Tracking Canadian Flavour Trends: A Street-Level Tour

Toronto street scene

We took to the streets of Toronto to see what menu trends are bubbling to the top and how you can make them work for your restaurant.

The Gordon Food Service culinary team conducted an intensive trend-tracking tour, visiting Toronto hot spots over the course of three days in June. The goal was to unearth menu-ready ideas that are translatable across foodservice segments and to gather rich insights into the evolution of flavour trends. “It’s a great thing for our customers because we can see firsthand what’s working, connecting today’s trends to real business opportunities and sharing those takeaways with restaurant operators across Canada,”  says Stephane Renaud, Corporate Chef, Gordon Food Service, Quebec City.

The team visited 34 restaurants, extensively sampling the menus and connecting with the staff, gaining valuable insights into both dining preferences and flavour trends. Toronto was chosen because it’s a global village with a vibrant restaurant scene. It also has a high concentration of immigrants, who positively impact the food culture. Through this unique street-level research, three menu opportunities bubbled to the surface: veg-centricity, global mashups and authentic Asian cuisine.

Veg-Centric: a major opportunity

Chefs are showing a lot of love to vegetables, moving them out of side dishes and into centre of the plate. That love is shown through cooking techniques, like roasting, charring and grilling, as well as high-impact finishes, like pancetta, beef broth and cheese. “This is a huge opportunity for operators,” says Chef Jason Kalinowski, Foodservice Adviser, Gordon Food Service, Milton, Ontario. “We’re seeing a huge push in modern vegetable cookery, highlighted by protein finishes, like root vegetables braised in bone broth.” 

This trend, which promises significant impact on menus for years to come, is not strictly vegetarian. Chefs are using ingredients like prosciutto, dashi and crispy chicken skin to amp up the umami. They’re also using ingredients like cheese and miso to pump up flavour. “The restaurants we visited were presenting vegetables in a unique way that’s both vibrant in flavour and colour,” Renaud says. “It’s making vegetables exciting to the customer, moving vegetables into bar snacks, shareables and centre of the plate.” Hanmoto, a Japanese izakaya, serves Sizzling Enoki with miso butter, amplifying its meaty profile. At El Local Loco, a modern Mexican restaurant, zucchini fritters are craveable, thanks to a strategic use of adobo mayo.

Additional menu sightings

  • Dahi Puri: Crispy puris served with a potato and lentil stuffing, topped with yogurt and various chutneys—Bombay Street Food
  • Beet Salad: Roasted beets, arugula, whipped goat cheese, fried shallots, honey vinaigrette—Three Hands
  • Grabong: Freshly shredded buttercup squash fritters lightly coated in red curry paste batter, deep-fried, served with sweet garlic-tamarind dip—Pai

Mashups mark modern menus 

Global mashup dishes serve up big opportunity. They resonate with today’s diners by offering adventure tethered to the familiar. The opportunity for the operator is to take the best of both worlds. “There are now no barriers in flavour exploration,” Renaud says. Chefs can pick and choose from global pantries, adding intriguing flavour to familiar items like pasta, pizza, sandwiches and more. 

Toronto tour chefs saw all sorts of ethnic influences on traditionally North American dishes. “They’re being executed at a high level—crucial in today’s very competitive restaurant landscape,” Kalinowski notes. One example was from The Wilcox, a gastropub. They menu a Kimchi Croquette, taking a traditionally European item and infusing Asian flavours with kimchi, XO sauce, pickled ginger, yellowfin tuna and smoked aïoli. Another example is the Peking Duck Pizza at Levetto, a fast-casual Italian concept. The pizza sees Peking duck, green onion and a mozzarella-cheddar blend, then it’s finished with pickled cucumber and crispy duck skin. “Really flavourful and unique take on pizza,” he says. Opportunity here lies in mindful menu builds, highlighting global flavours in familiar forms and making everything work in harmony.

Additional menu sightings

  • Korean Lasagna: Fried wonton sheets, pulled pork, kimchi—Wilcox Gastropub
  • Nashville Hot Sweetbreads—The Black Hoof
  • Kimchi Beef Sushi Wrap: Beef, green lettuce, carrot, kimchi, kidney bean, avocado, asparagus, raspberry BBQ sauce—Rolltation

Authentic Asian narrows in

Diners have been embracing Asian flavours for a number of years now, reaching from Vietnam and the Philippines to Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. But today’s trend sees a move away from pan-Asian into more specific regions, like Szechuan Chinese or Northern Thai. Toronto, with amazing multicultural restaurants and pockets of authentic eateries, provided fertile ground in discovering new menu opportunities. “Beyond the global-mashup trend, there’s opportunity to explore authenticity through regionality. Specifically, authentic Asian cuisine was a through line during our trends tour in Toronto,” says David Evans, Corporate Chef, Gordon Food Service, Ontario. “We found inspiration and ideas in everything from a Japanese izakaya to a Filipino menu.” 

At Tinuno, an authentic Filipino restaurant, the team ordered the Kamayan feast, a family-style meal with items like grilled pork, shrimp and calamari, garlic fried rice, mango salad, eggplant and okra. “They laid down banana leaf across the table, then spooned the food, family style, onto the leaf, no silverware, no plates. It was a wonderful, social experience,” he says. Although replication outside of an authentic ethnic restaurant would appear out of place, authentic touches can help deliver a memorable experience. “You could place a banana leaf on a plate when serving a Filipino-inspired dish, and help deliver some of what makes authentic foods so wonderful to discover,” Evans says. Similarly, izakayas, or Japanese pubs, offer opportunity for menu distinction. “Japanese food here used to mean sushi, but now you can go to a Japanese pub and find craveable, familiar bar bites and fried items,” he says. Those dishes can translate seamlessly onto modern Canadian menus. 

Additional menu sightings

  • Japanese Chicken Poppers (Kara-age): Japanese style fried chicken with wasabi mayo—Nomé Izakaya
  • Okonomiyaki: Crispy Japanese pancake—Guu Izakaya
  • Chicken Satay: Grilled curry marinated chicken skewers with peanut sauce and a Thai style cucumber dressing—Pai