Comfort with a Twist

From cheese steak to meatloaf, customers still crave comfort—and operators give it to them, sometimes with a healthy twist. Ask anyone to define comfort foods and the answer will vary widely. For Gerald Hunter, executive chef at Philadelphia University, a Parkhurst Dining Services account, it’s a no-brainer: Philadelphia cheese steak tops the list of comfort foods that students love.

“Student tastes are much more educated today. We have a lot more sophisticated palates now, but they love their comfort foods.”

Everyday favorites: Comfort foods are staples, he says. “They’re usually something your mom made that you loved when you were growing up. The Philly cheese steak is a staple and we serve it in both our retail outlet and on the board plan. It’s made in house and served on rolls with American or provolone cheeses and fried onions. We also make the South Philly variation with cheese sauce. They’re very popular. When you eat them, you’re hooked for life.”

Comfort foods are usually warm and hearty like meatloaf and mashed potatoes or chicken Parmesan and pasta, chowders and chili. Hunter looks at them as “a sort of soul food. You put your love and heart into them.”

At Mason General Hospital in Shelton, Wash., Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services John Cruse Jr. runs comfort foods year-round on the patient room service menus. He offers patients an all-day breakfast option because “breakfast is comfort food and they’re easier on the stomach.”

Alison Negrin, executive chef for John Muir Health in Concord and Walnut Creek, Calif., tries to put a healthier spin on traditional “all-American types of food we ate as children,” making macaroni and cheeses with low-fat milk and using whole-grain pasta, vegetables and sharp cheddar. She substitutes ground turkey for beef in meatloaf and uses grass-fed beef for pot roast, served in smaller portions with more emphasis on vegetables. Grilled cheese comes on whole-grain bread with artisan cheese, and chicken pot pie is made with free-range chicken, organic veggies and low-fat béchamel sauce, with “maybe a whole-wheat phyllo for the crust.”

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Comfort Foods - SodexoNathalie Jordan, dietary manager at JJP VA Medical Center in The Bronx, N.Y., also uses whole-wheat pasta and low-calorie cheeses for macaroni and cheese. “We revised our chili to chicken chili and brought in chefs to explore ways to be healthier.”

At Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, Mass., Foodservice Director Roger Knysh designed the room service menu around comfort foods such as roast chicken with natural gravy and a low-sugar version of apple pie.

“The majority of our patients like foods they grew up with,” Knysh says. “We give them chicken noodle and beef barley soups, meatloaf and, at breakfast, French toast with warm syrup.”

Beau Dittmar, executive chef at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va., finds classic lasagna is “really big” with students who also enjoy shepherd’s pie, tuna melts and grilled cheese. “We like to keep them happy and give them what their moms made.” He offers pork roast with mashed potato and gravy, turkey pot pie and fried chicken to the 700 students on the board plan.

Comfort as nutrition: Last year, Chartwell’s introduced a new program focusing on comfort foods and international flavors into its customized Environments program. “We see comfort foods as a vehicle and opportunity to give good nutrition to K-12 students in a format they love,” says Kim Salahie, director of culinary development. “This lets us use a lot of vegetables and whole-grain pastas.” The program, he adds, often takes comfort fare such as meat sauce and adds turkey instead of beef for a healthy twist.

Andre Santelli, foodservice director for the Weston (Conn.) Public Schools, offers a favorite—macaroni and cheese—with whole-grain macaroni and low-fat cheese and adds in roasted mushrooms or vegetables. His students also love a mashed potato bowl with a lean protein choice and gravies.

Like those dishes, Salahie adds, many other ethnic items are one-bowl dishes with whole grains and vegetables.

Today’s students, Santelli points out, are “up to speed with eating healthier and are eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. They’ve incorporated those foods into their daily lives. We try to make our food healthier, seasoned the right way and not processed.”

Salahie attributes the growing understanding of the need to eat healthier to “all the information on the Food Network, the Internet and in the media.” The goal is to have Environments  in all Chartwell’s school accounts. “It’s still relatively new. Presentation also plays a role in promoting it because the kids today eat with their eyes.”

Today, says Salahie, comfort foods have changed. They are becoming more international such as Tex-Mex or Mexican. Santelli agrees, noting that lo mein and taco bowls are popular at Weston.


Ethnic Comfort

At Harvard University, comfort foods can be traditional or exotic.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Comfort Foods - SodexoWith the growing influence of foreign cuisines on American menus, the description of comfort food has become broader than ever before. Operators like Martin Breslin, director of culinary operations for Harvard University Hospitality & Dining Services, are introducing new dishes that resonate with customers who come here from other lands with vivid memories of their mothers’ kitchens.

Take, for example, Korean barbecue, bibimbap, or curry and naan—traditional Korean and Indian comfort dishes that have been embraced by Harvard students.

“Korean beef barbecue is high in popularity,” says Breslin. “We do a separate station on Tuesdays with sticky rice, kimchi and lettuce wraps for the barbecue. Students serve themselves and it is a favorite, not just among our Korean students.”

Students also love the spices and flavors of Indian vindaloo, which is offered at a separate Indian station. Vietnamese pho is another “good comfort food,” he adds.

“A lot of American students ask for the international comfort foods,” Breslin says. “Friday is our international theme night and we’ll do Chinese, Italian and Brazilian cuisine. It gives them a chance to explore different cuisines and cultures.”

Back to the basics: Of course, more traditional comfort foods are also on the menu at Harvard, including turkey and chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Other popular items are chicken parmigiana, Salisbury steak and meatloaf. Students also enjoy making their own burritos at a burrito bar, which Breslin calls “interactive comfort food.”

The school has a program in the winter in which students bring recipes from, home. “We feature these, asking students’ parents to send us recipes that the students are accustomed to from childhood. Some of these recipes are lighter [rather than more caloric favorites like mac ‘n’ cheese or meatloaf], such as salads.

“We reproduce them in the dining halls and we get some great feedback. Eating Grandma’s recipe when you’re far from home gives a quintessential feeling of comfort,” he says.

On the dessert side, Breslin sees ice cream as a comforting favorite, both alone and served with a hot apple or other fruit pies. “We also bake chocolate chip cookies twice a day,” he adds, pointing out how much the students enjoy the smell of cookies baking.

An ice cream sundae bar on Sunday night gets good feedback from students too. “We have lots of toppings on it—hot fudge, sauces, jimmies.”


Cultured Cuisine

Chef knows that for college students, home is where the recipes are.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Comfort Foods - SodexoThomas Beckman, South Central region chef for Sodexo, is a believer in the theory that good food greatly enhances students’ college experience, and comfort food is no different. A chef for 25 years, Beckman directs college and resident dining operations in the Gulf states and Midwest region and is an American Culinary Federation-certified executive chef.

“Our 2010 College Food Trends study was all about comfort foods. It’s a main theme for our college dining program this year. Last year we rolled out an American Regional Cuisine program that includes many comfort foods. College and university students miss their family table and the conversations around it. We want to give them that touch of home.

We really focused on the foods that they remember their mom or dad cooking at home. Our division understood that we wanted to make sure they were comfortable, and we went through many recipes and changed flavors as need be. We came up with 65 different recipes, all American regional comfort foods. At our carving stations, we do roast turkeys and beef roasts.

We knew from the start that we were not going to be changing mashed potatoes. You might think it’s cool to add wasabi to mashed potatoes for a specialty stand, but that’s not comfort food.

We cover nine states in my region and 145 schools. I go from Jackson, Miss. to Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Dallas. We brought our trained culinarians, whom we look at as an extended army together to look at recipes and a predetermined menu. We want everyone using the same products, producing the same quality.

We created templates of menus and loaded them into the culinarians’ pre-existing menus. We focused on doing foods that work well in each season, like Yankee pot roast for fall. We try to achieve the same quality in the method of cooking for each dish. The hardest thing is making sure we’re all on the same page.

Our surveys show students today want locally sourced foods that offer comfort with a twist. At the top of their favorites list are international or global comfort foods. The interest in global comfort foods was one of the biggest changes we saw in this study.

Because comfort foods ease the stress of being away from home, we asked students in each of our regions about their favorites. Here in the South Central region, red beans and rice topped the list, while in the Midwest, it was home-style roast beef.

We find that students from around ninth grade to college age have more knowledge about food than ever before. Their understanding of food is growing more diverse and wider. Before joining Sodexo, I was at Tulane University in New Orleans and found that the Food Network and all the information available online about food today has shaped students’ level of knowledge. When we discovered their love of international comfort foods, we turned to Mexican and Vietnamese chefs to deliver those comfort dishes.

We’re launching a new program for 2011 that will have 60 to 65 new recipes for comfort foods from three Mediterranean areas. The countries are Greece, Spain and Italy. The program will roll out in the fall and then we’ll begin work on new recipes from another country—maybe Lebanon.

We asked our student board of directors because they kind of channel our ship in regard to looking at marketing and culinary needs. They keep us close to our guests. The student board told us we needed to keep our global trend foods going. They filled out a survey about what they think is important, and said we need to keep the international recipes authentic and not Americanize them but at the same time, not to take them too far and to keep them approachable.

I think when students go away to a school that’s far from their home, they research the culture and the foods of that area and want to get to know them. Here in Louisiana, where I’m based, they’re trying comfort foods like gumbo, red beans and rice, catfish, dirty rice and jambalaya.

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