Smoke Rises

Published in Menu Strategies

Smoking techniques are not just reserved for fine dining and barbeque restaurants; they’re a popular trend across segments. Check out how these college and university operations are keeping their menus up in smoke.

Rice University, Houston, Texas

The chefs of Rice University Dining Services in Houston use tools as old-school as wood-fired smokers and as modern as hot-holding cabinets and combi-oven steamers to produce smoked specialties for the school, which has an enrollment of about 6,000 undergrads and grad students.

They smoke traditional Texas beef brisket, a frequent choice of summer conference groups at the university, outdoors in a mobile smoker fueled with a mix of pecan, apple, cherry, hickory and mesquite wood.

“A lot of people come here from outside Texas, so they really enjoy this type of cuisine,” says dining director Johnny Curet, CEC, whose staff includes 18 American Culinary Federation-certified culinarians. 

For smaller smoking jobs, the chefs may use hot-holding cabinets modified to burn wood chips. For example, they smoke and cook catfish portions right in the cabinet prior to service. More substantial items like briskets, flank steaks or ribs are typically done in two steps, an initial cabinet smoking for a couple of hours followed by a finishing cook in the combi oven-steamer.

During the school year, students can find a smoked entrée once or twice per week in one the campus’ six serveries, Curet says. In addition to the popular beef and pork items, other featured proteins include salmon fillets, chicken quarters and whole ducks, the latter rubbed with ground anise and coriander or Owl Spice, Rice’s proprietary salt-free seasoning blend.

Vegetarians also share in the smoky fun. “We also smoke things like pineapples, tomatoes, corn and squashes,” says Curet. “It is part of our DNA to offer a good variety of meatless items.”

Menu Sampler: Rice University, Baker College Kitchen

    • Veggie Entrée: Smoky Eggplant with Chick Peas and Spinach
    • Pizza Special: Grilled Vegetable
    • Entrée: Grilled Salmon with Artichokes and Leeks
    • Vegetable: Grilled Squash

Emmanuel College, Boston, Massachusetts

Smoke “adds a second and third dimension of flavor” to chicken, seafood, ribs and produce at Emmanuel College in Boston, says Carl Marchione, executive chef of the Bon Appetit Management Company account. “That’s why it’s so popular.”

Marchione uses a pair of electric smokers with digital temperature and smoke controls that allow great flexibility. “If I want to do pulled pork the traditional way it is done outside, low and slow, I can set it at 225° for 15 hours,” he says. “Or we can put chickens or ribs in the smoker first thing in the morning and have them ready for lunch.”

Marchione uses the smoker to adapt cedar plank-cooked salmon, a favorite dish from his previous career as a hotel chef, to the college dining environment. He marks line-caught salmon fillets on the grill, coats them with Dijon mustard, fresh dill and brown sugar and smokes them over cedar chips. “It comes out almost exactly the way it did when I cooked it on the plank,” says Marchione.

Other smoky signatures at Emmanuel, which has about 2,500 students, include smoked tomatoes and mozzarella for pizza topping and smoked pinto beans and bacon.

Another selling point of smoke cooking is its relative lightness. “When you smoke a pork butt for 16 or 18 hours for pulled pork, the fat is rendered completely out,” Marchione says. “It is due to the dry heat of the electric smoker and the fact that you are not using oil.”

Menu Sampler: Emmanuel College, Muddy River Café

    • Grilled Portobello Mushroom Sandwich $4.95 with sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers on ciabatta
    • Steak and Cheese Sub $5.95 with American cheese and sautéed peppers and onions
    • Caprese Sandwich $4.95 with sliced tomato, fresh basil and mozzarella cheese on a sundried tomato and basil baguette