Monster mash-ups: Food fusion

Panini, ramenitos and more make the grade as chefs fuse flavors and styles.

The burger pizza created by Aramark at the University of Rochester in New York. 

The idea of mash-ups, embodied by the now-ubiquitous cronut, is a concept that non-commercial operators are taking to new heights. Take, for example, what Evan Rehrig, unit market specialist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., has done. He has created cold pizza paninis—two slices of cold pizza surrounding sandwich fillings, pressed to crispy perfection.

“At Muhlenberg, our goal is to set the trend, not follow it, and we wanted to create stylish, creative options that you can’t find anywhere else,” explains Rehrig, whose Turkey Club, Caprese and Portabello Mushroom paninis are examples of his mash-ups. “We like to think of it as a reflection of art and function.”

Muhlenberg’s not alone. At UC Davis’ Tercero Dining Commons, Executive Chef Sal Gagliano took the ever-popular Asian ramen noodles and folded them into a spinach burrito with teriyaki sauce, crunchy nori and shredded veggies to create a top-selling mash-up dubbed the “Ramenito.”

“Ramen is a comfort food for college students and this mix of ingredients works because it combines some traditional Asian flavors and textures with an easy eating vessel,” says Gagliano.

Funky ingredients and ideas

At Saint Clare’s Health System in Denville, N.J., operations manager and executive chef Aatul Jain combined his Indian heritage with customers’ love of paninis and a desire to repurpose leftovers to create the “naanini,” essentially a pressed sandwich made with naan bread.

“I love playing with funky ingredients and ideas,” Jain says. “We keep changing our fillings, as the popularity depends primarily on the filling itself.” Jain cites the turkey, cranberry, cornbread and greens as a popular filling.

Tony Manowske, unit chef at Rheta’s Market at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, can relate. His breakfast pizza, made with local dough, sausage gravy in place of marinara sauce, and toppings such as scrambled eggs, bacon bits and breakfast potatoes, is a best seller.

“It works because students always get excited when we serve breakfast for dinner, and they love pizza, [so it’s] the best of both worlds,” explains Manowske, who tries to break up the stress of exams with fun dishes for students.  

These mash-up experts all tout locally sourced ingredients and from-scratch preparation as the keys to their success. But perhaps equally important is knowing your market, says Michael Piccone, chef manager for Aramark at the University of Rochester in New York, who created a burger pizza. “For years we’ve had a student favorite burger, made with local beef, special ‘Mel sauce’, crispy onions and cheddar,” Piccone explains. “This year, knowing we had a hit on our hands, we began looking at ways to extend that flavor profile for our students. The next logical step for us was pizza.” Piccone swapped cheddar for mozzarella and a patty for crumbled beef, and used local pizza dough as the base to create an instant hit.

“If you stay current on trends, don’t hesitate to take risks, and do your homework, you’re likely to have a successful outcome and satisfied customers,” agrees Rehrig.

Walking a fine line

But be careful. “The key is knowing when to stop,” warns Piccone. “If you go too far and lose the flavor profiles that created the inspiration, it won’t work for the consumer, so stay grounded in what works and then start to play.”

Gagliano seconds that notion. “Try out some flavors that you like and test them on your staff—they’re going to give you honest tips and criticism,” he says, adding that the execution has to be there—it’s a matter of blending technical training with creativity.

Likewise, if you’re having trouble getting customers to try a new mash-up, offer free samples. “I always encourage my guests with a ‘don’t buy it if you don’t like it’ mantra and I’ve had almost 100% success,” says Jain.

“Mash-ups are definitely here to stay, but it’s hard to predict what form they will take,” says Rehrig, who notes that cultural fusion—i.e. combining Latin and Asian flavors—is a form of mash-up that’s been around for decades. “New cultural fusions seem to pop up all the time, and while they may not sustain popularity, the concept of fusion never dies.”

Piccone agrees: “When you look through culinary history you see that trends like this eventually die off, but you also see some great examples of how items born from these fads become mainstays in our society and continue evolving.”

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