could attach some value or means of measuring that influence. The intervention of the inferior ingredients in version 2 was a means of testing if diners’ palates could be altered by the chef’s personality. Ultimately, if version 2 rated higher, it’s because our respondents valued human connection more, enough for it to compensate for the inferior ingredients.

Moving forward – Third culture chefs

In terms of trends and topics that are particularly standing out, we’re seeing aconfluence of cuisines that reflects our hunger for innovation. There was a time when diners and pundits turned up their collective noses at any whiff of fusion. Today, however, there’s a greater appetite for food that defies conventional classification. Dishes are ‘inflected’ by mismatched ingredients or prepared in ways that question traditional techniques. All rules are off the table.

“No reservations” also applies to the way “Third Culture” chefs are challenging our notion of what a cuisine should be. Their innovations are inspired by their ethnicities, history, childhood memories, sense of identity, and place. They’re cross-breeding culinary traditions, techniques, and ingredients in ways previously unimaginable. This seismic shift in thinking represents the greatest cross-cultural exchange in modern times, reminiscent only of the ancient Silk Roadand spice trade. That this is happening is not news. That we embrace it, is.

We have Korean temple food at La Bernardin in New York. At Acme in Sydney, Italian macaroni sauced with braised pig’s head is prepared in the style of a Filipino sisig. Chef Chris Jaeckle prepares an XO sauce where Chinese sausage and canola oil is replaced with hot soppressata and extra-virgin olive oil. In Tonka, Melbourne, guests enjoy burrata with coriander relish and charred roti. Asia de Cuba offers Asian Latin flavors, such as shrimp churros with coconut curry in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, and New York. The cultural and culinary combinations are endless.

Connecting withour roots

Yet in a world of growing globalisation we are witnessing regional cuisines rising to the fore, with some restaurants specializing in just one region. There’s a growing movement to preserve and document culinary artisanal traditions that have survived generations simply because theycame out of family kitchens. We’re seeing more self-trained chefs launching restaurants, more men cooking at home, the continued move away from any notion of fine dining, the growing influence of street food, and the popularity of culinary tourism.

Find out more information about the CatchOn projecthere