South of the Border

Published in FSD Update

Operations use staff’s Latino background in menu development.

What’s the one thing your kitchen has in common with nearly every other kitchen? An international staff. “When you work with these people, they not only influence your food, they become part of your professional family,” says Aatul Jain, retail operations manager at Saint Clare’s Health System, in Denville, N.J. “It starts with eating their cuisine for family meals, then you add dishes to the menu as an acknowledgement.”

For Jain, this meant paying tribute to not only his Latino staffers but also the large Latino population in the Northeast. “Grilled tortilla dishes are great for vegetarians,” says Jain, who recommends using leftover veggies and proteins. “It’s easy to implement because most ingredients are something you already have on hand—poblanos, chipotles, cilantro, cumin. These aren’t exotic anymore, they’re part of our everyday life. [Latino] food’s popularity and presence in mainstream America is only going to increase.”

David Davidson, managing director of dining services at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., agrees. As part of the university’s annual dining event series, Harvard held a “festive meal” focused entirely on Brazilian food. “We wanted to highlight the background and culinary knowledge of our Brazilian staff, who contributed personal recipes that embodied their home cultures,” Davidson says. “Every item on the menu fit the theme and made it feel like a restaurant or destination experience."

“For many students, the foods were all new, but given our diverse student population, for some this food tasted like home,” adds Davidson, who admits it wasn’t difficult to get the students to try new dishes. “Special events are an opportunity for undergraduates to enjoy a special, unusual meal together, one which may generate new tastes, conversations and connections.” 

Cuisine characteristics

So what characterizes Brazilian cuisine? “We’re very influenced by Europe and Africa,” says Brazilian native Luiz Da Costa, chef/production manager at Harvard. “Lots of slow braising and spices, like cumin and paprika, rather than pepper and chilies. We also don’t use a lot of tortillas or fried foods.” 

The highlight of Harvard’s event was the churrasco carving station, which featured roast beef, grilled chicken and cured sausage. The event also included vegetarian feijoada, a black bean stew; caldo verde, a potato- and kale-based soup; a variety of composed salads, including a Brazilian potato salad and a raw beet salad; and a dessert station featuring a Brazilian banana cake. Brazilian cuisine also relies heavily on toppings, so Da Costa created a station for tomato sauce and toasted yuca flour. 

“Though the dishes use a lot of ingredients, the preparation is simple and the ingredients are easy to find,” says Da Costa, who has since added many of the dishes from the event to the menu due to their popularity. 

Pnina Peled, executive chef at  Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York, says that compared to Mexican cuisine, Central and South American dishes use “a lot more meats and seafood with lots of garlic, olive oil, fresh herbs and spices and pickled items.” Peled creates custom dishes for patients requesting the cuisine of their hometowns, which are frequently in Latin America. 

“It’s a no-brainer—people in a hospital are either experiencing or are surrounded by a lot of heaviness, and the first thing people think about is comfort food,” Peled says. “We’ll go out of our way to prepare what they miss, whether it’s empanadas, paella or chimichurri.” In the cafeteria, Peled offers dishes like arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), tamales and fried plantains. 

Joshua Sheets, chef de cuisine with Metz Culinary at Smuckers Corp., in Orrville, Ohio, offers many Latin American condiments, like Salvadorian curtido (fermented cabbage relish), chimichurri and guasacaca, a Venezuelan avocado-based sauce. “These sauces are a good accent to the offerings where I try to fuse cuisines across several cultural lines,” says Sheets, who puts his own spin on these classic condiments, using chimichurri not only as an accompaniment to grilled meats but also as a marinade for vegetables. 

For some customers, it takes a bit of persuasion to try a new cuisine. “People are [often] unfamiliar with a lot of the ingredients, names and preparations I have offered, but for the most part, they have all been well received,” Sheets says. “Researching foods, their history, cultural traditions and preparations is important [so you can relay that to] your customers, [building] trust, which makes it much easier to get them to try new things.”