Latino cuisine, which encompasses foods from Mexico to the Caribbean to South America, presents an opportunity for directors to meet the needs of a growing segment. Hispanics are estimated to be the nation’s largest minority at 40.4 million, and the Latino population is expected to reach 102.6 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While Latino menu offerings are more prevalent in areas with dense Hispanic populations, many directors across the country are beginning to incorporate these flavors into regular menus and experiment with ways to present them as healthy offerings.
Take the Orlando (Fla.) Health System’s Regional Medical Center, for example. Corporate Dietitian Gayle Smith is rolling out a new menu cycle of healthier items. Working with Sodexo’s Wellness and You program, she’s evaluating Latino menu items with regard to calorie count and sodium content, adding those with less than 800 milligrams of sodium, fewer than 550 calories and less than 30% of the total calories from fat. One example is marinated snapper served with steamed yucca and spicy black beans.
The hospital’s cafeteria manager, Wanda Wright, also stages a Hispanic Heritage Month each fall using recipes from employees.
Meanwhile, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, Executive Chef Peter Fischbach offers a weeklong celebration of Latino fare each fall with foods from a different Latin American country each day. For example, shrimp kabobs were served on Argentina day.
Part of the mix: At the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Foodservice Manager Robin Margolin calls Latino “part of the diet in almost everything we do, from Tex-Mex to Cuban, in catering and retail. Most of our chefs are Mexican. We roast our own chilies and do salsas from scratch.”
The school serves 1,000 students a day in the Alfred Packer Grill at the Student Union, where many Latino items are offered. “Students like Mexican snapper with salsa and a great Venezuelan carne machada—shredded brisket with cumin, garlic, onions, red and green bell peppers, tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce,” says Margolin. “Latino is very much a comfort food.”
“We do a lot of chicken moles with our own made-from-scratch sauces, and Cuban chicken with a mojo sauce, olives, bay leaves, garlic, cumin and limes” she adds. “Students like a dish made with corn tortilla enchiladas, which we serve with eggs.”
Executive Chef Kerry Paterson says students today are very interested in authentic regional cuisines. “We just opened a new facility with a Latino platform and more regional foods,” he explains. “The new station is a build-your-own burrito concept with fresh tortillas and entrées from Peru, Argentina and the Caribbean.
“We do a lot of salsas and several entrées, one of which is vegan or vegetarian each day,” he adds. “We do yucca and plantain fritters, tacos, a masa corn cake, lentils with pineapple and plantains and tofu Mojo.”
Adding to the menu: At the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Executive Chef Jon Skoviera uses a range of different Latino items. Beef and chicken quesadillas are popular as well as taco salads and a Tex-Mex chicken ranch salad. The students like foods with lots of flavor.
A new, larger facility scheduled to open early next year will add more “real Latino food,” Skoviera says. In the new building, more chefs will be hired and more Mexican dishes will be put on the menu.
Mexican fare is even well received in New England, says David Dziki, foodservice director for the Merrimack (N.H.) School District. The district makes use of commodity products for its beef tacos and chicken soft tacos.
“We did a Mexican bar at the high school with some hot items,” he says. “We offered fajita chicken, seasoned taco beef, refried beans and ranchero rice. We served them with a flour tortilla or taco boat shell. They topped them with shredded lettuce, diced tomato, jalapeño peppers, sour cream, guacamole and shredded cheese.”
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, Foodservice Director Bill Zemba says Pollo Tropical is a favorite retail outlet on campus, and that it has helped shape Gator Dining’s menus overall. “We feature Latino entrées at themed dining hall parties and monotony breakers, and many of our Latin dishes are on our regular menus,” says Zemba. “Our distributor sources many of the items from South Florida.”
Gator Dining serves around 7,000 meals at its two dining halls. “We serve Latin items at lunch and dinner and feature dishes that represent Cuban, Puerto Rican and [other Caribbean] favorites,” Zembra says.
At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Production Chef Amy Gronus did a Tour of Brazilian Cuisine that explored the country’s five regions, highlighting products produced and served in each region and explaining their relation to the region’s climate and lifestyle.
Hot with the younger set: Mexican, South American and Tex-Mex recipes are popular at Spring ISD in Houston, says Director Melanie Konarik. One popular item is a whole-grain taco with scrambled eggs, cheese and potatoes served with pico de gallo and picante sauce. There’s also a Mexican pizza with taco seasoning that’s available at breakfast and lunch.
Another big seller is a dulce de leche dessert made with fat-free caramel-flavored milk.
This fall, menus will incorporate more black beans, because students view them as upscale and because Konarik is trying to get more fiber into their diets. Commodity beef finds its way into a Posada beef stew or in burritos or tacos. Pickled jalapeños are added to pizzas, and Konarik serves nachos with tri-colored chips, which are favored by the students. On the salad bar, jicama prepared with lime juice and chili powder is served thinly sliced.
With a large Latino customer base, authenticity standards are raised.
When you work in a city with a growing Latino population and half your staff comes from that culture, it’s only natural to want to create a station with the authentic, simple flavors of that cuisine.
At American Greetings in Cleveland, Jason Brust, general manager and executive chef for Parkhurst Dining Services is doing just that: developing a new station using traditional cookware and authentic ingredients.
“Half my staff is Latino and they bring in recipes from home,” explains Brust. “We did a ceviche station with two variations brought in by a guy from Guatemala and another from Venezuela. We did a contest to see which version customers liked best.”
Recently the station focused on guacamole with three different versions. Another day, chefs hand-formed pupusas, a Salvadoran version of a tortilla stuffed with fresh queso blanco cheese, on the grill. The thick corn tortillas were a big hit, served with traditional ancho sauce or with a sweet vinegar sauce.
Growing demand: Cleveland’s large Latino population continues to grow, Burst points out.
The station is still in the planning stages and Brust expects to launch it in December. Eventually, a marketing packet will be created and a recipe base developed for Parkhurst’s chefs.
The goal at American Greetings is foods with pure and fresh Latino flavors using authentic ingredients, cooking methods and equipment. Tortilla presses are used to make fresh tortillas, and a molcajete, a Mexican version of a mortar made from volcanic rock, is used to make fresh guacamole.
The biggest challenges have been training employees in the correct techniques when handling ingredients and maintaining consistency, which Brust addressed by arranging for the chefs to take a course at Penn State University.
In the American Greetings cafeteria, called Jacobs Café, Brust staged a Cinco De Mayo celebration last spring where tamales, ceviches and other traditional Mexican fare were offered. The café also serves Latino items such as salmon with mango and black bean sauce or Cuban sandwiches.
Making it Authentic
Pedro Alfaro, executive chef for Bon Appétit Management Co. at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., has been traveling around the country this year to train the company’s chefs in a new taqueria program.
“We want to train our chefs to design great menus and create authentic Latino foods from scratch. The goal is to have more authentic flavors because we noticed that so much of what is called Mexican food is really Tex-Mex. It uses cumin and chili powder, but it’s not even close to real Mexican food.
We use a lot of different chilies and roast or char and grind them as needed. We don’t use chili powder. There are many different types of chilies and some can be very sweet. As you grind them up, the flavor profiles change.
Our biggest resource is that we have a lot of employees who are Hispanic. They’ll test the foods I make and say, ‘yeah, that tastes just like my grandmother’s or my mother’s.’
We started the program at Biola University. We developed a workbook with recipes and menu ideas including the ‘do’s and don’ts’ as well as the importance of having the right condiments and using the right ingredients so flavor is never compromised.
We have a separate station here, but some accounts may do it at an existing station. The key is that if you’re going to try to do a taqueria station, you must do it right—the right toppings, a good variety of salsas and condiments, and don’t cheat with just ground beef or only one kind of salsa. Latino/Mexican food is everywhere. Your clients know you’re serving great food the minute they walk into your restaurant by the aromas and smells that come out of your kitchen.
The first step in our program was learning the different flavor profiles of chilies because some taste like sherry, others like chocolate. It’s a question of having the right combinations. Moles are also traditional in Hispanic cuisine and are very popular. They can have anywhere from 15 to 40 ingredients. One has 33 and includes Mexican chocolate, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
In this program one of the biggest things we had to teach was the salsas. Not all of them are that hot and some are straight chili peppers. We use fresh ingredients and marinate, but you can’t marinate entrées too heavily. We do six to 12 salsas.
We invited several chefs to spend a day learning the program and doing a hands-on presentation so they saw the process and learned to reproduce or make changes if necessary. We got together with groups of about 20 chefs at a time, all around the country at our different accounts and talked about the different kinds of chilies and techniques for preparing them, like charring and roasting. We put together 60 different recipes and a workbook program, and then we cooked all the recipes and talked about them.
The most fun for me was working with the chefs in the kitchen and helping them understand what we were doing. One of the biggest challenges in the taqueria program was sourcing all the ingredients. Many of our vendors were able to hunt them down if they were given the time to do that. Finding the right fresh tortillas and chilies and cactus was the hardest on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
The response from the students was overwhelming. They could see the difference (from previous Latino food offerings on menus) immediately. It was interesting—we developed a variety of salsas from mild to hot. The most common would be the salsa fresco, which is pretty mild, but they went for the hot and spicy ones like chile de arbol. Another one was made with Cascabel chilies—they’re the size of a small apple. They can be intimidating, but they have a mellow, chocolate flavor and can be smoky and spicy. One salsa they liked was the guacamolillo salsa made with guacamole and tomatillo salsa and it’s been a hit everywhere—lots of flavor.
We want to expand the program. We’ve been concentrating on Mexican cuisine, but we might do Central America, although that will be tricky.”