Breaking the Fast
By George M. Sideras, CEC
The oft-heard phrase, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” is not an additional opportunity to sell more food or for our mothers to admonish us about our dining habits, but rather a very basic biological need. The body requires refueling after a prolonged absence of nourishment to replenish the precipitously low levels of glycogen in the bloodstream. But biological implications aside, what is the real nature of this meal? No meal is so abused and forgotten. In fact cereal manufacturers observe that sales growth is relatively flat, and most new growth comes from capturing existing customers by new marketing efforts. How does a meal that is so important fail to capture the imagination of the public?
It seems that the perfect breakfast would be one that could be plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter for heating; consumed in the car while talking on the phone in rush-hour traffic; not stain our clothes; be nutritionally sound; and satisfy our craving for carbohydrates. Yet breakfast should be more than a rushed meal, and should set the tone for the day, not just satisfy a basic nutritional need. It’s a business opportunity that shows some promise — commercially prepared breakfast consumption in the United States rose from an average of 0.4 meals per week per person to 0.7, according to Meal Consumption Behavior — 2000, a report by the National Restaurant Association.
Breakfast is really divided into two distinct markets, the sit-down breakfast and the ubiquitous grab-and-go. According to a 1996 Gallup Survey of Americans’ breakfast behaviors, about 30% of Americans eat breakfast outside of the home and of these, about half ask for it to go. Each market is unique, but this article will focus on upscale breakfast and current trends in that segment — remembering that this can serve as a source of inspiration for the other segment.
The upscale breakfast is a growing phenomenon that appears to have taken root on weekends around the country in the form of brunches at hotels, country clubs and white-tablecloth restaurants. Aside from meeting nutritional needs, there’s a certain element of luxury and leisure associated with this primarily weekend meal. With this new style of breakfast comes new innovations and new sensations in plate presentations and flavor profiles.
One of my favorite examples of an upscale breakfast was shared with my wife at the Compton Hotel in San Francisco. Although it was several years ago, I can still picture it. The small, European-style hotel had several European newspapers, starched linen and a professionally trained and attired wait staff. Chef Bradley Ogden, with his highly capable staff, had made this hotel famous for its breakfast by taking the meal to a new level. The menu was unique and played upon the classics of modern European cuisine. First course consisted of banana-nut bread French toast encrusted with macadamia nuts and served with warmed coconut syrup and Vermont maple syrup. The second course was perfectly poached eggs on a kitchen-made cheese biscuit, stacked with pepper-smoked ham, served with roasted-jalapeño hollandaise, and garnished with fresh jicama slaw. Combine this with house-made preserves and a fabulous cup of coffee, and all was right with the world. These subtle twists on breakfast using the repertory of classical cuisine are at the core of modern culinary trends.
Bacon ‘n’ eggs ‘n’ sausage
Pork-product proteins still are traditional breakfast mainstays. Most bacon and pork sausage products differ very little in terms of flavor and style. However, regional variations occur; one area prefers sugar-cured bacon, while another prefers heavily smoked, unsweetened bacon. Flavor trends can be found in white-tablecloth settings with chefs offering triple-thick-cut, maple, black-pepper glazed, Cajun-flavored and, in a new twist on an old idea, veal bacon. On the technology front, the introduction of precooked strips both in foodservice and retail has been successful, but achieving consistent quality can be a struggle.
Sausages offer greater opportunity to push the envelope; by their very nature, they’re meant to be enhanced. Traditional sausage links and patties continue to dominate the marketplace. Once again, regional preferences dictate flavor profiles, shapes and styles. One region may prefer whole-hog sausage with sage, while in another region, a blander sausage with a natural-casing bite is the reigning favorite. Traditional ethnic sausages are becoming more commonplace with the Hispanic-influenced chorizo leading the way. New flavor combinations, such as apple-cinnamon and maple, are showing up on mainstream menus. Appearing in more adventurous brunches are sausages with Thai-flavored curries and variations on Southwestern flavor profiles.
Eggs remain breakfast mainstays. We’re familiar with all the traditional methods of cooking them, yet there remains a plethora of less-common techniques and recipes. Classical cooking always revered the egg, and created innumerable applications. It’s sometimes said that the pleats in a chef’s toque represents the variety of ways that a chef can perfectly prepare an egg. So serious was this task that the journey chef was not only required to provide his own knives but his own omelet pan. The research and development chef truly believes that all new food products are rooted in culinary tradition. One only needs to look at the enormous success of the Egg McMuffin to notice its roots in the classic eggs Benedict. While the resulting product is no longer the same, its beginnings are deeply tied to the old culinary tradition.
Old breakfast, new tricks
Ethnic creations appear on menus with subtle twists. Strata, the famous oven-baked Italian custard mixed with stale bread, is now being mixed with a variety of flavors. Items such as baked Brie strata with wild mushrooms are becoming commonplace. Variations on old classics are being interpreted across the country with new iterations of eggs Benedict leading the way. Almost daily, we’re seeing poached eggs on various breads — focaccia, sourdough, flavored biscuits and bagels — being served with hollandaise variations. Modification of the hollandaise sauce can include an assortment of fresh herbs, roasted vegetables, and even some old classics such as Maltese blood oranges and béarnaise-tarragon infusions.
Omelets are the hallmark of a chef’s breakfast skills, and are appearing with new and innovative fillings: roasted vegetables, salsa and pico de gallo. One particularly tasty variation is stuffed with crisp apple and extra-sharp Cheddar cheese. Additionally, more unique varieties of cheeses are popping up to include fresh goat, feta and ricotta. The kissing cousin of the omelet, the frittata, an open-face baked omelet, is gaining popularity. For a decidedly Spanish flavor, try making a potato-saffron version, and for Italian, use roasted artichoke and red peppers with fresh mozzarella.
Fresh from the oven
Quick breads have always been popular for breakfast; they’re easy to prepare, portable and have the requisite amount of carbohydrates and fats that make getting out of bed almost a pleasure. Traditionally, these items take the form of muffins, sweet breads or coffee cakes, but the chef’s repertoire has been expanded to incorporate a variety of flavors.
Muffins come in many guises, with names like “Morning Glory” or “Sunrise Surprise” promising the wholesome goodness of nuts, berries and vegetables to keep the customer nutritionally supercharged. On the opposite side of the spectrum, pairing muffins with chocolate chips and fudge brownie lets them take on the role of a cupcake for breakfast. The opportunities are endless with combinations such as ginger-date, pumpkin-walnut, dried-cherry almond, blueberry-bran sunflower seed, and crystallized-ginger maple-walnut. Muffins have always been a great outlet for the chef to use excess products, (read leftovers here), and treat them as a creative outlet limited by only imagination and resources.
Scones, another baked item, have been embraced by a mainstream audience. A traditional product of the British Isles and a mainstay of teatime, the scone is a cross between a biscuit and muffin. The major difference is in the shape and texture (supplied by a light mixing hand to create the perfect jewel). The traditional flavors, currant and strawberry, remain popular. Consumers have accepted a host of flavors using a whole market basket of dried fruits, nuts and bakery ingredients. Some recent entries are orange-poppy seed, lemon-cranberry and gingerbread-raisin.
Another breakfast trend coming of age is crepes. Early 1960s diners considered crepes ultimate in gourmet food. Restaurants specializing in crepes sprang up across the country, sometimes with menu offerings of up to 120 different variations. Misunderstood by many who consider it pancake, the crepe is a unique pastry. This beautifully designed wrapper is light and delicate yet durable enough to contain even the most viscous of fillings. A perfectly browned, stuffed crepe can contain simple fillings ranging from fresh strawberries with whipped cream to chicken à la king. Or try more contemporary fillings, such as fresh berries and mascarpone cheese, or smoked salmon with fresh herbs and a delicate cream sauce. For something novel, instead of rolling crepes, stack them like lasagna and add a variety of fillings to create a more dramatic visual presentation with a different overall texture.
Cereal has always been the major workhorse of American breakfasts. This country’s flirtation in the early 1900s with an early health-food and diet craze, beget many new, commercially prepared cereals for the marketplace that resulted in many of today’s biggest cereal manufacturers. In the early 1960s, when the health-food craze picked up steam again, cereal experienced a renaissance. This period marked the rise of granola, which by its very definition contains whole-grains, dried fruit and nuts. The promise was to deliver a wholesome “whole” food, free of refined sugars and empty carbohydrates for a more natural and healthy breakfast. The trend resulted in commercially prepared cereals that emulate granola but carry a higher sugar content and, generally, only approximate the original product.
Granola can be eaten as a cereal or used as an ingredient, combining it with other breakfast foods to add flavor and texture, and a hint of a healthy choice. Granola is combined with yogurt as a topping, pressed into service in the form of breakfast bars and used in batters or toppings for many baked goods. Granola can be found as an ingredient in other breakfast items as well, such as pancakes and whole-grain waffles, to create new textures and flavor sensations. The bed-and-breakfast industry has taken it a step farther, creating unique cereals resembling granola that reflect local ingredients and taste preferences to create a unique signature dish. New England-style might mean dried cranberries, maple and toasted oats, and in the Pacific Northwest, the cereal might incorporate that area’s famous apples and hazelnuts.
In restaurants, breakfast is obtaining the status of event dining — especially as more people relegate it to a weekend and leisure activity. The focus will increasingly shift to the total dining experience with a strong emphasis on fine dining. Customers have grown accustomed to unique dining experiences for other meals and more often will have higher expectations for breakfast. As their leisure time shrinks, the tendency will be to spend this precious time on unique, quality experiences.
George M. Sideras, CEC, is a charter member of the Research Chef’s Association and a current board member. He is currently employed at Sysco, Cincinnati, as marketing manager and executive chef, culinary services. When not pondering and eating breakfast, he concentrates on other meals. Together with wife Paula, the best chef he knows, they have cooked up two sons, Luke and Zachary. In between eating bouts and recipe development, Sideras is an avid rock climber.
Back to top
3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062
E-Mail: [email protected]