A look at six ways chefs are responding to the shifting consumer trend towards comfort food and the use of cheaper ingredients, all driven by the cost-of-living crisis.
The cost-of-living crisis has led people to look for ways to save money, including on their grocery bills which explains why we’re seeing a resurgence in comfort food and cheaper ingredients. Innovative chefs are embracing this trend by using humble ingredients to create gourmet dishes and twists on old favourites.
TREND 1: ELEVATE VEGETABLES
With the rise of plant-based diets, vegetables have gone from a side piece to the main event. And as cooks try new ways to cope with costs, they look for extra flavour in humble veggies like carrots and beets – cue fire cooking! They char, smoke, grill and ‘dirty’ roast veg (straight on the embers) to give a smoky, bitter depth to veggies like carrots, beets, squash and sweetcorn.
Then there are mushrooms. Consumers can’t get enough of the umami-rich meaty vegetables, giving chefs carte blanche to experiment with morels or maitake.
Some of the most exciting dishes are made from the staple vegetable, the potato, arguably the most versatile vehicle for texture and flavour play. For example, French fries make way for tater tots, layered chips, Hasselback and mashed potato puffs.
Meanwhile, at the newly opened The Bedford by Martha Stewart (Las Vegas), ‘Martha’s Smashed Baked Potato’ is theatrically smashed tableside before being hand shaped and loaded with creme fraiche, chives and bacon … or for an extra $100, upgraded with Golden Osetra caviar.
TREND 2: GOURMET SANDWICHES
The humble sandwich has been upgraded; it’s been getting gourmet with fine-dining flair and twisted childhood favourites. No doubt, inspired by the ‘gourmet burger’ revolution of years gone.
Even fine dining chefs and trendy restaurants are doubling down on signature sandwiches, like NYC’s Unapologetic Foods (Dhamaka, Adda, Semma), who have a cult following for their Indian-inspired fried chicken sandwiches at Rowdy Rooster.
The secret to a gourmet sandwich hit is to break the rules and treat the ‘bread & filling’ formula as a blank canvas.
Some chefs look towards global formats like Mexican tortas or Vietnamese Banh Ml when they want something more unique. In contrast, others stick closer to tradition with peanut butter and jelly with spicy chilli jam, among other favourites such as umami-laden cheese toasties with kombu butter, mushrooms and soy sauce.
The idea of the ultimate sandwich is no longer a standard deli sub but has evolved into something more. Subs are now oversized, filled with ingredients like pastrami or meatball sliders to make a hungry customer a happy customer! And when you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there are even muffulettas (fully loaded Sicilian round loaves), stacked focaccias and cutlet sandos.
TREND 3: HEARTWARMING TOASTIES
In stressful times, consumers lean into ‘no frills’ cooking – i.e. simple, delicious, cheap and cheerful dishes … like toast! Indeed ‘things on toast’ produce some of the most viral TikTok content, and everyone seeks out ‘the next avocado toast’ – think pizza toast, custard toast, ricotta toast, etc.
Simplicity and versatility drive the popularity of these dishes, which can be personalised to taste and use up what’s in the fridge/pantry; oranges, hot sauce, anchovies, anything goes (on toast!).
And it’s not all about artisan sourdough. The toast trend leans on warmth, comfort and simple pleasures, including plain white sliced bread! Indeed, in its recent annual report, John Lewis (UK) noted sales of sliced white have increased by 17%.
TREND 4: UPGRADED COMFORT FOOD
Faced with uncertainty, consumers lean into familiar, ‘can’t fail’ favourites that scream ‘yummy home cooking’ – think bangers n’ mash, shepherd’s pie, chicken and dumplings, lasagne, sticky toffee pudding. But as they grow ever more upskilled and experimental, home cooks give these dishes little ‘cheffy’ twists – e.g. adding soy and miso when they cook their mince to give their pie or lasagne an umami makeover.
American classics have become a go-to here, as even those who have never stepped foot stateside see the allure of staple comforts like fried chicken ‘n’ biscuits, patty melts, mac ‘n’ cheese, meatloaf with lashings of gravy or pecan pie.
It’s not just home cooking. More and more restaurants look to satisfy our simplest cravings with food that is meant to feel like a warm hug – like trendy new restaurant Supperland (Charleston), a self-described ‘Southern steakhouse meets church potluck’ whose drool-worthy menu includes the likes of sausage gravy croquettes, pot roast, porridge bread, banana cream pie and chocolate peanut butter sundae. This Is food that is meant to be gobbled down and shared with loved ones, rather than on Instagram, i.e. it doesn’t need to be perfect or even ‘pretty’, but it does need to taste darn good.
TREND 5: TWISTS ON ITALIAN CUISINE
People have been doubling down on ‘forever favourite’ Italian cuisine. They’re leaning into the simple but comforting food with a few hacks, twists and rustic trattoria inspiration to make their meal even more satisfying than before!
At home, pasta is the ultimate budget-friendly pantry favourite and the star of midweek meals like comforting spaghetti bolognese – but also the likes of cacio Pepe, penne alla vodka, Aglio olio (garlic and oil) and pasta amatriciana (with guanciale, tomato, pecorino), i.e. unfussy, flavour-forward pasta. Risotto also provides carb-y comfort, and creative cooks riff on classic flavours – e.g. mushroom and marmite risotto; why not!
Restaurants are also on board, as pared-back trattoria and homestyle Italian concepts abound – serving dishes like chicken parm, slow-cooked ragu, rustic bruschetta, pizza rossa (bread, pomodoro sauce, salt and olive oil), fritto misto and fresh-baked focaccia. And cooks look to showcase traditionally cheaper and humble ingredients, making their own focaccia, ricotta, mortadella and more.
TREND 6: NOSTALGIC FOOD FAVOURITES
Faced with bleak headlines, consumers look to food for escapism – bolstering the trend for all things nostalgic. In the savoury stakes, that means simple childhood favourites like pizza, nuggets, fish fingers, tater tots, spag bol, etc. Classic school sandos, like tuna salad and egg mayo, are also firmly in favour. All you need is a lunch box and some pickled onion crisps!
For those with a sweet tooth, it’s all about simple-but-delicious faves like ice cream sundaes, ‘yellow cake’, apple pie, Bakewell tart, banoffee pie, bread and butter pudding, or cookies and milk. Indeed, popular fast food chain Sonic (USA) made waves with their take on the latter – fried cookie dough served with a side of vanilla soft serve for dipping.
Not to be outdone, McDonald’s (USA) went one step further in the nostalgic stakes by introducing Happy Meals for grown-ups, aka limited edition boxes complete with Big Mac or 10-piece nuggets, fries, drink and a toy, of course. And for those who want to give their nostalgic treats a boozy kick – take a cue from Kidfresh (USA), who launched a limited range of wines designed for pairing with your kid’s leftovers! Yep, we’re talking Chardonnay with chicken nuggets and Reserve Red with mac n’ cheese.
HOW TO APPLY THESE TRENDS TO YOUR BUSINESS
- Identify ways to elevate products from “humble” to “hero”, such as a recipe that turns a butternut squash into a meal centrepiece.
- How can you add theatre, experience and interaction to vegetables in a hospitality setting – e.g. potatoes ‘smashed’ tableside, carving cauliflower shawarma to order.
- How can your products form a component part of humble hero formats like sandwiches, toast or soups – ask yourself, what goes well in/on bread?
- Italian food screams comfort… How can your brand or range deliver simple but comforting Italian food but with a twist in ingredient, format, shape, size or delivery mechanic? e.g. pepperoni and cheese croissants, lasagne burgers, pasta bakes with unexpected ingredients.
- What other cuisines could you apply the Ital-easy approach to? Many different cuisines can be equally as comforting and present opportunities to makeover humble formats (e.g. Middle Eastern kebab, American fried chicken, Thai curry).
- How can you help consumers escape and re-connect with a childhood favourite flavour, occasion, ritual or experience (without compromising on product/experience)?
- How can you give childhood favourites a ·grown up’ touch – e.g. boozy twist, gourmet ingredients.
Insights from The Food People