Common Denominators

How operators deal with the intersection of specialized menus and special diets.

Richard Uhl, director of dining services at the Keio School in Purchase, NY, and Jeff Basom, chef at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA, face menuing challenges above and beyond those of most of their peers. Their respective tasks—to create specialized meals to please 330 Japanese high school students at Uhl’s location, and about 500 undergrads at Basom’s totally vegetarian campus—are tackled with flair, creativity and an abiding willingness to be open to customer suggestions.

At the Keio School, a Culinart account for the past eight years, Uhl must offer at least one Japanese item at each meal, seven days a week. The fact that none of his foodservice staff of 17 are Japanese doesn’t make any difference, he finds.

“I basically have three sources for recipes,” he explains,  “1) research my chef and staff have done; 2) an outside consultant who is half Japanese and is fluent in the language; and 3) a student committee I meet with each quarter.”

Consultant input: The consultant has been invaluable in helping Uhl navigate the nuances of Japanese cuisine and better understand what his teenage customers really want. “I meet with him at least once a month; he comes in during the lunch period and interacts with students and the teaching staff,” Uhl explains. “He’s my insurance policy when we occasionally need menu assistance. Early in the term, when parents visit and there’s a Q & A period, we tag-team the session.”

This year’s crop of Keio School students want more seafood menued, including red snapper, mahi mahi, and tuna. “We’ve been doing tuna, but they want more as center-of-the-plate items. We’ll bake red snapper that’s been marinated overnight in a mix of soy sauce and mirin [rice wine], then serve it over rice. Everything is served with Japanese white rice, three meals a day. We’ll add a vegetable because we want to meet Japanese meal requirements plus the USDA requirement.”

Overall, some type of fish is menued every other day at lunch or dinner. If there’s any left over, students enjoy it chilled from the salad bar at the next meal. Any beef item goes over very well, Uhl finds, and these teens love hamburgers (and pizza) as much as their American counterparts do, but beef curry prepared using a curry product procured through a Japanese vendor is extremely popular.

“The beef is cut and we prepare the curry sauce,” he says. “It looks like one-pound chocolate blocks. We add several blocks to water and cook it down. When it’s reduced, we add the beef. Toward the end of cooking, we’ll add carrots, potatoes and onions.”

One recently held event, the annual sports competition organized by the students, found Uhl and his staff preparing 440 bento boxes filled with pork tonkatsu, i.e., deep fried pork cutlets served over shredded cabbage with a sweet, fruity katsu sauce. “Normally, I buy the sauce, but I learned how to make it one time when we ran out,” Uhl confides. “We add water, lemon juice and orange juice to Worcestershire sauce, then thicken it with cornstarch so that it stays on the cutlet.”

Vegetarian for all: According to its Web site, Bastyr University near Seattle is “at the heart of natural medicine education,” and is “internationally recognized as a pioneer in the study of natural healing.” For the past two decades, the cafeteria’s mandate from administration has been to provide vegetarian meals exclusively. In addition, chef Jeff Basom aims to “almost always” menu a vegan alternative each day.

“Vegan is probably requested more than any other special diet,” he says. “Usually there are some customers seeking gluten-free, but actually more are looking for wheat-free. We post the ingredients in a plastic 3-in. x 5-in. frame on a shelf above the cafeteria service line. But I find that one way to address special needs is to have as wide an array of simple choices as possible on the salad bar so people can make their own combinations.”

He finds that Asian-inspired recipes are, for the most part, dairy-free and often include tofu or tempeh. “However, if people are vegan and also soy-free, they’re particularly challenged; we’ll make sure that if we have soy in the entrée that the hot vegetable won’t. But I do think people on special diets are used to looking for other items that suit their needs.”


Allergies on the Increase

More operators are making cafeterias safer for customers with food allergies.

For whatever reason, the number of people with food allergies is growing. But thanks to a fortunate convergence of governmental regulations and administrative mandates as well as operator awareness and initiatives, life in the cafeteria line for these customers is often easier—and safer—now than just a few short years ago.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires source labeling of most ingredients derived from commonly allergenic sources (see Opinion, p. 16. FSD, April 15, 2007). In this way, operators such as Damian Monticello, corporate foodservice liaison for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, an Aramark account in Jacksonville, have the tools they need to be more proactive.

“We’re definitely seeing more requests for gluten-free menus in our cafes and cafeterias,” Monticello points out. “If we’re using a purchased salad dressing, gluten might be in the emulsifier. We’ve seen that before. On some healthier items like a low-carb brisket, instead of thickening the gravy [perhaps with a thickener that contains gluten], we’re doing it more au jus.”

Although only a small percentage of Monticello’s 5,000 customers in Jacksonville are affected, his catering menu flags gluten-free items with an asterisk. And the sign-in page for placing catering orders displays the contractor’s My Assistant feature that provides information concerning food allergies, food aversions or religious dietary issues. “We try to steer them to other dishes or alter a sauce for a chicken dish,” Monticello adds.

‘Healthy’ dose of labels: At 440-bed St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, WI, a recent corporate “healthy initiative” has mandated more nutritional labeling out in the cafeteria, notes food production manager Mike Steffen. This can serve to guide those among his retail customers who have food allergies. But, on the patient side, he’s become quite proactive in regard to gluten. “Gluten-free is a growing need. There’s more awareness now that the Celiac Sprue problem is growing. We’ve changed our processes here in the hospital. The old school of thought was that they’d have a problem from ingestion; now, we’ve learned, cross-contamination—from a toaster, utensils, etc.—is an issue. We’ve purchased a gluten-free toaster and also separate pans and utensils. A cook stops and washes his hands, changes gloves, then focuses on that one patient tray from start to finish.”

Since the Silly Yak (a play on the word “celiac”) bakery opened in town, Steffen has purchased whole loaves of bread from them. “The old standards used to be rice breads, but they provide hamburger buns and cinnamon breads, and I hope to put a cookie from them on our menu, too. There’s more awareness now. This issue is not going away. It’s only going to grow.”

As vice president for food and nutrition product development for Sodexho Healthcare Services, Nitu Gupta, RD, focuses a major part of her energy and creative talents on developing marketing plans and menus for retail and patients. These days the specialized menus she’s developing are based on the confluence of health and diversity initiatives.

“Now, customers are looking for more authentic ethnic foods that are also appealing; they don’t want to give up flavor,” she says. “We’re developing authentic recipes, such as Asian for Pan American month in May, and tweaking them to make them healthy recipes.”

The challenge comes, she finds, from customers with special diets. “When we give operators recipes, we also give a list of ingredients so the operator can label items,” Gupta explains. “So we give information to our customers and let them decide for themselves.”


In Pursuit of Perfect Purees: One Operator’s Quest

In the special diets category, preparing appetizing pureed meals is a particular challenge for healthcare operators. Simply processing ingredients in a blender isn’t always the best solution, but Thom Boehm, CEC, CCE, FMP, culinary specialist for Metz & Co., Dallas, PA, has been there and done that. He shares his thoughts here.

“Since I’m corporate chef for the entire healthcare division [17 locations, of which six are long-term care], I see a need for pureed diets in many accounts. To give patients some degree of dignity, we’re trying to go to pre-formed foods so they can see the shape of what they’re served. One location was putting three different purees on the plate together, blending colors and flavors into one. For fruit, just pureed is o.k., but for proteins and vegetables, we’re trying to shape them.

In healthcare, in general, if we can get pre-made product, we’d prefer it since food safety would be controlled. It’s sealed, there’s less handling involved and it’s safer for the patient. If you’re making it yourself, you’re chilling it in molds, wrapping, flash freezing to get longevity of a few days, then bringing it back up to temperature, so agencies are suggesting we stay away from making purees ourselves.

Now, I’m still looking for more companies willing to do this. Cost shouldn’t be as much as a kosher meal, which needs separate kitchens and special people [to oversee production]. But for a protein, vegetable, starch, fruit and beverage [the cost is] more than $2 a meal and most hospitals want food cost at about $1.25 per meal.

To make flavor more appealing [especially for the elderly], some herbs can be used, but we must be careful with the salt and pepper. Even with herbs we have to be careful with little leaves that can become a choking hazard, so you almost have to go to liquid seasoning. Several years ago, I toured the Heinz facility in Pittsburgh and they even had flavor for beer—do you want it to taste like Coors or Coors light, strawberries ripe or unripe? But to use on the unit level, such [liquid] flavors are too expensive.

All of our locations are doing some purees. I don’t think I have a unit that’s doing all frozen. The problem is a consistency issue. With different people doing it, how much water, how much thickener? Sometimes, they’ll eyeball the water. Again, buying frozen helps with consistency.

Some menu items puree better than others. You can even puree fish, especially if it’s a little fleshy. White fish would work. Avoid the fatty ones such as swordfish, but that’s cost-prohibitive anyway. I spoke to one guy who purees his regular menu [to serve to patients on a pureed diet]. He puts a hoagie—including the bread, tomatoes, onions, meat, cheese—into the blender and adds thickener; he said they liked it.

Today, we generally don’t get into that many varieties of special diets, so hospital food is made with low sodium concerns [in mind]. But we still have to make the food taste good. At times, I could use a splash of vinegar to give it a bite and avoid some salt. We’re using herbs and spices to keep the sodium low, but there are times when you need a pinch of salt. Plus, today there’s a very fine line: The hospital business is a business and food has to taste good while maintaining as much of its nutritional value as possible, or they’ll look for another contractor.

Obviously, you have to do this at a proper price; without price restrictions we could do a lot of other things.”