His trend instinct told Zia Ahmed that students might have a consistent appetite for Indian cuisine, but first, Ohio State University’s senior director of dining services wanted to test it out last spring. His solution: hold an Indian pop-up at the Columbus, Ohio, campus. Last spring, chefs put roughly 40 combined staff hours into developing recipes with help from an Indian student.
The Ohio State team had done a similar pop-up with Vietnamese pho, gauging student reaction. Ahmed invested $3,400 in a cart with an induction burner and steam wells to streamline logistics; since then, similar events have cost less than $500, mostly for food. The pop-ups helped the team decide to roll out pho as a regular offering this year, while keeping an eye on Indian as an emergent cuisine. “The dollar investment is so minimal, but the return on investment is huge,” Ahmed says. “When it comes to your employee satisfaction, it helps them develop new skills and build enthusiasm.”
From creative vegetarian cuisine to housemade Indian to hand-rolled sushi, chefs may not be trained in some of the trendiest new tastes, and an operation may not be ready to spend on flashy new hires. FSDs like Ahmed build on their staffs’ existing skill sets—with travel experiences, training sessions, professional certifications, and special events—to make development happen.
When students at Washington State University in Pullman called for more plant-based dishes, Assistant Director of Culinary Operations Adam Koerner didn’t waste time recipe hunting online. Koerner called a contact at the Humane Society of America to help. In January, the nonprofit sent a Seattle chef for a full-day training on making veggies the stars of the plates.
The WSU cooking staff learned 40 recipes, from carrot osso bucco to eggplant roll-ups to red velvet cupcakes, and has since incorporated many into their menus. “If we don’t reach out for new ideas, we’re never going to grow,” Koerner says. “We get it from the source rather than trying to fake it till we break it.”
Koerner also lets special events help drive learning. After Washington State’s seafood use was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, for instance, the team held an Under the MSC event in April. Chefs offered 12 seafood specials in Russian, Italian, Alaskan, Hawaiian, and classical French styles. “They developed new skills and brought in fish we’d never even heard of,” says Koerner. “They nailed it.”
Ohio State’s team has traveled to restaurants and markets as close by as Columbus and Cleveland, and distant as Chicago and LA, in the past two years. Up to 30 staff members have also recently toured Ohio farms, ranches and bakeries, and a small team visited coffee plantations in Honduras. They’ve developed new recipes, like tea-poached chicken salad and coffee-rubbed turkey breast, inspired by these tours. “Food is like technology—there is no end to innovation,” Ahmed says. “When we take [our chefs] out there, they’re experiencing it and coming up with their own fusion.”