Noodling Around

Pasta is everyone’s darling. With so many “pastabilities” in shapes, ingredients and sauces, it easily keeps the boredom factor at bay.

Operators can expect solid pasta sales by menuing tried and true comfort standbys, such as lasagna, ravioli, stuffed shells and the ever-popular macaroni-and-cheese. But by creating variations on those themes, chefs can also add some occasional excitement to the menu—and stay at the top of their form.

Overall, most are in agreement that low-carb diets have had negligible impact on their pasta sales and, like low-carb pasta, they have come and gone. Meanwhile, some say, whole wheat pasta is slowly making some headway.

I guarantee: Say “pasta” to Scott Timmons, regional executive chef at MasterCard, a Flik International account in Purchase, N.Y., and he’ll immediately tell you it’s a guaranteed sale whenever it’s menued for his approximately 1,200 daily lunchtime customers. “Pasta is huge to my business and the low-carb craze didn’t affect it at all,” he says.

Timmons and his staff stuff their own shells with fillings ranging from traditional low-fat ricotta to those incorporating seafood or chicken. “You mix the ingredients with ricotta and pipe it in the same way,” he explains. “And I can’t even count the varieties of lasagna we offer as a casserole off the hot line. It’s good if you can pair it with a high-cost protein such as fish or beef, so you can even out the food cost.”

For example, his Mexican lasagna alternates adobo chicken with layers of tortellini sheets and incorporates Monterey Jack cheese instead of mozzarella. It’s always a sell-out—priced at $3.50 a la carte—whenever it’s menued once in six weeks. “But I can only get $3.50 for the fish dish on the hot line, so I’d want to make the Mexican lasagna as ‘fanfare’ as possible,” he notes. “The fish needs to be there as an option, but we’ll play up the lower-food-cost items.”

It’s hard to find a location in any sector that doesn’t regularly offer mac-and-cheese, typically by-the-ounce as a side dish. At MasterCard, it’s 30¢ an ounce and available every Thursday. “People know it and expect it—and I’ll offer variations, such as smoked chicken or ham mac-and-cheese,” says Timmons. “Also, a pasta and vegetable action station, run every Wednesday, is huge for me. It’s basically the same every week. The customer fills a paper boat with as many cold raw vegetables as they want and hands it to the chef who sautees it on top of their choice of noodle.”

With fanfare: The chef, keeping four sauté pans going on four burners, has an array of ingredients at the ready: olive oil, garlic, marinara, heavy cream, grated cheese, mixed herbs, peppercorns, crushed peppers, pasta, plus protein selections that change week to week. “It’s basically a pasta dish,” Timmons admits, “but it’s a complete meal served on a china plate or in a to-go container, so I get $4.29 for it—almost $1 more than for other entrees. To me, that’s fanfare.”

Pasta–by-the-ounce is available daily, so variety is key. Occasionally, Timmons puts out whole wheat pasta and finds that if it’s the only selection, people will take it, but they still perceive white pasta as “the real thing,” he says. “I’m a fan of easy to cook, easy to pick up and eat (items), and elbow macaroni, penne pasta or mini shells are easy—not linguini or rigatoni. Wednesday is Spaghetti Day and we’ll do over 200 portions, plus I’ll do chicken parmigiana every other week with spaghetti as a side.

“But spaghetti is not menued otherwise because it’s (perceived as) messy. Meatballs and spaghetti is menued only once in six weeks and is not as popular—I may do 60 to 70 portions—for the same reason.”

Keeping it simple: Cold pasta salad is the real star, both on the salad bar and as part of almost all catering jobs Timmons and his staff produce. “Customers have many other cold salad choices but pasta is No.1,” he says. “They don’t even care what’s in it—simple, with vegetables and pesto, is best. Since it’s also on the salad bar, prepared with olive oil, mixed herbs plus salt and pepper, I go through about 180 pounds of cooked pasta in one week.”

Chef David Thomas, Aramark’s manager at Legg Mason Wood Walker, Inc., in Owens Mills, Maryland, knows that baked macaroni and cheese topped with buttered breadcrumbs is a favorite among his 400 daily lunchtime customers. When it’s an ancho chili and chicken mac-and-cheese or a pesto and tomato version, sales are even better.

But when blackened chicken mac-and-cheese, prepared with a blend of Monterey Jack and Cheddar, then topped with breadcrumbs is menued, it’s a sell out by 1 p.m— an hour before closing—so the sous chef has standing orders to prepare more.

Love that garlic cream: Thomas, who joined this location last March, hasn’t yet introduced the live-action, build-your-own pasta station that he found to be so successful at his previous assignment: Verizon in Baltimore. There, 160 to 200 of the unit’s 500 lunchtime customers would choose this option when it was offered each Thursday as an enticement to dine in-house on what is traditionally a slow day.

With four pastas, four proteins and four sauces to choose from, there was always something for everyone, Thomas points out. “Garlic cream sauce was the most popular as well as a pink sauce of béchamel, marinara and a bit of red wine,” he says. “Plus, we always offered one sauce of the week, pesto being the favorite.”

Picture a not dangerously mad scientist creating a never-before tasted melange of ingredients and you’ve got Duane Keller, executive chef at Guest Services’ Potowmack Landing Restaurant, a National Park Service location on the shores of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va. Pairing ingredients that elicit an appreciative ‘wow’ from his more than 500 daily lunch customers (600 to 700 at dinner), is evidently his reason for being.

Keller’s latest pasta innovation for the fall menu is eggplant and potato gnocchi with pancetta. “We make a very light gnocchi out of potato and roasted eggplant,” he says. “Usually gnocchi is just from potatoes; using eggplant was just an experiment. I steam light russet potatoes, then put them through a food mill. We sauté pancetta with porcini mushrooms. The light, fluffy gnocchi with brunoise pancetta and earthy, creamy diced mushrooms with grated manchego cheese is just decadent.”

A subtle ‘wow’: Keller is also passionate about mac-and-cheese, especially prepared with breadcrumbs on top, heated until it bubbles. “Keep it simple but with a little twist on things,” he says. “Make it educational but not intimidating. It should be subtle, comfortable, but then ‘wow.’ We’ve done a lobster meat and oyster mushroom mac-and-cheese combo with gemeli pasta—like little pig’s tails. It was really fun to see everyone’s face light up and it’s pretty high-end here. We sold about 50 a day as a center-of-the-plate item. It’s pulled lobster meat sautéed with mushrooms plus a white Cheddar cheese sauce with sherry and leeks for a completely different idea.”

New this year, Keller is offering divers scallops with cauliflower, capers and toasted almonds tossed with pepper fettuccini. The scallops are pan sautéed with a dollop of butter; the pan deglazed with a splash of white wine. The nuttiness of the almonds adds a light and flavorful touch, while the pasta ties all the flavors together, Keller asserts. “I put cracked pepper in the pasta and cook the cauliflower with turmeric. It’s a really light, rustic Italian pasta but robust for the fall.”

Sheets-to-order: To ease production pressures, Keller purchases pasta sheets to make fettuccini and ravioli, outsourcing his order for any flavor he can imagine, from pumpkin ravioli to squid, pepper or sun-dried tomato sheets. “It’s like ice cream, cheesecake or mashed potatoes—you can make pasta in any flavor.”

For the past seven years or so, Mike Milone, foodservice manager at the University of Nebraska–Omaha, has been running Tomassitos, a branded pizza/pasta station concept developed by the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS).

“It’s our busiest location in the foodcourt which seats about 900,” he says. “We serve approximately 3,000 (of the total of 15,000 students) each day at lunchtime in this foodcourt. We’re mostly a commuter campus with only about 1,000 residents.”

Mostaccioli a must: Today, the Tomassitos station is basically the same as when it started, menuing homemade marinara and meat sauce daily with Alfredo and primavera sauce on a rotation. Homemade lasagna and pizza are also available each day. “We’ve used a variety of pastas and sauces over the years,” Milone reports, “but we find that mostaccioli is easier to eat and the most popular, too. It’s like a noodle with a hole in the middle.

Spaghetti is also on daily, but it’s messier to eat. The third type of pasta rotates and could be rotini, rigatoni, penne, the more expensive tortellini, or, once in a while, ravioli, a prepared product stuffed with cheese. Each week, we make two 60-gallon batches of marinara sauce and also use it to make the meat sauce.”

Employees working the evening and weekend shifts at UCLA Medical Center no longer feel they’re getting short shrift or leftovers at mealtime. For the past three years, a pasta and stir-fry cooked-to-order bar has served their needs and its been enthusiastically received, according to executive chef Mark Dyball.

The daily menu always includes yaki soba noodles in addition to two types of Italian noodles such as penne, bow ties, spaghetti, etc. “The sauces change as well, with one usually being Asian—perhaps Thai curry sauce or black bean,” he says. “The second might be checca, a vodka and tomato sauce; tarragon/mustard sauce, puttanesca sauce or pesto cream sauce—but there’s always marinara, Alfredo and an Asian sauce each day.

“We make the sauces from scratch,” he continues, “and the chef can always incorporate leftover protein such as salmon or steak in the stir-fry or pasta dish, plus we always offer chicken and shrimp. The customer can mix and match ingredients (verbally), but the chef remains in control of the portion size which is priced at $4.99 a bowl or $5.99 for a beverage combo.”

At UCLA Medical Center, as in so many other locations, mac and cheese carries the day—typically Thursday. “The secret is it’s from-scratch and they love it,” Dyball contends. “We make it with a roux base plus a sharp Cheddar cheese and cream to finish. We make up to 200 pounds each time, cover it with extra cheese, then put it into the oven. We sell it as an entrée for $2.99 or as a side for 79¢ with fried chicken and spinach.”

Extruding for Fun and Profit

A pasta extruder takes center stage every day at the Rialto—not the theater chain, nor the 14th-century Venetian plaza/entertainment district, but rather the residential dining marketplace venue opened one year ago on campus at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

One cook and four students oversee the operation, extruding the pasta—up to 14 batches each day—then transferring it to the pasta boiler. According to Carol Fletcher, MBA, assistant director for residential dining, it’s fascinating to watch during lunch and dinner as pastas of many hues streams out. But it wasn’t smooth sailing in the beginning.

To the rescue: “The manufacturer didn’t provide training but fortunately at that time we had a chef visiting here for a week who knew the process,” she recalls. “We had to develop the recipes for how much spinach or tomato to put into the machine. It only makes five pounds per batch, so now we start production at 10 a.m. and continue through 12:30. It takes 20 minutes from start to finish, then three minutes more to boil the pasta.”

Pasta “mix” ingredients include high-gluten semolina flour, eggs and water—or half the amount of water if another ingredient, such as spinach, is being added. “The machine mixes it and extrudes it into shapes; we have about 20 including angel hair, spaghetti, linguini, etc.,” Fletcher explains. “If we’re using spinach, it’s thawed, drained and chopped in the food processor first, since the extruder is very sensitive to lumps.”

Overall, 12 batches, or about 100 pounds, are prepared per meal, then offered with a choice of two sauces, one with meat, one meatless, priced at $7.25 for an all-you-choose-to-eat lunch, or $8 for dinner.

Big plans: Currently, Fletcher isn’t planning to place an extruder in the other main dining venue, choosing to keep each distinct from the other. But she is considering how she can utilize this fresh pasta elsewhere.

“Perhaps we’ll satellite it out to the other venues,” she says, “or market it to the community. We’re already marketing home-baked goods to them—they come on campus to buy it—so why not homemade pasta?”

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