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A taste of 2020's food trends: Doug Trattner reports

Keep an eye out for wood-fired cooking, veggie-mania, and small plate obsessions.

LAKEWOOD, Ohio — Trends. 

We love to predict them, we love to follow them, and we enjoy watching some fade into history. Food is no different from fashion in that regard, with some trends coming and vanishing as quickly as velour tracksuits. But others have staying power, easing onto the scene with quiet determination until they become an accepted and appreciated part of daily existence. 

We sat down with Chef Jill Vedaa of Salt+ in Lakewood to discuss three food trends that are here and here (maybe) to stay.

Wood-Fired Cooking

Ever since the early Stone Age, man has been cooking food over flames. But thanks to inventions like gas grills, microwave ovens and Uber Eats, the act of starting and maintaining a real wood fire just to eat is no longer required. Don’t tell that to chefs and restaurant owners like Jonathon Sawyer, Athan Zarnas, Juan Vergara and others, who go through the added hassle of sourcing wood, maintaining fires, and managing hot grills when they can simply turn on the oven or griddle.

"If you're going to cook stuff with fire, it may as well be with wood or charcoal. It adds flavor to it," Vedaa says.

The payoff comes in the form of foods kissed by flames, imparted with smoke and imbued with a woodsy intensity that is impossible to achieve through conventional cooking methods. A steak cooked over a real wood fire exits the grill with a seductive char, heavenly aroma and beefy intensity that elevates the dish. What’s more, restaurants that utilize open-hearth cooking add the multi-sensory delights, sights and scents of fire to the theater of dining out. Look for more chefs to rekindle their love affair with wood-fired cookery.

"When you have something wood-fired, you're going to see that grill from your dining room, hopefully," Vedaa says.

Small Plates

Like blue jeans, small plates have been around for ages. In countries like Spain, entire streets are devoted to bars that specialize in a single dish. The fun lies in moving from place to place to knit together a distinctive meal. Vedaa agrees, saying "You go to any major city, and this is how people eat."

Here in Cleveland, small plates have always enjoyed a pained existence. While some diners like them, others loathe them, choosing instead to plunk down their hard-earned cash on a conventional meat-starch-vedge platter.

Small plates – slowly, stubbornly – are clawing their way back from the fringes of the menu (the appetizer section, typically) to top billing. At places like Zhug in Cleveland Heights and Salt+, small plates are the only plates. One needn’t be courageous or adventurous to recognize the appeal of being able to try three or five different dishes instead of just one. 

Aren’t the first few bites the best ones anyway? Also, small plates are ideal for sharing with friends, making meals more of a communal experience. I’m certain that we’ll be seeing more small-plate eateries in the coming months and years.

Eat Yer Veggies!

It isn’t merely the vegans and vegetarians driving this red-hot segment of the market. Everyday omnivores are electing to eat less meat, whether for health or environmental reasons. The days of eating a half-pound portion of chicken, beef or pork on a near-daily basis is on its way out the door in this country. Instead, many restaurant kitchens are dialing back the “center of the plate” protein and upping the vegetable-based accompaniments. Others are choosing to skip the meat altogether, if not for all dishes on the menu than for at least some.

"I think some people are starting to be more conscious of eating less meat, and eating more veg," Vedaa comments. "Not only for themselves, but for the environment."

In addition to health and environmental factors propelling this trend, drivers also include greatly improved farmer’s market networks, creative and skilled chefs and a more global palate. Eating your veggies used to mean slicing open a can of limp green beans, plugging your nose and secretly feeding the family dog. These days, it’s a delicious endeavor.