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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — September 15 — Food

Tailoring Trends
Noncommercial foodservice shows off the latest menu styles

As many chefs do, Helene Kennan often starts her day at a farmers market before heading off to work. But the kitchen about to benefit from just-picked tomatoes, summer squash, sweet corn and other local produce is not an upscale neighborhood spot or fine-dining restaurant.

Kennan’s bounty is headed for one of the noncommercial foodservice venues at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles operated by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management Co., a unit of Compass Group PLC.

Once thought to be the last segment to respond to emerging food trends, noncommercial foodservice operations have become keenly astute and quick to incorporate quality and innovation. Aware that consumers have broad options, universities, medical centers, corporate dining and other operations have cooked up plenty of reasons for people to stay on site.

“We have to be cutting-edge,” says Robert E. Harbison, executive chef for foodservice at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. “There are so many choices out there that it is hard to keep students on campus. As a self-operated establishment, we know that there are foodservice organizations hungry to have Princeton as a client. We have to be on top of our game.”

Such competition along with customers who have experienced wider ranges of flavors provide impetus for noncommercial venues to remain current with food trends.

So what’s hot? Freshness is paramount, evidenced by Italian, rye, cracked-wheat, sourdough and other breads and rolls baked on premise by HDS Services of Farmington Hills, Mich. At the self-operated food venues for corporate employees of The Limited, a Columbus, Ohio-based women’s apparel retailer, seasonal ingredients such as summer stone fruits and fall root vegetables determine menus. Bold flavors and ethnic foods continue to hold sway, such as spicy fish, lime-ginger chicken and Indian curry stir-fry at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Menu items that steal attention in restaurants—braised meats in fine dining or ethnic flavors on the family-dining scene—often can be found in noncommercials. Aware that guests draw from diverse demographics, foodservice contractors temper these trends with a little restraint and a lot of menu variety.

“People don’t want to eat trendy food everyday,” says Roger Beaulieu, director of culinary development at Lake Success, N.Y.-based CulinArt Inc., which services some 80 accounts on the East Coast. “They want current ingredients and a little more flavor, but served in ways that are familiar enough so they don’t feel intimidated.”

It’s hard to find a contemporary menu that doesn’t include feel-good food.

Roast chicken, mashed potatoes and meatloaf are among the standards. But comfort food is highly personal, based on customer and generational culinary memories. As the population ages and becomes more diverse, comfort-food favorites change as well.

At healthcare facilities and nursing homes, hearty meatloaf with garlic-mashed potatoes and flavorful gravy are likely to beckon. But on college campuses, comfort food takes a different definition.

“It’s what makes you feel good, and for our students that means their favorite foods, whatever they may be,” says Wally Zoppa, executive chef at the University of San Diego. One popular item is a grilled cheese sandwich with a twist. Served at the campus La Paloma Café, the sandwich matches melted Swiss, Jack and Cheddar cheeses on sourdough bread with signature dressing and tomatoes.

“Today’s younger generation is more sophisticated than in the past,” says Harbison. “When we were growing up, comfort food was turkey, meatloaf and pot roast. Now it crosses ethnic lines like it never did before. It’s amazing how many kids know what miso is.”

Demand for bold, flavorful food shows no sign of slowing in any foodservice segment. One of the food stations at Princeton University, for example, features popular restaurant-style dishes, most often reflecting ethnic influences. Tandoori chicken, salmon tacos and jerk-rubbed pork loin have rotated through the station.

Overall, flavors of the Mediterranean remain strong and Asian cuisines including Thai, Indian, Chinese and Japanese continue to dominate. Foods from warmer climates also are popular, perhaps because these parts of the world—South America, the Caribbean and Mexico for its regional cuisine—tend to feature hot, spicy cooking.

“People want to experience new and different things,” says Carol Sherman, senior director of the food and nutrition network that covers New York City’s New York University Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospital. “Ethnic flavors fill that need.”

Japanese-inspired sushi is popular, Sherman says, in the form of cooked seafood such as California rolls. A wok station where customers select their own ingredients for stir-fries also has many fans.

At Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., ethnic flavors range from Thai fried noodles and Moroccan salmon and lentils to Indonesian stir-fry and chicken with tequila-lime marinade. As at other campus dining services, Middlebury’s features bold flavors in more than one venue. At its retail operation, Le Chateau, fare is influenced by the Mediterranean, the American Southwest and Asia.

This fall, CulinArt is set to launch an Asian-inspired noodle bar where pastas such as lo mein, cellophane noodles and udon will pair with broths and condiments including chicken, shrimp, marinated tofu and an assortment of vegetables. Dishes will be made to order.

“In many ways, this is just a big bowl of chicken soup with more character,” says Beaulieu.

Given the growing perception of restaurants as entertainment, it is not surprising that noncommercial foodservice has capitalized on the excitement of display cooking. One of the most popular stations at Princeton is the Mongolian Grill, says Harbison. Guests select ingredients and sauces for a meal prepared on a large, fiery-hot flat-top grill, tossed and stirred with long wooden sticks. “The cooking technique is Mongolian in essence but we offer coconut-curry sauce, which is more Thai-influenced, as well as Sichuan sauce and miso broth.”

At The Limited, display cooking plays into the energy of a fashion-forward retailer. The display station produces such items as chicken marsala, pan-seared tuna over mesclun greens, and made-to-order burritos, reminiscent of the mammoth renditions popularized by fresh-Mexican fast-casual concepts.

Sherman’s staff takes the theatrical aspect of dining further by bringing entertainment to the guests. “Our pastry chef, who wears a big hat and calls himself Mr. Sundae, goes to the pediatrics ward with ice cream and toppings,” she says. “We also do family-style dining, where the kids sit around a table instead of having a tray brought to their room, and we offer pizza parties and burger days.”

Staff also set up carving stations on floors where rehabilitation patients face extended stays. “We need monotony breakers for those patients who are with us for more than a few days,” Sherman says.

Seasonal ingredients find their way into noncommercial menus, from high-end catering events to tossed-to-order salad stations. “We talk about what’s in season, what’s freshest at the markets,” says Brett Fairbanks, general manager of The Limited’s employee cafe. “In summer you’ll find squash and pesto in various dishes, such as an interesting slaw that’s a bit lighter as a barbecue option. In winter, root vegetables and other hearty dishes are slow cooked.”

Freshness, however, means more than just seasonal ingredients. It’s conveyed by assembling dishes to order, such as CulinArt’s noodle bowls. One of the contractor’s most popular new programs, says Beaulieu, is a toasted sandwich similar to those served at Quizno’s and other submarine chains, with the favorite Santa Fe chicken with bacon and chipotle spread.

“Offering customers something familiar done with a twist will always be popular,” he says.

  • Grilled Chicken Paillard with Baby Greens and Basil Oil
  • California Almond Salad with Creamy Lemon-Almond Vinaigrette
  • Albuquerque Chicken Breast Sandwich
  • Grilled Salmon with Lavender Butter and Mangoes
  • Grilled Shrimp with Avocado, Sweet Corn and Soy Relish
  • Apple-Ginger Pork Chops

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