Sushi's Star Power

Americans are becoming more adventuresome in trying—and are thus enjoying—a broader range of international flavors than ever before. This year, sushi takes star billing.

Sometimes the mainstreaming of a new and therefore fashionable cuisine seems to occur almost overnight, with that particular type of food being menued everywhere, from bustling metropolis to bucolic backwater, from high-end specialty restaurant to high-volume cafeteria.

Take sushi, for example: According to a Kikkoman study conducted in January 2005, 80% of adult Americans participating in an online survey had eaten in an Asian restaurant at least once during the previous year. Eight-out-of-10 of them had eaten Chinese food, 31% had dined on Thai food, yet less than one-quarter had eaten sushi.

Fast-forward to today, when, according to published reports, there are now about 9,000 sushi bars across the country—and many in non-traditional locations. Indeed, foodservice operators indicate an increase in the percentage of customers selecting sushi in the workplace or on campus.

One of them is April Lower, the new test kitchen chef at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. If she has her way, students on her campus may soon be savoring her own home-grown version of the Yo! Sushi restaurant concept that has taken the United Kingdom by storm.

On staff since early spring, Lower, an Indiana native, most recently worked in Hawaii following several years in London. “I worked in a sushi bar in Hawaii and here we’re slowly working on some new concepts I saw there,” she says. “Right now, we’re working with Plitt Seafood Company, an hour away in Chicago. They provide us with a ready-made sushi and it’s going like crazy. We’d love to have a fast food sushi like the Yo! Sushi locations that I saw in England—even in department stores.”

Yo! Sushi launched in the United Kingdom in 1997. Sushi servings, color-coded by variety, travel around a dining area on a conveyor belt from which customers make their selections. The group that bought the concept from the founder three years ago aims to open 100 restaurants worldwide by 2010.

Huddle up: Meanwhile, according to Don Miller, CEC, CCE, executive chef for Notre Dame, packaged fresh sushi from his supplier is offered in Huddle Mart, the campus store. Each day’s delivery of about 150 packs (eight rolls per pack) is gone by day’s end. Here, sushi choices typically include California, tuna, spicy tuna, spicy shrimp and spicy salmon rolls.

“For catering, we do our own sushi—our garde manger chef is responsible for that production,” Miller explains. “Recipes were developed here in the test kitchen. It’s an on-going process that began several years ago and continues to evolve. With April (Lower) on board, we expect sushi innovation to come.”

A sushi station can be included for a catered function and would be set up on the plate chiller; it can also be passed, waiter-style, or set out on platters. Within the university’s $5 million annual catering business, probably not a week goes by without sushi being served, Miller points out. For catering, the selection is broadened to include smoked salmon roll and seafood roll, plus two types of vegetarian sushi—avocado and cucumber as well as a roll of nori (seaweed), rice, tofu, carrots and cucumbers.

Sushi Day or any day: Wednesday is Sushi Day in the main dining hall at Manhattanville College, a Flik Independent Schools by Chartwells account in Purchase, N.Y., but it’s also available pre-packed, Monday through Friday, in five campus locations. One part-time chef working one-and-a-half days (Tuesday night through Wednesday) helps one full-time sushi chef prepare product for retail.

“Overall, we serve a population of about 2,500, including staff and faculty, but in the main dining room we serve about 700 to 800 customers,” notes foodservice director Marco Morales. “We go through 650 to 700 rolls in five varieties during a two-hour lunch period. They prepare the majority ahead but roll some—perhaps a California roll with rice on the outside filled with crab and avocado—as a demo. We have tons of other options but on Sushi Day this attracts the majority of the crowd.”

The chefs, of Korean descent, come to work the night before Sushi Day in order to prepare the rice, fish and vegetables. On the day of service, they bring out platters, plate the orders and hand them to students along with chopsticks. Students serve themselves toppings such as ginger, soy sauce, Asian hot sauce and wasabe. With a swipe of a card, the student receives six to eight pieces of sushi in this all-you-can-eat venue.

Faculty draw: “It’s a very general population—not just Asians—who choose sushi,” Morales says. “That day, many faculty and staff come over instead of eating in their own dining room. On Thursdays, we (make sushi for) a nearby Compass Group corporate cafeteria account, sending about 25 rolls each time. Plus, we ‘commissary’ to another similar location on an as-needed basis.”

The made-on-site packaged sushi is a solid seller, with approximately five dozen boxes of six pieces, priced at $4.95 or $5.95, sold each day. “We started the program about three years ago—we bought product pre-packaged—and hired an outside person to come in just on Wednesdays,” Morales explains. “Since last September, we’ve had our own sushi chef making our own product; this is so much better for cost and revenue control.”

At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a sushi chef is out in the cafeteria preparing more than 100 portions, usually three to five days a week. But, notes food and beverage manager Robert Gordon, the chef—attired in his traditional kimono and a Sloan Kettering cap on his head—is employed not by the hospital but by a local company that also serves supermarkets. “We don’t have any financial risk and we make about 20% on sales,” he asserts. “It’s a value added for our guests without a cost to us.”

For the past year—since Employee Appreciation Week 2005—the chef has been preparing sushi in the a la minute area of the hospital servery, starting prep about 7 a.m. with the last batch made by 2:30 p.m. He makes the rolls, fills the boxes and refrigerates them. “But starting this month,” Gordon reports, “we’ll have 100 portions delivered each morning, pre-made from the company’s facility. He’ll be able to make a special of the day such as a spider roll—fried soft-shell crab rolled in rice.”

He expects to run these specials two to three times a week on a rotating menu at prices from $4 to $9.


Asian Cuisine in America

On April 28th, President George Bush proclaimed May 2006 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage month and called upon “the people of the United States to learn more about the history of Asian/Pacific Americans and their role in our national story and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities.”

Many in non-commercial foodservice are already doing their part through food—and not just in cultural centers on the East and West coasts. Here are four examples:

Mongolian BBQ in South Bend
In the University of Notre Dame’s South Dining Hall, a large, round Mongolian barbecue range measuring about four feet in diameter runs seven days a week.

“Chefs stand around it to cook, plus we have four or five woks in that station in use at the same time,” says executive chef Don Miller, CEC, CCE. “Students can build their own dish by choosing broccoli, pea pods, water chestnuts, lo mein noodles, rice or pasta, plus a choice of pork, chicken, beef or seafood. They collect it on a plate and pass it to one of the chefs at that station.”

Heat-and-scrape: Miller finds that the Mongolian grill is ideal for high-volume service since it provides really fast heat—as well as an opportunity for showmanship. “Because it’s flat with a scrape gutter around the edge, the chef can put a platter up next to it and scrape food right onto the dish,” he explains. “It centers the whole station with the line of woks in the foreground in addition to hot chafing inserts where students collect their choices.”

For the menu at Greenfield’s International Café—a retail operation within the Hesburgh Peace Institute open weekdays for breakfast and lunch—Miller is aiming to expand the Asian offerings. The menu for the coming year includes an Indian vegetarian curry: a stew of zucchini, chick peas, yellow squash, carrots, potatoes, raisins, cumin, ginger and cardamom with a banana chutney.

Miller has also offered a sesame Thai beef salad at Greenfield’s and is working with Lower and the test kitchen staff to add a noodle-in-a-bowl concept.

Authenticity in the Big Apple
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, food and beverage manager Robert Gordon has found a way to menu hassle-free authentic Asian fare. “Once a week, we use Jump Asian Express Cuisine’s menu off the main line,” he says. “Product comes to us pre-cooked and frozen so we just heat and assemble components. It’s a good way to keep costs down and also have consistent product. We might offer a soup and perhaps teriyaki salmon, General Tso Chicken or Szechuan beef.”

Asian in action: Gordon also menus other popular, from-scratch Asian dishes including Asian chicken salad, prepared to-order at the action station where the customer indicates to the chef their choice of chicken or shrimp, mandarin oranges, crispy noodles, water chestnuts plus sesame ginger dressing (or not).

Recently he has offered several Thai selections including a udon noodle bowl with duck breast or shrimp over the top of the lemon grass broth and finely cut vegetables—simple enough, he says, except for the lemon grass component. “It becomes a chore to get consistent lemon grass flavor and it’s also a challenge to find the kitchen space to let it steep,” he declares. “Lemon grass needs to be steeped like tea. We have to buy quite a bit of it, but I’m still looking for a commercial product—perhaps a puree of lemon grass or lemon grass extract.”

Entree Success in South Dakota
Joanne Shearer, RD, MS, team leader of food and nutrition services at 55-bed Avera Heart Hospital of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, doesn’t get disheartened when something she tries doesn’t “fly” with her approximately 250 daily cafeteria customers. “We offer more traditional stir-fries such as beef and broccoli,” she says.

“When we started out about four or five years ago we had a great tofu stir-fry, but it was just too foreign for our customers,” she explains. “Then we went to half tofu, half chicken, but this is South Dakota. It has been extremely challenging for us to have successful vegetarian entrées—we’re such a heavily red-meat part of the country.”

Mongolian in motion: Earlier this year, Shearer and her staff hit upon a simple-to-implement and very successful concept that’s now offered on the line once a month on the menu cycle: Mongolian Grill Day. “Now we offer three different proteins—chicken, beef and shrimp—plus vegetables,” she adds. It’s portioned into black bowls with noodles, and customers also have a choice of spicy peanut sauce, teriyaki sauce and sweet-and-sour sauce—those varieties that customers are most familiar with in this part of the world.

About 75% of her customers choose the Mongolian Grill over the other hot food option and various cold food choices. “In fact, priced at $4.50—there’s no discount—it’s one of our most successful entrees,” Shearer adds.

Iowa Welcomes the Pacific Islands
Sodexho client Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Des Moines, Iowa, sponsors the annual Asian Festival in that city—so general manager Wayne Tudor makes sure to plan a menu-related celebration.

“During the week of May 8-12, every station offered different Asian/Pacific Island items,” he recalls. “Probably one of the most interesting was the Ninja Double Burger at the grill area. This Sodexho recipe features a double-decker burger with Muenster cheese, teriyaki mushrooms and wasabe/mayonnaise spread. We also had pre-made pot stickers and egg rolls that went over very big.”

Stir Crazy line-up: Although Tudor doesn’t have a permanent Asian station, he does have Stir Crazy, a concept that alternates every other Tuesday with Sizzlin’ Caesar. “There’s always a line out the door with about 200 customers choosing it each time it’s offered,” he says.

Customers choose their protein, vegetables and sauces, and chefs stir-fry them to-order. “We’ve had to have a third chef step in since it’s so busy,” Tudor notes. Their choices are plated on top of Napa cabbage or rice. Toppings include mandarin oranges, Chinese noodles and cut-up wontons fried in soybean oil. Price per serving is $5.29, whether the protein is chicken or shrimp (20-count, peeled and de-veined).