Local produce near top of hot menu trendsCHICAGO — Local is the way to go in 2011, so say many of the nation’s chefs.

Based on the National Restaurant Association’s annual What’s Hot survey, locally sourced meats and seafood and locally grown produce ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among the top 20 industry menu trends.

This reflects “a larger societal trend of the consumer wanting to know more about the story of their food,” Hudson Riehle, the NRA’s research director, said in a May 23 interview at the group’s annual restaurant and hotel-motel show at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center.

“America’s palate has become much more sophisticated,” Riehle said.

The country is in an era of “stepped-up transparency” for food sold at restaurants and grocery stores, he added.

Produce figured prominently in the What’s Hot top 20, which was based on a survey of 1,527 members of the American Culinary Federation. In the survey, which was conducted in October, the chefs were given a list of 226 food and beverage items, culinary themes and preparation methods and were asked to rate each as a hot trend, yesterday’s news or perennial favorite on restaurant menus in 2011.

Click here for the full survey results: http://bit.ly/ieibgC

Also in the top 20, “nutritionally balanced children’s dishes” ranked No. 4, “children’s nutrition” ranked No. 6 and “organic produce” ranked No. 14. “Fruit/vegetable children’s side items” was No. 18.

Local and locally grown foods have grown increasingly popular in recent years amid consumer perceptions that such products are safer and healthier. But what exactly is and is not local remains a matter of debate.

Among government food regulators, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have an official definition for local food, and the NRA has no formal definition either, a spokeswoman for the restaurant group said. However, in the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress defined local as regionally produced and distributed food “so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product, or… the state in which the product is produced.”

Mike Boggiatto, an exhibitor at the NRA show, said he considers local more of a “buzzword.”

“No one’s really come up with a valid reason why locally grown should be the goal,” Boggiatto said May 23 on the trade show floor.

He’s president and general manager of Salinas, Calif.-based Boggiatto Produce, Inc., which sells iceberg and romaine lettuce and several other products. “Nobody’s really come up and said, ‘Don’t you have any local produce?’”