September 30, 2023


Qualified food specialists

How CT chefs use travel, TikTok and Instagram to keep up

6 min read

A New Haven chef studies the Instagram feed of a Los Angeles chef she admires, emulating his plating style. A Stamford diner owner keeps a notebook of ideas for his indulgent menu, sometimes pulling his car over to jot things down. A restaurateur with several Asian eateries turned trendy birria tacos into a ramen dish when he realized the dishes had common components.

Food trends often originate in larger restaurant cities like New York and Los Angeles. But social media, travel and word of mouth help push new emerging items, culinary techniques and flavors to Connecticut restaurants as local chefs keep their eyes open and their creativity flowing to keep menus fresh and exciting.

Emily Mingrone, the chef-owner of Tavern on State in New Haven, has been a chef for 15 years, so she said she’s relied a lot on her own experience to build the menu at her State Street restaurant. She also cooks seasonally, with recent plates like peaches with stracciatella, red and yellow watermelon salad, and heirloom tomato salad with pickled beans. But she has a few chefs whose work she deliberately seeks out on social media, including Jeremy Fox, a southern California chef who has been featured in magazines like Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. (Speaking of accolades, Mingrone herself competed in Food Network’s “Chopped”).

“He has such a similar approach to the way I view food, so he’s one I go to frequently,” she said. “It’s not only the creative process as far as developing a dish, but plating, the visual representation. That’s something that Instagram really contributes to my life.”

Emily Mingrone, chef-owner of Tavern on State in New Haven

Emily Mingrone, chef-owner of Tavern on State in New Haven

Lisa Nichols

Mingrone recently produced a scallop crudo dish, inspired by a similar dish he posted last month. Her offering, with circular strawberry slices resting atop the thinly-sliced raw scallops, resembled his tomato-and-strawberry dish from July.

“That’s something that was an Instagram inspiration,” she said. “He plates very geometrically, and I kind of took that in and tried to emulate it a bit.”

A national food trend was a source of inspiration for the team at Mecha Noodle Bar to create a new dish. As the birria taco trend heated up in Connecticut, they decided to play around with the ingredients. Tony Pham, co-owner of Mecha, with locations in Fairfield, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and West Hartford, said they started building a birria-style ramen as they found common ground with the braised beef and the consommé in which tacos are dipped.

Mariposa Taqueria in Danbury also added birria tacos to the menu, but served them with a dipping sauce, instead of the traditional cup of beef-infused broth.

“We do our best to get as close [to authentic] as we can, but we don’t do exactly the same way,” said Sam Reyes, who runs the family-owned restaurant with his brother Javier. “Our philosophy is to learn how they do it, and then find the best way we can execute it, while containing its core integrity.”

Sam Reyes of Mariposa Taqueria in Danbury

Sam Reyes of Mariposa Taqueria in Danbury

Winter Caplanson/ CT Food & Farm

Sometimes, Connecticut restaurateurs even find themselves ahead of hot trends. “Corn ribs,” featuring strips of corn kernels cut from the cob and grilled, roasted or fried, swept TikTok as a viral recipe earlier this year. But they were already a seasonal summer menu item at Mecha, served with yuzo kosho butter, fried parsley and pickled onions.

Pham said the dish wasn’t inspired by social media, but rather came from the restaurant’s culinary director, who had learned to prepare the corn ribs in a previous job. Since the corn only needs a “quick fry” to cook, Pham said, it was a natural fit for Mecha’s cooking line.

“His inspiration was ‘OK, I know this technique, how do we put it with Asian flavors and flavors that work well together at Mecha?” he said. 

Corn ribs swept TikTok as a viral recipe, but they were already on the summer seasonal menu at Mecha Noodle Bar.

Corn ribs swept TikTok as a viral recipe, but they were already on the summer seasonal menu at Mecha Noodle Bar.

Courtesy of Mecha Noodle Bar

When chefs and restaurateurs step out of their kitchens, they’re also on the lookout for new inspirations, whether it’s at another eatery in the same city or discovering fresh flavors and techniques while traveling. 

Pham said he once tasted a tomato salad with corn and basil oil at Jean-Georges, the restaurant by famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He committed the buttery, sweet, acidic and herbaceous flavor profile to memory, recreating its components into a corn dumpling dish back at Mecha.

Brandi and Phil Killoran of Birdcode Hot Chicken in West Hartford plan to open a location in Darien later this year, and they perfected their Nashville hot chicken recipe after 18 months of research and development, traveling and eating chicken at the top spots across the United States.

“In Nashville, we went to all the original places [including] Prince’s Hot Chicken,” Brandi Killoran said of the eatery credited with the dish’s invention. “I’m originally from the South, so it was important to pay homage to all of that.”

Birdcode's "sandos," with boneless breast meat, are built on brioche buns topped with vinegar slaw, pickles and mayonnaise-based "comeback sauce."

Birdcode’s “sandos,” with boneless breast meat, are built on brioche buns topped with vinegar slaw, pickles and mayonnaise-based “comeback sauce.”

Courtesy of Birdcode

At Mariposa, the menu features a whole fish entree, with fried red snapper, herbed rice, salsa samana (described as a coconut sofrito) and tostones. That’s a nod to trips to Samaná in the Dominican Republic, said Reyes. Samaná beachgoers often have whole fried fish for lunch, caught fresh by local fishermen that morning.

And Mingrone said she simply goes out to friends’ restaurants when she’s not working, paying attention to what they’re doing and thinking about how their dishes relate to what she’s creating.

Elm Street Diner in Stamford has been around since 1987, but owner John Moshos and his team have harnessed social media in the past decade to call attention to its outrageously decadent plates: milkshakes stacked high with lollipops, cookies and whole slices of cake; curly fries topped with lobster macaroni and cheese; Nutella churro peanut butter cup French toast. The restaurant has nearly 97,000 followers on Instagram and more than 20,000 on TikTok.

“We’ve become more of a destination, than just a local place. I have people who are driving one to two hours [to eat.] I’ve had people from California, Australia,” Moshos said. 

An extreme milkshake at Stamford's Elm Street Diner, topped with cake, cupcakes, candies and an ice cream bar.

An extreme milkshake at Stamford’s Elm Street Diner, topped with cake, cupcakes, candies and an ice cream bar.

Elm Street Diner via @cheatdayeats

Moshos said he gets his ideas in a variety of ways, and often he’ll build a dish around one particular flavor or ingredient. Recently, he saw a limited-edition salted caramel Oreo flavor, and began thinking about how to incorporate that into his menu. He keeps notes on his phone and even scribbles ideas in a notebook.

“If I see something on social media that I think is really cool, I’ll try and make that, put my own twist on it and change it in a way that’s unique to us,” he said. But he sticks by one rule: whatever Elm Street crafts has to taste as good as it looks.

Some trends and flavors might be a little ahead of Connecticut, but that hasn’t stopped chefs from thinking ahead. Pham recalls being “blown away” by a sausage and escargot dish from Momofuku’s Má Pêche restaurant in New York, but understood the combination would be a harder sell on local menus. 

“We didn’t do anything with it, but it starts from there, just keeping an eye, being present and reflecting on why it works so well,” he said.


Copyright © All rights reserved. | Newsphere by AF themes.