How foodservice directors get ethnic cooking right

ethnic cooking

Students at Oberlin College in Ohio made headlines late in 2015 by protesting campus dining’s interpretation of ethnic dishes. According to news reports, the college’s contractor, Bon Appetit Management Co., was paying little attention to authenticity with its versions of banh mi, General Tso’s chicken and sushi—an act the students found disrespectful to their cultures. In light of the protest, college dining programs and other noncommercial operators began re-evaluating their menus to be more culturally sensitive and authentic.

The interest in exploring global flavors continues to grow among consumers, according to Technomic’s Flavor Consumer Trend Report, with Gen Z and millennials leading the charge. But 57% of all consumers say that authentic-tasting food drives demand—a finding that matches the responses in FoodService Director’s most recent Chefs’ Council menu trends survey. Ninety percent of the chefs reported that authenticity is important when introducing ethnic cuisines.

Here's how they're tapping into authentic preps with the help of staff and customers. 

Going to the source

kadai paneer

Hitting the mark on authenticity can be challenging for U.S.-born and -trained chefs, especially when feeding an increasing number of international customers. Indian cuisine wasn’t a strong suit for Adam Smith, executive chef at NC State University in Raleigh, N.C., so he went to the students.

“Indian student groups and student employees were giving us feedback on how dishes could be improved,” he says. As a result, he and Manley Cosper, executive chef at Talley Student Union, developed the idea to have an Indian cuisine throw-down.

“We decided to let our students steer the ship, creating authentic dishes that come from generations of the cooks in their families,” says Cosper. The chefs arranged for the students to meet on campus for the throw-down to cook and sample the recipes. Some of the dishes that came out of the event are now staples and favorites on the menu, says Cosper. These include kadai paneer, butter chicken, chole masala, okra masala and peanut soup. 

“This gives us true, credible and delicious ethnic cuisine that has been vetted by our customers and students,” says Smith. What’s more, he says campus cooks and sous chefs are learning global cuisine on a whole new level.

Grassroots recruitment


UND Dining at University of North Dakota in Grand Forks also works with staff, facultry and student groups to evaluate the offerings at its Global Cuisine Station.

“We reach out to the International Student Center on campus at student orientation at the beginning of the school year,” says Dustin Frize, FoodPro Administrator for UND Dining. “The chef then recruits small groups of students to come in and help develop menus for special events.”

Ethnic cuisine rotates at the Global Cuisine Station, with Korean, Indian and Brazilian fare showing up in some of the recent offerings. International grad students provided input on the Brazilian menu, steering the kitchen to develop authentic items such as feijoada and shrimp stew. The feijoada is a smoky combo of black beans with beef, pork, sausages and oranges. The spicy shrimp stew starts with a stir-fry of garlic, ginger, jalapenos and green onions in coconut oil; roasted cashews, dried cod and shrimp, and fresh tomatoes round it out, with fresh shrimp tossed in at the end.

International undergrad students also provide input, approaching UND Executive Chef Greg Gefroh when he makes rounds in the dining hall. “They ask if I can recreate a dish that their mom used to cook, so I invite them into our kitchen and have them make the recipe for me," says Gefroh. “A few days later, I will recreate the recipe for them. If we can agree that the recipe is acceptable, then we will menu it." The nice part about the process is that word spreads among students and we get a lot of firsthand input, he adds.


Tapping customers

Hmong chicken and rice

Colleges are not the only operations tapping into their international customer bases. Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis has a large Hmong patient population, a result of Laotian refugees settling in Minnesota. Bill Marks, director of food, nutrition and environmental services for the hospital, noticed relatives bringing a home-cooked dish to Hmong mothers in the maternity ward after they gave birth. The Hmong chicken and rice dish uses fresh herbs grown expressly for this recipe, and it is the custom to eat it to promote healing after childbirth.  

Marks researched the ingredients, and the special herbs necessary for the recipe now grow in the hospital garden.

“What we don’t use fresh, we freeze and seal for the winter,” he says.

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