The modern diet is becoming increasingly complex. Not just a matter of meat-eaters and vegetarians, we have a growing population of vegans and gluten-frees, as well as people with an intolerance to foods such as nuts, eggs and crustaceans. It has led to the creation of alternatives, yet one of the simplest of ingredients can cater to all: potatoes.
With so many dietary requirements to keep in mind, potatoes can be looked upon as menu saviours for chefs and operators.
“The humble chip is enjoying a focus as an ideal base for creative servings,” says Nic Townsend, trade marketer for Farm Frites UK and Ireland. “It continues to be a consumer favourite to accompany a range of meat or vegetarian dishes and allows for the spectrum from health to indulgence to cater for flexitarian diets.”
Classic diets such as Atkins may have omitted potatoes in the past, but this comforting and well-known food should not be neglected by restaurants.
Potatoes can be a win-win for both operator and customer, but what chefs need to be aware of is that a little bit of effort and innovation goes a long way. A side of chips, a bed of mash or a handful of roast potatoes can fill a plate at very little cost, and thinking about how you can season and serve them can do wonders for increasing quality, appeal and price.
“As the trend for premiumisation continues to grow, there is a real appetite for operators to be serving new styles of potatoes, particularly as an upgrade option,” says Catherine White, senior product manager for communications at McCain Foodservice. “In the last year alone, we have seen skin-on sales surge by 65%, while reports show a 36% increase in the number of restaurants offering sweet potato since 2013.”
Skin-on chips, waffle fries and sweet potato fries have become more common on casual dining menus in the last few years. They still denote high quality, but they are no longer new or a special, instead becoming the standard expected by customers – oven chips like those they can get at home won’t cut it. Therefore, if you’re still serving chips or fries that can’t carry adjectives such as ‘skin-on’, ‘triple-cooked’ or ‘hand-cut’, you’re likely to be leaving your guests disappointed.
Operators can utilise potatoes even more so in the form of chips through the popularity of loaded or dirty fries. In this instance, the chips are a hefty side or a meal in their own right, but still mainly consist of cost-friendly potato, with a few tasty additions on top. How exciting these toppings are is up to the chef, but can include truffle oil and parmesan, chilli and jalapeños, and bacon and caramelised onions, à la Bath St Burger.
So popular have loaded fries become that the UK has adopted an example that is a classic in Canada – poutine. Poutine combines chips with cheese curds and gravy and can be found in many street food markets as well as creeping onto restaurant menus.
Operators who want to be truly innovative can look at other ways of getting trendy chip dishes onto their menus. Honest Burgers serves its chips with rosemary salt – there are no variations besides allowing customers to order sauces on the side. To tap into the poutine trend without compromising its USP, Honest launched a poutine burger special, with shoestring fries rather than its standard chip, to create a completely different potato experience.
“The joy of the potato is that as well as the firm favourites like fries or mash, whatever hot new crazes are trending, potatoes can fit right in,” says Andrea Deutschmanek, Lamb Weston’s Country marketing manager for UK and Republic of Ireland. “Operators can fire up their menus by partnering potatoes with exciting flavours, tapping into the trends from around the world that are so popular with today’s flavour hungry consumers.”
For potatoes with a difference, kff managing director Chris Beckley advises that chefs rustle up potato rosti or potato gratin as an alternative to mash or chips. Even the flexibility of the jacket potato can make it an ideal choice for toppings. Or do as Bannisters sales director Marie Medhurst recommends and fill baked potato skins to be used for starters, sharing platters, light lunches or side dishes.
Of course, there are alternatives to traditional servings that can make potatoes more exciting or unique, but, while we’re seeing potatoes being celebrated on menus, we’re also witnessing an increase in alternatives to potatoes themselves. Despite the key role that potatoes play in a person’s diet, other foods are taking on the look and shape of fries and mash that are turning customers’ heads.
It may be surprising to discuss produce that can be used as a substitute for potatoes, but hear us out. When McCain Foodservice teamed up with Google last year to study how people search for eating out online, the biggest rising star for searches related to chips and fries wasn’t ‘sweet potato’ or ‘dirty’, but ‘halloumi’.
Tracking alternatives like halloumi fries and their popularity with customers is important. It’s not about replacing the classic potato chip or mash, but looking at how you can bring other products in to strengthen this section of the menu, similar to how sweet potato fries have joined regular fries.
Halloumi fries may be on-trend, but their appeal is more limited than potato versions due to dietary requirements. Fortunately, operators can choose from a variety of healthier foods such as similar starchy root vegetables, like salsify. With two varieties – black and white – with a mild artichoke flavour when cooked, salsify can be treated like most other starchy foods and boiled, sautéed, fried and roasted.
Operators can appeal even more to vegans and vegetarians through the use of popular vegetables such as aubergine to make chips, or make like Dishoom and Bundobust and choose lady’s fingers for okra fries.
For alternatives that also cater to the demand for ingredients and flavours from around the world, Funnybones Foodservice development chef Tom Styman-Heighton recommends chefs look to the Caribbean.
“Tostones are slices of green plantain which are peeled, sliced and fried before being crushed and then fried again until they are crisp and golden brown,” he says. “They are an extremely popular side dish in South America and the Caribbean and are a handy shape for dipping, so can be paired with a garlic dip or a traditional accompaniment like a mojo sauce made with oranges, limes and garlic. Yuca Fries are made from the tuberous root also known as cassava. They can be served as a snack simply sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice or accompanied by a variety of Latin toppings such as hot sauce, pico de gallo or salsa verde.”
It’s not only chips that vegetables can be used for: cauliflowers are being mashed and squash can be grated to replicate hash browns. Their use in what would traditionally be potato servings only caters to the demand for healthier options, but potatoes definitely still have their place on the plate. Whether made by hand with extra attention or topped with a variety of ingredient combinations, potatoes can still be a winner for both guest and operator.