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Austin Chefs & Restaurateurs Discuss The Future of Dining

Local experts share their thoughts on the looming culinary landscape.

Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

To mark Future Week, Eater asked Austin restaurateurs, chefs, bartenders, and others to share their forecasts for the future of dining in the scope of Austin and the world.

Tyson Cole, executive chef and owner of Uchi and Uchiko: The future of dining is about people pushing to make great food easy. Easier to eat. Easier to share. And easier to serve. The appetizer, entree, dessert days will struggle because so many people today live and eat in such a different way than when traditional dining blossomed. Small plates will thrive for many more years; it’s just going to change how they’re served.

People live connected. Connected by a touch of the button to anything they desire. Dining will follow suit and over time will become much more seamless, less dependent on people, and able to provide an array of new and unique types of food in various settings. I’m not saying Jetsons’ style by any means, but it will be fun to see how casual fine dining changes in the future. How to combine the paramount experience of eating food with technology that lets you get to that bite quicker will be the next big thing. A perfect bites app!

Farmers and chefs can revive these old traditions and combine them with modern technologySam Hellman-Mass, chef and partner of Odd Duck: In the future, I see more and more people realizing that there was a ton of amazing knowledge that has been left in the past. Farmers and chefs are rediscovering varieties and techniques, both in the kitchen and the field, that people in past generations had used to create incredible flavor. Before much of the food chain was industrialized, many cultures had invented ingenious ways of growing food, preserving the season, and surviving off of the land. My hope for the future is that farmers and chefs can revive these old traditions and combine them with modern technology and a genuine respect for nature so we can feed more people delicious food.

Justin Elliott, director of hospitality projects of Penumbral Strategic Ventures (The Townsend): I’m really looking forward to seeing more expensive food. I look forward to going out to eat and knowing that the entire staff is being paid a fair wage for the hours they work. I look forward to knowing that the managers and operators are being paid for their years of experience and their unparalleled ability to inspire a culture of greatness. I look forward to knowing that the suppliers are all being paid fairly for their beautiful, local, responsibly raised products. This is probably going to mean people dine out less. This is probably going to mean less restaurants, but I think that’s maybe fine too. Maybe it’ll mean we cook at home more. Maybe it’ll mean we’ll start to see more a vibrant farmer’s market culture. And maybe at those markets we’ll see new forms of street food begin to develop and then we can watch as the whole food/cooking/dining thing kind of renews itself. That seems like it would be pretty beautiful to be a part of.

[Photo: Buff Strickland Photography]

Vilma Mazaite. [Photo: Buff Strickland Photography]

Vilma Mazaite, advanced sommelier and director of wine of LaV: I think future dining will continue to focus on environment and ingredients; at least that is what I hope for. As chefs and restaurateurs, we carry responsibility to source ingredients that are real and not manipulated or treated. This isn’t something entirely new as we have been seeing this change for some time and we’re seeing it slowly change how we eat. Currently and for some time, restaurant trends are about ingredient-driven menus, clean flavors, and the food we used to eat at home. Farm to table is something that we won't need to say it anymore because it will just be a given. Hospitality is another thing to consider when talking about the future dining. With technology constantly evolving to accommodate the fast-paced lifestyles many of us live, we won't have time to dine or enjoy service and each other’s company in the same way we have in the past. It is our responsibility to preserve the connectivity of the dining experience, by creating places that are warm and soulful with real food and (great) wine.

Ben Runkle, co-owner of Salt & Time: We are on the verge of having a critical mass of diners who value and understand quality food. I think the awareness level of just how crappy mass-produced food can be is really sinking in, and many consumers are looking for food that isn't just stuffed with sugar and additives to make it taste good. This is going beyond a desire for healthier, more wholesome food into the realm of pleasure and enjoyment. The fact that sour beer is so popular is a great indication that people are open to different, interesting flavors. This is exciting for chefs and restaurants that want to try new things and challenge ourselves and our guests.

Awareness level of just how crappy mass-produced food can be is really sinking in The flip side is that our consumer culture just doesn't value food enough for restaurants to charge what we really need to charge. We've been spoiled by cheap food from the grocery store to restaurants for so long, and even though people are becoming aware of the externalized costs of cheap food, we're a long way from overcoming the sticker shock of what good food really costs. This is starting to come to a head, especially in cities that have a higher minimum wage. Restaurant are having to change how they operate, especially as it relates to tipping . As far as I know, Blackstar Coop is the only restaurant in town that doesn't accept tips, but this trend is developing around the country and I expect to see it gain a foothold in Austin at some point.

Tatsu Aikawa, executive chef and co-owner of Ramen Tatsu-Ya: The future of dining looks like piloted drone delivery ramen! The ultimate cup noodles in under an hour. Or 3-D printed food. Just load in flavor chemicals like printer ink, and in a few minutes it prints your dinner!

Takuya Matsumoto, executive chef and co-owner of Ramen Tatsu-Ya: People start to realize how important diet is. The new generation of kids growing up start eating more consciously. This new mentality increases consciousness of the condition of our planet. Sustainable agriculture rules the world. No more GMOs. No more fast food chains. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are revered for the social aspect of building strong relationships. This causes everyone to coexist peacefully. The future of dining is world peace.

[Photo: Courtesy of Jesse Herman]

Jesse Herman, [Photo: New Waterloo/Official]

Jesse Herman, partner of New Waterloo (South Congress Hotel, La Condesa, Sway): The short answer is nothing like it looks now. Dining and the consumption of prepared food outside of the home is moving in myriad directions out and away from the traditional restaurant dining room. These trends are mostly well-known to anyone who seriously follows food.

We're seeing a proliferation of modern food halls all over the US (Gotham Market and Brookfield Place in NYC, Union Station in Denver, Krog Street Market in Atlanta), including at least three that I am aware of coming to Austin. There is a food and dining movement into non-food retail, from formal restaurants in famous shops like Barney's and Bergdorf Goodman to a new restaurant opening in the Nordstrom at The Domain. Coffee shops are popping up within stores such as Deus Ex Machina in Venice Beach and retail/dining hybrids such as Maketto in DC are sprouting up. We've been witnessing the paradigm shift of the old hotel dining room to the main attraction at hotels. We've just opened South Congress Hotel, which has a heavy emphasis on our food and dining experiences, and are working with Paul Qui on Pao at Faena Miami Beach with Argentine chef Francis Mallmann.

Jason Stevens, beverage director for La Corsha Hospitality Group (Second Bar + Kitchen, Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, Wonderland): The most interesting aspect of the future dining will be the redrawing of what a dining experience looks like. We’ll see more well-known chefs and local restaurants taking the growing fast casual concept and blending it further with quality-focused, fast food production and service. These blended spaces will be smaller, sweatpants casual, and more specialized. The chefs creating programs for these spaces will be pushed to be more inventive with less. They’ll look further to what can be made on the cheap while maintaining quality, deliciousness, interest, and sustainability.

Restaurants will evolve dining to better connect with our daily lives We’ll also see restaurant-prepared food will be increasingly eaten at home. We see the increasing demand for pickup and delivery in the growth of services like Favor and Postmates. As these delivery services become more stable and mainstream, the demand will grow. New restaurants concepts can’t ignore the importance of ‘to-go’. To keep up with this demand, restaurants will need streamlined take-out ordering processes, dishes designed to be more delivery friendly, larger defined waiting areas and possibly smaller seating areas.

What’s hip in dining is so transitory. Whatever the next hot flavor is doesn’t excite me anywhere near as much as how restaurants will evolve dining to better connect with our daily lives.

Janina O’Leary, executive pastry chef of LaV: As predictable as it sounds, I feel the future of dining will continue to be chef- and ingredient-driven. With that said, we are at a point in the industry where chefs must continue to find ways to become mentors and leaders in the kitchen due to the current "cook shortage." Nurturing and teaching cooks will be crucial especially with the frequency to which restaurants continue to open these days. Neighborhood restaurants as well as restaurants focusing on the full experience will continue to shine. It's both an exciting and challenging time to be in our industry, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility.

Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside and Parkside Projects Parkside Projects/Official

Shawn Cirkiel. [Photo: Parkside Projects/Official]

Shawn Cirkiel, owner and chef of Parkside Projects (Parkside, The Backspace, Olive & June, Bullfight): Restaurants will continue to move towards small footprints with an emphasis on quality local ingredients. As the world and cooking gets smaller because of the Internet, you will see more unique ethnic foods popping up in cities that would have been "landlocked" in the past. For Austin, you will continue to see an exciting group of cooks, bartenders, and servers transition into leadership positions at restaurants imprinting the dining scene with their own travels and experiences. Ultimately, Austin will continue to grow and be an exciting place to eat and drink.

Jason Stude, chef of Second Bar + Kitchen and Boiler Nine Bar + Grill: As the world shrinks and information is more available, certain foods become less exotic and more commonplace. The diner is more educated and interested in where their food comes from, how it’s grown and harvested and feels more responsible in their choices about these ideas. This pushes us, as chefs, to keep investigating and digging deeper into our craft to explore new ideas and approaches.

The bigger picture is that​,​ hopefully, this translates to larger restaurant groups and the like taking a stand to purchase humanely-raised, high quality meats, and sourcing their products regionally. ​Everyone will benefit from that type of care put into the food system, especially if higher quality, more sustainable foods can reach more people, not just the fine-dining guests.

Lastly, as our population grows and meat prices raise, vegetables will once again play a larger role on the plate as opposed to just a bed for a piece of meat to sit upon. I’d love to see vegetables taking up a larger percentage of the plate. For me, it’s more challenging and rewarding to create a delicious plate of food when vegetables become the focus.

The future of dining lies in authenticityAdam Jacoby, owner of Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile: The future of dining lies in authenticity. Authenticity in ingredients, design, service, and hospitality. If you are not authentic, you will fall by the wayside as many corporate concepts are at the moment. Dining is no longer driven by huge corporate expense accounts or slick hollow presentations which is why it’s no surprise that authentic family-run establishments are proliferating in Austin and beyond.

[Photo: Annie Ray]

Josh Hare. [Photo: Annie Ray]

Josh Hare, owner of Hops & Grain: From the perspective of a brewery owner and operator, the future of dining looks very bright. The commitment to local and the keen interest in knowing where our food comes from is at a high point. My hope is that consumers continue to ask questions and producers continue to build transparency into their business models. As a brewer, we hold our growers and suppliers to an incredibly high standard because we fully expect our customers to hold us to that same high standard. The effect that this has on all of us is an increase in quality. When quality is at the core of what we do, everyone wins!

Larry McGuire, managing partner of McGuire Moorman Hospitality (Lamberts, Perla’s, Elizabeth Street Cafe, Clark’s, Josephine House, Jeffrey’s): What’s nice about the restaurant business is that it doesn’t change much. Sure, technology has made access to talent and product much easier, but the basic restaurant formula hasn’t really changed. Now everybody can find out exactly what they are eating and where it came from, so things in the business actually feel more old world. Farming is cool again, fast food will continue to be shunned or taken over by more responsible companies like In & Out and Shake Shack. The neighborhood restaurant will continue to thrive as talented restaurant folks spread out from the big cities seeking quality of life.

We will always desire to be humanized by a great meal Dining should be an escape from the daily grind, a chance to reconnect with friends and family over a shared experience. As we continue to be more connected, more efficient and more dependent on technology I think we will always desire to be humanized by a great meal, a great bottle of wine. Hopefully, the amazing level of attention and popularity that the restaurant business is experiencing now will continue to influence important food problems like public health and nutrition, big farming, and school lunch programs.

Grae Nonas and Michael Fojtasek, owners and chefs of Olamaie: Restaurant guests will begin to understand that quality food from quality producers is a worthwhile expenditure. The health issues caused by our government-subsidized commodity crops will cause the public to move towards items with more nutritional value produced by local farmers they can actually meet. As well, guests will begin to understand that menu price is reflective of the cost of locally produced items and fair wages for restaurant employees.

Nonas: The optimistic outlook for the future would be centered around the idea that restaurants support their local community. Not because it's the "in" or trendy thing to do, but because that's what creates the best experience.

Fojtasek: We believe that local food systems will become the backbone of production for their locales. As growing conditions continue to change for the worse, challenges like drought and fuel cost will make foods from far away less desirable.

[Photo: Vanessa Escobedo Barba]

Andrew Curren. [Photo: Vanessa Escobedo Barba]

Andrew Curren, chef of ELM Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Easy Tiger, Arro, Italic, Irene’s):I think the future of dining will be a cleaner, more thoughtful experience that is conducive to a healthier lifestyle–high-quality ingredients minimally manipulated with an emphasis on whole grains, sprouted wheat, and nutrient-packed smaller portions. Farm-to-table and whole animal menus will be the norm for higher-end dining experiences. Fast food, highly processed food and cerebral molecular food will see a great decline but will still be a small niche of the dining scene.

Adam Brick, chef of Apis: I am cautiously optimistic about the future of dining in Austin. We are very grateful for the Bryce Gilmore and David Bull types ​who definitely​ opened up the the city to both fine dining and for more adventuresome pal​a​tes. As more and more restaurants open here, it will hopefully do a couple of things: the competition will make the restaurant scene better and it will expose more people to better food, faster. On the flip side it will make it harder to find and hire talented cooks as there is a larger market.

Rob Pate, owner of Peche and Isla: Honest food is always the driving force of any good restaurant. Trends come, trends go; but if we cook honestly and respect both technique and ingredients, we'll have a restaurant that lasts a very long time.

Stuart Thomajan, founder of The Chameleon Group (Swift’s Attic, Wu Chow, Delish): I believe we will see a continued move towards cleaner preparations that allow the specific ingredients flavors to come through and I hope we begin to look at the actual farms and their soils so that we can all get the very best results from them without having to force non-native production.

[Photo: Nicolai McCary/EATX]

Steven Dilley. [Photo: Nicolai McCary/EATX]

Steven Dilley, owner of Bufalina and Bufalina Due: In large part, the future of dining will be shaped by increasingly educated, well-traveled, discerning diners. Diners who are concerned both about the quality of their meals as well as issues related to food production and its environmental impact.

When it comes to casual dining, we'll see huge growth in the number of high-quality, fast casual restaurants. Restaurants that use high-quality, sustainable ingredients, charge properly for them, and put out consistently tasty food. Diners are willing to pay for good food, and I think we're starting to realize that bad food is overpriced at any price. Hence places like Whole Foods and Chipotle are flourishing, while older fast-food institutions that have been reluctant to change aren't. What this will mean for diners is a significant increase in the number of specialized, high-quality, fast casual options. Think 800 Degrees, Tender Greens, Chipotle, etc., but for a much wider array of foods. The older institutions, meanwhile, will have no choice but to at least partially acquiesce to new customer demand to survive.

Fine dining will become even more relaxed for the dinerFine dining will become even more relaxed for the diner. Diners that once bristled at the lack of table cloths and dress codes and formality are now embracing it, perhaps realizing that there's no correlation between arcane rules and food quality. We'll also see a return to shorter menus at high-end restaurants. Diners are tiring of rapid-fire tasting meals, and the number of restaurants that can run them effectively–sending out delicious food while remaining fun–is slim. Two things that will survive the long tasting menu trend: the focus on vegetables and fish over meat, and, hence, menus that are much friendlier to white wines than red.

Harold Marmulstein, chef of Salty Sow: I believe that Austin’s culinary scene will become increasingly more global—as seen by the rise in the number of European-inspired menus and restaurants around town. Diners will have the opportunity to experience cuisine with a more worldly focus, whereas years ago, they were limited to more traditional options.

[Photo: Mark Knight]

Angel Begaye. [Photo: Mark Knight]

Angel Begaye, pastry chef of Trace: I believe the future of dining will evolve into a more conscious diet. This will include people making healthier choices, choosing to support their local farmers and businesses. This is a larger topic than just eating healthy. Today, we see large restaurant chains making an effort to offer not only healthier choices, but also better quality ingredients available for their customers. That in itself shows that not only do we need this change, but also it is beginning to happen. Making healthy foods such as fresh eggs, local vegetables, or humanely-raised and harvested animal meats, should be more accessible to everyone and be more of a focus. I truly believe that not only healthy eating, but healthy living begins with educating children at an early age. Educating about agriculture and understanding where our food is truly coming from, understanding how to properly read the labels and what the ingredients are, etc…We are certainly not there in terms of cost and accessibility, but I am excited to see dining, even casual dining, moving in that direction and thinking long-term, I hope is a place that we can all get to no matter where you start out.

A return to honest, simple food that has soul

James Robert, executive chef and co-owner of Fixe: I think the future of dining will feature food that transcends trends. A return to honest, simple food that has soul. At Fixe, we see our diners becoming more and more educated and respectful of the food we serve, and I believe that this will continue. There are many things I find rewarding in what I do professionally and this trend toward conscious dining is certainly one of them. And with all that’s gone on politically with urban farming here in Austin, it’s especially nice to see the farmers and food purveyors recognized by guests as such an important part of their dining experience.

C.K. Chin, co-owner of Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow: The future of dining will show a shift towards comforting foods. Guest-focused service, but with a heavy dose of casual familiarity.

[Photo: Lenoir/Official]

Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan. [Photo: Lenoir/Official]

Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan, owners of Lenoir: The future of dining is a range of real options. It's not all casual fine dining and taco trucks. Now you can have a true fine dining experience, get a solid, well-executed yet simple meal or get full-service cocktails delivered to your door. Basically, variety is the future of Austin dining.

Laura Brown, owner of Vince Young Steakhouse:The future of dining looks bright and tasty. I think Austin will see more molecular type gastronomy and innovative cooking techniques, all while staying true to Texas. I think Austin has done an exceptional job being innovative and creative, without losing its culture and soul. I always hope for more local spots and mom and pop restaurants that we can call our own. In all, I think the Austin food scene will stay brilliantly weird.

Phillip Brown, chef of Vince Young Steakhouse: I think that the future involves a much more educated diner, who not only has an interest, but an appreciation for where their food comes from. With this shift, I believe that restaurants will be forced to start sourcing sustainable and properly raised food.

Ben Edgerton, co-owner of Contigo and Gardner: The future of dining includes higher quality experiences and higher quality ingredients. We live in the age of an experience economy. I envision dining to continue to follow that trend. I see more intention being placed on the atmosphere, hospitality, and overall experience that guests receive when they visit a restaurant. In addition to the experience of dining, I think the standard for ingredients will be raised in the future. While there is a small segment of people who choose to make quality, responsibly sourced ingredients a requirement for their dining decisions, I believe this number will grow in the future. I am hopeful that this will lead ​many in the restaurant industry to shy away from using terms like ​"local​"​ and ​"​organic​"​ ​simply ​for ​marketing ​purposes, ​as well as help our communities develop stronger ​relationship​s​ with ​more and more ​restaurants that they can ​really ​trust ​to do their best to source​ all of their​ ​ingredients ​responsibly​.