Chef de Display

Blending a well-trained chef, some prepared proteins and a little personality and you have the makings of a sucessful display cooking station. As these stations become more and more ubiquitous, operators are making them stand out by putting charismatic chefs front and center.

They say there’s no business like show business, and foodservice operators in all segments quickly add that their brand of show business—whether called exhibition, demo or display cooking—is also good business (not to mention good for business). It draws attention, increases traffic, showcases your staff’s culinary talent and lets the customer see you’re using the freshest ingredients while giving them choices and control over what’s going into their own individual meal.

At center stage, the star of the performance is the chef who, ideally, has an outgoing personality, an enthusiasm for what he or she is preparing and an intuitive understanding of the concept behind this interactive presentation. Because the display station chef is recognized as integral to the success of the concept, managers aim to pick the chef or associate who is best suited for the role.

“In general, we try to encourage the associates to be more interactive,” notes Scott Zahren, CEC, Aramark’s director of culinary for campus, schools and healthcare. “When we put a person out there, we really look for personality, the ability to be interactive and to be able to explain the dish. You know who you could pull from and often, if we give someone a chance, they become more comfortable and become a star.”

As operators across the country attest, creating a bit of show business gives people a respite from work—and the chef or associate who’s able to deliver a stellar performance along with appetizing food is worth his or her weight in, well, stir-fries.

“The best thing people like here is me cooking and joking with the customers—they’re really having a good time,” grins Juan Ornelas, chef coordinator at 300-bed Via Christi Health System in Wichita, Kan.

“Doctors and nurses here are so busy and serious, but you can break (that mood) for them,” he points out. “And they listen to my suggestions. They think I’m crazy to suggest a bit of hot chili peppers, Asian sesame ginger sauce plus a bit of teriyaki glaze over Chinese soft noodles—they don’t believe it would be good. People like me love to experiment. We’re a not-for-profit hospital and success is (defined by) how many people we make happy.”

At Via Christi, the approximately 1,000 lunchtime customers can visit the Fresh and Lean station featuring stir-fries Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It’s stocked with 20 fresh vegetable selections, 16 sauces, two types of rice (white and jasmine brown), three varieties of noodles (lo mein, rice and green tea soba) as well as shredded beef, chicken and shrimp. The chef portions the meat (four ounces per serving), sauce, rice and noodles into the bowl that includes the customer’s selection of vegetables.

Ornelas sets up several induction stoves plus propane and typically stir-fries four or five orders simultaneously, having prepared the vegetables and meat ahead. “I focus so much on what I’m doing, I rarely give people the wrong order—even with five woks going at the same time,” he claims.

He also provides all the nutritional information on the counter: the calories for sauces, rice, noodles and meat. “Since we note the soba noodles are lower in carbs,” he explains, “[some customers] are choosing those, while others are asking for a half portion of rice or want two bowls of vegetables instead for $1 more.”

Ornelas is aware of his personal contribution to the operation. “I hear that on Saturday and Sunday they miss me. It’s really a fun job—to help people cheer up by joking with them.”

Local talent: When Walter Thurnhofer, RD, LD, DHCFA, director of food and nutrition services at 450-bed University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, was thinking about adding display cooking action to his servery—perhaps a guest chef with an international theme—Elias Melki immediately came to mind.

This Lebanese chef, a charming and gregarious man (a plus for display cooking), works out of a licensed commercial kitchen in the basement of his Bothell, WA home, and provides Mediterranean wraps to the UWMC cafeteria several times a week on a regular basis. They consistently sell out there as they do at nearby non-commercial venues carrying his product, including Microsoft, Harbor View Medical Center and Virginia Mason Medical Center.

Now Chef Elias also makes guest chef appearances at UWMC once every few months, typically serving about 200 customers each visit. “They give me a station under the hood,” he explains. “I bring my own tools with me and I prepare combo plates [priced at $5.25] of three falafel patties—cooked on the spot—a four-ounce scoop of hummus and a four-ounce portion of baba gannoush, plus lettuce, tomatoes and a drizzle of tahini sauce. It also includes an eight-inch slice of locally made pita bread.”

Falafel, as prepared in Chef Elias’ kitchen, is a mixture of garbanzo beans, onion, parsley, garlic and cilantro chopped almost to a paste in a commercial food processor. To prepare it, “I slide the mixture into a mold—a little bowl like an ice cream scoop—flip it upside down and drop the patty into hot oil for about a minute until it’s golden brown. Then I plate it with the other items,” he explains.

Talking points: The chef’s performance in a display cooking setting is spontaneous and unscripted, but Aramark provides several training tools that give chefs the basic necessities, according to Bryan Cicchini, regional executive chef for the Southeast region. “There’s a marketing part of the recipe collection that includes the history of the dish, so we’re giving the front-line employees—as well as the display cooking chefs—the tools to talk about the product,” he explains.

“We’re looking for someone with an outgoing personality—we can always train them to cook.”

Display cooking stations are, for the most part, finishing stations—and training manuals typically detail the ideal flow of the set up of the station so the chef or associate never has to fumble to find the appropriate utensils or ingredients. In almost all cases, the aromatics—such as onions and garlic—are sauteed first in a bit of oil, telegraphing their tantalizing aroma to attract customers from afar. Other ingredients, pre-cut and sometimes cooked ahead, are set out to follow suit.

“In the creation of a made-to-order pasta dish,” Zahren explains, “vegetables go first since the protein is already cooked—you’re really rethermalizing the protein—then the pasta, also already cooked, all sautéed with marinara sauce. You bring it up to temperature, then plate it. Optional ingredients such as mushrooms, pignoli nuts and Parmesan as a topping you leave for last—so you can eliminate them easily without changing the dish if the customer doesn’t want them.”

Zahren usually aims for Aramark accounts to have a specific display cooking dish-of-the-day, such as chicken cacciatore. Certain dishes, such as Mongolian stir-fry, in which the customer picks all the ingredients, slow down service since each dish is created individually.

Zahren is a fan of “mystery market basket” chef competitions—especially since he’s participated in several himself—because they generate interest and build customers’ familiarity with chefs. Often, a guest chef from another account is invited to compete against the in-house chef. A mock kitchen can be set up in the servery or seating area of the cafeteria.

“Everyone loves to see people cook and this really gets the students into it to ‘root for your chef,’” he says. “Typically, the judges include faculty members students and a culinary person with perhaps a medallion for the winner. We try to highlight some winning dishes on the menu as soon as the next day.”

Each mystery basket might include a major protein item such as a 40-lb. grouper. When the starting bell rings, each chef is expected to break down the fish and then aim to create at least five dishes from the market basket ingredients and provide several courses during the hour-long competition.

Savvy set-up: More healthcare units than ever before are doing display cooking, according to David Martin, Sodexho’s healthcare division director of culinary services/executive chef. Therefore he’s now installing such set-ups with each renovation as a matter of course. A typical display station includes three parts, Martin notes:

  • he mis en place area, usually including drop-ins for cold ingredients.
  • The cooking area. “We only use induction cooking because hospitals are very cautious of fire hazards, therefore we must use the right pan and partially cook-off some items—such as meat and pasta—since induction cookers don’t get as hot” as gas or electric units, he explains.
  • “Some vegetables, such as green beans, retain their color better if pan-cooked and blanched.”
    Martin underscores the necessity of having the right pans and says those with a heavier bottom with an inner core fill the bill. “You want a flat bottom, usually stainless steel, so they’ll conduct heat more evenly,” he advises. “A chef pan, which looks like a wok, is used for everything, including pasta. It’s easier to handle and contains the messier items better.”
  • A holding station or steamtable for items such as fried rice that are made ahead in the kitchen.
    In small accounts, cook-to-order is possible, but in larger facilities—and because of short lunch periods—Martin suggests cooking five to six portions ahead and holding them in the steam­table. The customer will still see the cook-to-order process. In locations that can’t afford to build in the set-up, cook-to-order can work well for night and weekend service.

The advantage of offering display cooking for nights and weekends comes in the form of very satisfied customers since food on these shifts is generally cooked far ahead, he says. “By doing this, customers get a show, a fresher item and there’s less waste since we’re only making what we need.”