At Coconut’s Fish Café, the Hawaii-based fast casual dishing out island flavors and a renowned fish taco, fusing innovative—and often wholly different—ingredients together is the name of the game. Here, CEO and founder Michael Phillips talks about the fusion trend and how limited-service operators can create their own unique flavor combinations.

How would you define fusion?

It’s defined in a lot of different ways, but for people who don’t know about fusion foods, it’s putting together ingredients that really don’t belong together to enhance the dish. In all my food, I really try to do something way different and out of the box to appeal to customers’ taste buds. How you do that is you act like a chemist as you’re making food.

What’s the best way to approach developing fusion foods?

It’s like an artist doing a painting; when he starts his painting, he has an idea of what it’s going to look like, but he doesn’t know until the end. Developing recipes and putting fusions of flavors together, you have an idea, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you start doing the chemist test of it.

What you have to do is try to balance it, add some and take away and add some of this and that. It was a tremendous challenge for us to grow our recipes because the flavors and profiles of the Hawaiian taste buds and what I was trying to figure out in getting to our customers was difficult.

A lot of restaurants today are fusing different cuisines, like Asian and Latin American. How do you see that progressing in the future?

I think we’re getting more sophisticated as consumers. I think the days of meat and potatoes and fish and rice are over. The culture has changed as younger age groups start looking for different things in different foods. It’s driven by the consumer. We’re all looking for something different on our palate, and we’re getting more sophisticated as eaters—not in a five-star restaurant, but in $12–$15 price ranges, and getting something like Korean tacos.

I love what Thai people do. They’re masters at recipe profiles, as well fusion of flavors. When you look at some Thai recipes, you can’t even imagine how much work had to go into getting all those particular ingredients to go together without taking away from everything else.

Do you foresee a future where fusing flavors is necessary for operators to differentiate themselves?

The most difficult thing as a restaurateur and chef and owner of a chain of restaurants is you’re trying to figure out where that consumer is going to go next and how that’s going to change things in the future. You cannot be stagnant in a restaurant. You have to develop things along the way.

I don’t think this fusion thing is ever going to go away. I think it might be changeable, and what I mean by that is it’s up to the customer’s demands.

What are some outside-the-box flavors that go together well in fusion?

Pineapple and salt. They don’t belong together. There are many more things on our menu that we have that are using ingredients that don’t belong together. If you take a piece of pineapple and put salt on it, you would never eat pineapple again in your life. But it’ll work when you mix it and do this chemist thing I was talking about and you balance it and do all these undertones of other things.

How can operators do fusion in a fast-casual setting?

You need people who are trained culinary specialists. I don’t care if it’s a fast-casual setting or a fast-food setting or a fine-dining room. You need people who know culinary art and how to be an artist. It would be a misrepresentation to say fast-casual restaurants can do this on a large-scale basis without having someone who knows what they’re doing.

Our recipes really enhance the Hawaiian fusion of flavors with all the ingredients. We have a lot of enhanced flavors from three different cultures here: a Portuguese culture, a Japanese culture, and a Hawaiian culture. When you try to mix all three of these cultures together in the recipes we’ve developed at Coconut’s, it’s really amazing.

What is your advice to operators who want to try fusion?

Know what you’re doing. You have to think out of the box. When you try to develop things that are different from somebody else, you’ve got to convince the customer that it’s worth trying. When you go too far out of the box, you might hurt yourself because customers don’t buy into it. q

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