Where the Action Is

Display cooking is a mainstay of the many buffets Sportservice stages at stadium venues around the country. This  clambake, according to Exec. Chef Rolf Baumann, adds visual and aromatic excitement to game-time dining.

It would seem to be a contradiction that customers love to be treated as though they’re special and their order unique, yet they’re almost always in a rush. To resolve this Catch-22 scenario, a growing number of operators offer cook-to-order stations that provide entertainment, can accommodate individual requests, and deliver a visually appealing and aromatic plate or bowl of food into the customer’s hands in almost no time flat.

Today’s cook-to-order venues can be set up to offer a wide range of concepts, from traditional pasta or stir-fry stations to omelet bars, Mexican specialty bars, dessert bars and numerous other iterations on the customization theme. In fact, by cooking or at least par-cooking ahead such items as pasta, rice and proteins, and by having the mise en place set out in a totally organized fashion, options that can be menued as made-to-order are limited only by the imagination.

Of course, that takes for granted that there’s a place where a station can be set up with a heat source—induction or butane; a way to keep cold items chilled; and, perhaps the most important element, cooks (at least two) who have a knack for chatting up the customers, enjoy being center stage, and can work accurately with the speed of a short-order impresario.

The Oakmont (Penn.) Country Club, site of professional golf’s U.S. Open in 2007, would be a location where you’d expect to find a cook-to-order station or two set up, probably on a daily basis. Right next door in this Pittsburgh suburb, there’s a retirement community, seemingly a less likely venue. However, at Longwood at Oakmont, approximately 320 residents can enjoy demo cooking presented each and every day.

According to Dea Tomsic, general manager at this Cura Hospitality account, it’s no big deal to offer steaks, chicken breasts or even the catch-of-the-day prepared to-order in front of the guests. Of course, they eat up the have-it-your-way option.

The upscale cafeteria in The Clubhouse, one of four dining locations, is open only for dinner. “In addition to the regular menu,” Tomsic says, “there’s the grill area with a fryer, two induction cookers and a char grill where items such as steaks and chops are grilled in front of the residents, however they like it. We run a five-week cycle and there’s always something made-to-order, such as grilled halibut, chipotle-marinated pork chops, chicken breasts and mushroom sauce, plus always the catch-of-the-day. At least one of the four special menu items will be display.”

A dramatic toss: When a salad such as grilled chicken Caesar is menued, the cook can be counted on to toss it after she grills the par-cooked chicken in front of the guests and adds it to the mix. Since she has a fryer for to-order french fries or crab cakes, as well as a char grill and two induction burners, she’s equipped to handle almost any request.

“For every Sunday lunch meal and for special holidays, we offer the regular breakfast menu at The Grille, but we must always prepare omelets to-order,” Tomsic says. “For Father’s Day we did a banana split station, dipping ice cream to-order in the common area, and we have done Cherries Jubilee in the formal dining room.”

To set up the station, Tomsic and her staff outfit a long table with skirt, a burner and a large frying pan. Once brown sugar and butter are melted in the pan, dark pitted cherries (canned are fine) are added, and the alcohol—such as kirsch—is flamed and allowed to burn off. “You only have to do this  three or four times,” she explains, “each time transferring the batch to a chafing dish as you try to get ahead to be able to serve the 60 to 70 people who dine there each night. To finish the dessert, the cook pours the sauce over the guest’s choice of ice cream.”

Shrimp’s allure: Serving approximately 2,000 daily lunchtime customers at The Atrium Grill, the main cafeteria at MetroHealth System in Cleveland, Todd Foutty, director of foodservice operations, finds that setting up a cook-to-order station about once a month for a special theme attracts from 300 to 800 customers during the two-hour lunch period.

Three concepts are very successful, so he runs them often: Italian Pasta Bar, Asian Stir-fry Bar and a New Orleans Jambalaya Bar. Usually two chefs staff the induction burners, but the actual dish is plated from a chafing dish at the station. “The appeal is that the customer can see the dish being prepared and smell the aroma as it cooks,” Foutty points out.

“We found you can get them to buy whatever we’re serving—although anything with shrimp in it always sells well—and they’re willing to pay a bit more for a premium item such as shrimp stir-fry. For jambalaya, we do a combination of chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage. At customer request we could start a batch without shrimp, for example, but only if they have a special request will it be done per one portion for more customization.”

Occasionally, Foutty and his staff will do a cook-to-order station for a catering event. In that case, a cook will prepare the dish, but the customers serve themselves.

Down the road, Foutty hopes to be able to set up a tossed-to-order salad station and has already put in his request for a more formal cooking station in the cafeteria to include more elements of a cold station so he can set out items in a self-contained refrigerated display area. “We use bowls of ice to keep items chilled, but a cold table would be ideal,” he explains, “plus something to give us flexibility. For example, we can toss salmon Caesar salad to-order. That station wouldn’t need an induction cooker but just big salad bowls for more customization—and to give people more choices.”

Student pleasing pasta: At the Houston Market, located in the student union on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, an Aramark account, the Ciao station offers pasta-to-order every day with more than 3,000 portions served per-week. Executive chef Richard Reale points out that the menu is pretty much the same each day at this station, but with so many choices, no one’s complaining.

“Cheese ravioli is our filled pasta,” he says. “In addition there’s tri-color and whole wheat penne. Chicken is the protein, then there’s a choice of marinara or Alfredo sauce, as well as a wide assortment of vegetables. The dish is completed with a piece of Italian bread and a bit of Parmesan if requested. All items are displayed in front of the guests—first the items that need to be sautéed, then the pasta and finally the sauce. Once the ingredients are stir-fried, the cook tosses them into lidded containers.”

Reale varies the ingredients from time to time and has been known to include Italian sausage with orachetti, also known as lamb’s ear pasta, plus broccoli rabe. “You can throw different things out there and see if the students will go for it,” he says. “I would definitely run that as a special again.”

A la cart: Roger Beaulieu, director of culinary development for Lake Success, N.Y.–based CulinArt, views cook-to-order demo stations as such an important foodservice component these days that in accounts where his company participates in the facility design, he’s designating space for it.

“We had a cart on wheels custom-built for display cooking at our Brooklyn Law School account,” Beaulieu reports. “It has two induction burners, a built-in hot well to hold sauce, rice, etc., plus a cold well. It’s set up in the lobby so customers can get their made-to-order food even before entering the servery.”

Stir-fries and pasta were the original made-to-order concepts that CulinArt accounts offered and, since they’re still popular, they’ll remain in place. “Now, we’re also doing variations on burritos, quesadillas and fajitas with some components done ahead and folded into tortillas in front of the customer,” he says.

“To offer fajitas, for example, we’ll have raw peppers, onions and the protein par-cooked and julienned; we’ll stir-fry and fill into a tortilla or serve it in a bowl for the customer to fill into their own tortilla. We also do some stations where we’re cooking the entrée of the day with julienned or thinly cut protein such as salmon, sole, scallops, shrimp, chicken, pork or veal. The protein is cut into slices to be very quickly cooked in a pan with a bit of lemon and capers added to finish the dish. We look to support that station from a steam table, so we’re just sautéing the protein of the day.”

Risotto rising: On a rotation with a pasta bar, Beaulieu now suggests risotto bars, an Asian station, and Southwestern or Mexican stations. After much back-of-the-house experimentation, Beaulieu finds that par-cooking risotto three-quarters of the way done, then chilling it, provides just the right consistency when it’s added to the pan with the customer’s choice of liquid. Combined with their selection of vegetables and/or protein, only a quick, two to three minutes of additional cooking is needed.

A noodle bowl station boasts a variety of broths such as miso, chicken and a mushroom-scented vegetable broth; an assortment of julienned vegetables, including bean sprouts, edamame and bok choy; diced chicken, beef and tofu; plus a variety of noodles, perhaps udon, rice vermicelli and soba.

“The number of broths and types of noodles we offer depends upon the size of the account—perhaps two of each for a smaller location,” Beaulieu points out. “We bring the portion of broth to a simmer, heat the other ingredients and serve in a 22-oz. rice bowl—generally an insulated pressed foam container with a clear dome lid. The customer can add toasted sesame seeds, chopped nori, sesame oil or soy sauce from a topping station.”

Here, there, everywhere: Since cook-to-order stations are such crowd pleasers—and “regular” servery areas such as the grill and panini stations are already providing customization, why aren’t almost all stations converted to this style of cooking? Not doable, Beaulieu contends, since it’s a matter of time.

“If the entire servery became to-order, it would be too challenging for the staff and a frustration for the customer in regard to waiting,” he says. “At one of our accounts, a law firm in lower Manhattan, people are willing to wait at the grill and at the cook-to-order station, but there are alternatives that don’t require a wait.

Now, we’re expanding our Spinning Salads concept where we’re assembling the salad for them. We put their requested ingredients in a bowl and toss—or spin—it with the customer’s choice of dressing. There’s no cooking, but rather assembling to-order, and people are being attended to one at a time.

“But some people,” he continues, “will still go to the typical salad bar which continues to be very popular. Certainly there is a move to made-to-order. People are more accepting of the ‘menutainment’ element and they’re used to seeing cooking demos on TV. But there will always be that time pressure.”

Tony Kaszuba, Restaurant Marketing Associates’ vice president based at Harborside Financial Court in Jersey City, N.J., is fully aware that many of his approximately 2,500 daily lunchtime customers are looking for that “personal connection.” Therefore he offers cook-to-order concepts at the Club Creation Station—and almost everywhere else—starting at 6:45 a.m. And, if customers have to wait their turn in line, then wait for their order to be prepared, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Getting personal: “Nowadays, the big thing is egg-white-with-bacon omelets to-order, as well as breakfast wraps,” Kaszuba points out. “Two guys work that grill and serve about 300 to 400 customers from 6:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. non-stop. We even tried to offset the lines there by making egg-and-cheese sandwiches ahead, but they’d rather wait 10 to 15 minutes and have it done to-order. It’s the personal connection—these guys know everyone’s order and ask, ‘The same?’ or ‘The usual?’

“People don’t even toast their own bagel anymore,” he continues. “We’ll sell 300 to 400 bagels—toasted with cream cheese—at the bagel station. Actually it helps move the lines and I think everyone’s looking to be served. I only keep four registers open in the morning versus eight at lunchtime, so we use our cashiers to take care of the bagel station.”

Like any savvy manager, Kaszuba has noted the seasonal fluctuations in customer preference and finds that in the summer, made-to-order paninis sell much better than pasta—about 100-120 paninis versus 40-50 pasta orders. Therefore he plans to rotate paninis in less frequently in the fall when pasta comes into its own again. Currently, made-to-order paninis and pasta are both on twice a week at Club Creation Station, but usually mid-week Kaszuba orchestrates a made-to-order fajita or taco grande salad set-up.

Selling sizzle: “Last month we did a Sizzling Salad Station, offering flank steak, chicken, shrimp and salmon, a choice of greens and a choice of salad toppings,” Kaszuba notes. “We can’t take raw flank steak, so we cook it ahead to rare and finish it off in front of the customer. On an average day, about 200 customers go through the station and each one gets about two minutes. We’re using about 12 pans on a flat-top griddle and two people work the station as an assembly line. It’s an 18-foot-wide station with a glass window, so the customer is watching the process—watching their order move along. There’s no mix-up as long as the customer stays in line.”

Running a cook-to-order set-up has become “second nature” to executive chef Ian Stopherd and his staff at Prudential Securities, a Eurest Dining Services account in Newark, N.J. There he features Ascentos Latino (i.e., Latin Accents) that debuted in February, on a weekly rotation with an Asian stir-fry bar, an Italian pasta bar and an all-American carvery.

Prep ahead: “We serve about 450 customers each day at lunchtime and about 95 to 120 come through the action station,” Stopherd says. “With four induction burners, it’s part of the hot line. Service starts at 11:30 a.m. so we set up the station at about 11 a.m. We slice and sauté mushrooms and other vegetables in the early morning. Dusted chicken tenders are baked-off and chilled in the refrigerator the morning of service so they keep their moisture. We make the sauce from-scratch and keep it hot and also prepare ahead equal amounts of pasta and rice. The pasta is kept cold, then added to the hot sauce during service. Rice is prepared in a steamer at about 10 a.m. since it takes about 45 minutes to cook. Then it’s placed in a warmer.

“We’ll run two choices at the same time,” he continues, “perhaps chicken scampi or chicken Murphy. It includes potatoes, onions, hot peppers and a vinegar broth. Everyone knows Jamie, the cook, and he knows them by name and speaks Spanish to some, English to others. He makes sure all ingredients are separate and talks to the customers while he retherms the food, giving the impression that he’s cooking.”

Friday omelets: Fridays are typically slower than the rest of the week, with fewer customers overall in the Prudential cafeteria, but Stopherd finds that a made-to-order omelet bar set up on alternate Fridays generates a hefty increase in sales.

“We get swamped even running eight burners that day,” he says. “There’s a choice of 10 different toppings as well as regular eggs, egg whites and Eggbeaters. If the line gets long, I’ll help him, but usually he keeps up. Not just anyone can step in and help at a cook-to-order station. It’s all about being organized!”