The Recipe Issue: Recipe Development

Chefs dish on how they come up with recipes to satisfy today’s hottest trends.

World cuisines, health and wellness, vegan, and gluten free are among the most popular trends in foodservice, and they present some interesting challenges for chefs trying to develop recipes to satisfy diverse customer bases. We contacted chefs from across the non-commercial spectrum and asked them to share with readers how they approach recipe creation in each of these four key areas.


Tim Fetter, executive chef, Highmark (Parkhurst Dining Services), Pittsburgh: “One way to make a dish healthier is by using high-quality ingredients in the first place. You can take a recipe that might not be the healthiest but as long as you are using better ingredients than the recipe calls for, you are headed in the right direction. If you are using real foods rather than imitation, highly processed stuff, that’s a step in the right direction.
It’s easy to identify what are the not-healthy things in a recipe, and then you have to determine how you can replace them. Take, for example, mayonnaise. Consider using something like yogurt, which has a similar texture and creaminess, and then you can adjust the flavor profile.

Sometimes, altering the cooking method is the way to go. Obviously, deep-frying is not a healthy way to cook. But people love the crispiness and moistness [of fried foods]. So, for example, making a breaded dish healthier can be as simple as adding a little bit of oil with your bread crumbs. That way you’re replacing what’s going to be soaked up when you deep-fry something. But you still have some oil there and it will make [the food] a little crispy and kind of what you’re looking for.

Portion size is another way we can modify recipes to make them healthier. For example, instead of taking a 6-ounce piece of cheesecake and completely changing the recipe, adding processed ingredients and almost always taking away from the taste and quality of the item, you can use the original recipe and cut down the portion size. It’s not recipe development, but it’s still a way to look at making things healthier.

Chefs fear change and when they are used to doing something a certain way, especially when it comes to classical cooking, you have to tell them to take baby steps. You don’t necessarily have to completely change a recipe. You don’t always have to redo it from top to bottom. Instead, you tweak the parts you know you can make work.”

Ben Guggenmos, district chef, Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools: “What I like to do is find out through managers at our sites what the popular menu items are and/or popular trends in foodservice that are specifically related to kids. I go from there and try to put a healthy spin on it either by incorporating vegetables into that specific dish, cutting back the fat, using healthy fat substitutes, trying to incorporate whole grains into it—things like that—and trying to take out some of the processed items and replacing them with whole foods.

I’ve taken out our normal oil that cooks would use for cooking and sautéing. I’m having everyone use olive oil now [because] it’s a healthier fat. Or, cutting back on some of the butter and adding something like mashed bananas or applesauce in some of our baked goods.
To make our macaroni and cheese, I cut out half of the cheese and replaced it with cooked, puréed winter squash. I incorporated vegetables into the sauce and cut back on the fat and cheese while still giving it a creamy, rich sauce.

What we do before I introduce any new menu item is I test it with kids. We’ll have a little focus group. Most of the time we use middle school kids because they are pretty honest and they will come right out and say what they think about [the item], to a fault at some point. In the case of the macaroni and cheese, the first time I made it and tested it I used more of a sharp cheddar so it had more of a grainy consistency and they didn’t like that. They didn’t even know that it had vegetables in it. They just said they didn’t really care for the texture of it. So I switched the cheddar with a reduced-fat American cheese to make it more creamy. That made all the difference in the world. I wouldn’t just take something and put it on the menu, I have to test it. We call it kid approved.

We call it a winter harvest mac and cheese. We wouldn’t lie and say there aren’t vegetables in it. We let kids know that we are cooking with more whole-grain items now and using less-processed whole-muscle chicken. We are working on a roasted sweet potato and butternut squash dish. We let the kids know we are putting the emphasis on healthy foods.
The hardest thing to do, especially in a district our size, is to get kids to accept something new without me being able to go and introduce it and talk to kids about it. If we were to have a curry winterberry salad on the menu, nobody is going to take it. Although it could be super healthy and delicious, nobody is going to try it.

We have a vegetable lasagna that’s become very popular. It has fresh mushrooms, squash, onion and tomatoes. There is a little low-fat ricotta cheese. I think what’s most important is to make sure the kids are eating foods that they like and making sure that [those foods] are healthy.”

Dwight Collins, executive chef, University of California, Santa Cruz: “The whole secret to healthy cooking is not [to go to] one extreme or the other. I keep in mind the trends. There are ‘healthy’ trends and they aren’t always that healthy, but they are a trend. For example, with the gluten-free trend, some of it is medically based. But I was sitting in the dentist’s office and there was a People magazine with an article that showed all these stars saying they lost 20 pounds on a gluten-free diet. Now that is ridiculous, but you have to make a nod to it since it is what is happening. Another trend is whole grains, which I’m emphatically behind. At one point quinoa was an exotic grain, but now it is everywhere.

For healthy we’re doing a lot of ethnic cooking. We did one week in the dead of winter called Follow the Sun where we [followed] equatorial countries around the world. So we had Hawaii, Latin America, Caribbean, Middle East then Far East. A lot of ethnic recipes are very vegetable based. There’s an item [we found] called Soo Foo—short for super food—and we came up with a spicy Soo Foo for our Middle Eastern day, made with spinach and portobello mushrooms. We have Caribbean couscous that uses fresh pineapple, corn, tomatoes and black beans with a curry ginger jerk seasoning.

We get a lot of comment cards saying we want healthier this or we want more choices on the salad bar, even though there are like 80 choices on the salad bar at any given time. At one point we had a lot of comments asking for Fakin’ Bacon on the salad bar, but I put out one pan of it and then threw it away at the end of the day. They say they want healthy but [many] really don’t when it comes time to choose.

Do your research and don’t try to force [healthy] on the students. Give lots of choices and educate. Decide which direction you are trying to go, be it low sodium, low fat, low cholesterol, and then pick your ingredients from what’s available from those categories and be creative with them. ”

Healthy Recipes
Island Mango & Shrimp Stir-fry
Qinoa and Black Bean Salad with Cilantro Lime Dressing

Bonus Online-Only Healthy Recipes
Spicy Soo Foo with Portobellos & Spinach
Tequila Grilled Chicken with Fresh Fruit Salsa


Roger Pigozzi, executive chef, University of California, Los Angeles: “[Recipe development] starts with requests from student customers. A few years ago we were brought in to meet with a group called Bruins For Animals, a group of vegan students, who were not looking for vegetarian items but strictly vegan. I along with some other team members joined this group for a monthly meeting. We listened to their concerns and then we really threw ourselves into the process. We picked one week out of the year and the director of dining services and myself and the top management team went vegan for a week. It gave us great insight into what a vegetarian or a vegan goes through when they walk into a restaurant and they are looking for something to eat. They don’t want you to say, ‘This was a meat dish, but we took the meat out so now it’s a vegetable dish.’ They want something designed for them, and I appreciated that.

Cost is the biggest challenge. You can be as creative as you want. Some vegans will say, ‘I don’t want it to look or taste like meat. That’s why I’m a vegan.’ So you come up with items that satisfy that need. But the meat analogs are as expensive or more expensive, in some cases, than the meats and seafood. But we have a wonderful team here, and when you turn them loose they come up with some great vegan items.

We [opened] our new Pan-Asian restaurant, called Feast at Reiber, last June. It includes the cuisines of seven different Asian countries, of which we feature two every day. The Asian recipes we’ve developed for Feast lend themselves very much to vegan treatment.

Some students wanted a vegan pizza, and I hadn’t come across a vegan cheese that I had liked. One of the students said, ‘Have you tried Daiya cheese?’ So I bought some and we tested it. It’s not going to fool you into saying, ‘Oh, that’s mozzarella,’ or whatever, but it is a very workable, wonderful product that actually melts and gives you that mouth feel of cheese.

We run all recipes by our nutritionist, because, you know, you can eat vegan and be unhealthy. You can eat white bread and french fries and be eating vegan. So we look to create wholesome vegan alternatives. One popular dish we’ve created is Isreali couscous and quinoa mixed with rocket lettuce, lentils and giant beans. Then we add some nutritional yeast, which is a deactivated yeast that gives you all nine of the essential amino acids, and you have something that tastes really good and is good for you. You can add a firm or baked tofu to give it a very meaty quality.”

Pnina Peled, executive chef, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City: “I try to think about ingredients that are essential, like grains, vegetables, herbs, spices, rather than just saying, do tofu. An example would be a quinoa dish with vegetables and curry. It’s excellent. It’s an Indian-inspired dish that contains quinoa, which is a very healthy grain, a variety of vegetables and ginger. It’s healthy. I try to work out recipes that don’t really have a lot of oils and not deep-frying too much. I try to remain as healthy as possible.

Indian spices are very potent, and I wanted the dish to be rich. Plus, Indian dishes have spices that are beneficial to your health—curry being one of them, as well as cumin and turmeric. I wanted to make sure that this particular dish was rich in that. This is on the retail menu, but patients do have access to our retail menus as well.

In the menu development process, things come to mind all the time. Sometimes my cooks will mention something and we’ll try it out and it will be fabulous and we’ll put it on [the menu]. I try to involve them as much as possible. Sometimes my chef de cuisine will tell me about a particular dish that he was trying out and we’ll throw it on.

I have a program that I developed called talent management. It requires every cook once a month to prepare a dish of his choice, depending on [what] he thinks would be beneficial in retail, patient services or grab and go, or whatever the assignment is. We’ll test it out and evaluate it. If it’s a great dish it’s put on and named after him. It’s kind of like allowing staff to participate in decision making and allowing them to share ideas and exercise their skills. At the same time they are contributing.

We have a vegan patient menu. I have General Tso’s tofu, ginger tofu with vegetables, kung pao tofu—I do a lot of Asian—mooshu vegetable, orange tofu vegetable, pad Thai with tofu instead of meat or chicken. Asian is amazing because the sauces are great with tofu and stir-fries with various vegetables.

I have roasted vegetable tostados, which is something I do on the cold side for retail. It’s roasted vegetables on a toasted tortilla shell with a raw tomato salsa. Imagine taking a tortilla, sticking it in the oven so it crisps up, and then roasting with olive oil and rosemary, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, red onion, scallions, and putting that on top [of the tortilla]. Drizzle a little olive oil on there, and then [add] the tomato salsa, which is basically plum tomatoes that you core, peel and purée, and you mix it with finely minced red onions, jalapeños, fresh garlic, cilantro, and little bit of salt. It’s refreshing and different and filling. I’ve done it with roasted asparagus and red peppers as well.

I always think about having a vegan option because we try to appeal to everyone. We have a lot more vegetarians, but I try to keep it as vegan as possible to appeal to everyone’s style. Most of the vegetarian options would be vegan.”

Vegan Recipes
Vegan Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies
Roasted Vegetable Tortillas

Bonus Online-Only Vegan Recipes
Curry Tofu & Vegetable Quinoa
V-B-Q Beef Sandwich
Vegan Cincinnati Chili
Vegan Southwestern Stew


Donald McCoy, executive pastry chef, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tenn.: “I’ve been baking gluten-free pastry items for 20 years. I worked at a nursing home that had a large need for gluten-free products. That’s how I got started baking gluten-free items. I studied gluten-free items on my own without any formal training.

I use a lot of rice flour to do my gluten-free baking. I make several types of cookies and breads that are gluten free, like flatbreads, challah loaves and egg rolls. I also made a gluten-free gingerbread cookie for Christmas.

The only adjustment I really have to make is I need a binder because you don’t have gluten in the rice flour. I use xanthan gum. That compensates for the gluten that is not there. It’s a good product in the cookies and breads.

I don’t add anything else to the gluten-free baked goods— no extra butter, salt or sugar like in many of the prepackaged gluten-free baked goods. I just use the xanthan gum. I don’t have to use a lot of extra fat or anything like that. The product is really good and consistent all the time.

A lot of [operators] don’t have the experience or expertise or the facilities where they can do gluten-free products. Here we do. We have a large bakery. A lot of people don’t have access [to extra equipment) to prevent cross contamination. I come in on Saturdays when I make those gluten-free products, [so] I’m in the bakery by myself. We’re not using the same bowls or anything else like that. I’ve got a separate mixer.”

James Rose, executive chef, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: “We’re still in the growing process on gluten-free recipes. What I’ve had to do is take a look at our menu cycles. I especially look at individual days of the menu cycle and say, if I’m a student who is eating gluten free, what options do I have today? We found that there were some red flags. Where there might have been a noodle or a pasta dish we’ll put a rice noodle on instead. In order to develop gluten-free recipes we have searched online for good gluten-free recipes or just substituted a gluten-free ingredient in a recipe that works already that called for a gluten ingredient.

We’re in the process of introducing buckwheat pancakes this coming semester. We tested that out over the last couple of weeks and it tastes great. That’s the big thing that I look at, what’s the finished product? Look at the texture. There are a lot of gluten-free products or recipes that just don’t really do themselves justice. That’s what we try to avoid. Corn tortillas are a great item to have. We had the corporate chef of Minor’s here for a competition and we’re going to switch over all my Minor’s bases to their gluten-free line. It’s a little more money, but I think it’s worth the pennies that you’re going to pay to be able to have more options—especially if you are talking about a broth soup. That’s been a challenge because a lot of the processed items we do use, bases, pesto, salad dressing, you’ve really got to look at the ingredient label. Look at your core recipes to see if you can make small changes with gluten-free ingredients to offer a similar type of menu item. We had a lot of recipes that we didn’t even realize were gluten free. We just need to label them as such.

We’re also trying to expand our vegan offerings, which are often gluten free. So we could kill two birds with one stone with recipes like a black bean and sweet potato enchilada. I’ve dealt with students who have food allergies for the past two years so it boiled down to looking at the ingredients. With the enchilada we originally did just a bean enchilada with beans, salsa and cheese. We added the sweet potatoes because they are great nutritionally and have great color. Instead of doing refried beans we took black beans and used a corn tortilla and added some green chiles. It has some nice spice to it. We do a plated enchilada and with some shredded cheese and scallions on top.

We don’t even dabble in trying to do baked goods because it is just too crazy with so much flour in the bakeshop. In the kitchen we have to be very careful and use clean cutting boards and utensils. Training my staff is another big challenge. We have to make sure the staff is adhering to the recipe. It’s tough because I can’t be in the kitchen all the time.”

Gluten-free Recipes
Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes
Zucchini Bread with Icing

Bonus Online-Only Gluten-free Recipes
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas


Jorge Collazo, executive chef, and Billy Doherty, menu development chef, New York City public schools:

Collazo: A few years ago we made a big push with our managers so that they understood that they had flexibility with changing the menus for their local populations. Managers typically are in charge of anywhere between three and five schools so they are the ones that are really on the ground and managing the programs in their schools. We realized that there is no menu that can appeal to all of the diversity that we have. There are pockets in parts of Jamaica Queens where there are Muslim Indians populations. You have Washington Heights where you have a lot of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Latinos. It goes on and on.

We formalized the idea that we’ve empowered the managers so that they can have flexibility in changing the menus as long as it makes good business sense. If the [entrée that] day is chicken and it is some sort of barbecue chicken that doesn’t go well, they can change it to curry. The inventory that is available to them allows them to do that. They have recipes available to take a menu and change it as long as they stay within the same protein classification. In other words, we can write the menu but it’s really not us that is implementing those changes.”

Doherty: “In terms of trying to incorporate diversity in menu items, we have our menu flexibility policy that allows our managers to take an item like a roasted chicken with curry sauce and if that’s not something that is going to be popular in their particular school they can change it to a sesame or spice-roasted chicken. It’s the same exact chicken product, they just add a different sauce to it. (Every manager has the same recipe bank to work from in terms of changing sauces.)

We’ll do a pasta party once or twice during the four-week cycle. We’ll have a Bolognese sauce, fresh broccoli and some garlic rolls. We might do the following week, with similar products, a burrito bar with meat wraps or taco bowls. We may have an Asian bar the following week with egg rolls, stir-fried vegetables and brown rice. We try to mix it up. New York City is very diverse so it would be very difficult to menu roasted chicken with Asian sauce and an egg roll and please everyone.

Let’s say a school is serving roasted chicken as the entrée and Mexicali beans as the vegetable. The Mexicali beans serve a dual role. It can be the vegetable component if you serve a quarter cup in the elementary and a half cup in the high schools. If you serve six ounces it meets two meat/meat alternates. That’s an example of a plant-based item that has a dual role.”
Collazo: “Sometimes it’s the other components [besides the center-of-plate entrée] that carry the [ethnic profile], like Caribbean rice, plantains and collard greens. We imbue the other components, and that carries the message, whatever that may be.

We are fortunate that we have a culinary instructor for every region. When I was hired the first thing I set out to do was hire other chefs. They come up with ideas and they have to work in the school environment. The recipe development happens up here in the kitchen and we try it out. It’s a long process. It has to make sense for every school environment [in terms of] labor, student acceptability. You can look at 20 barbecue sauce recipes and some of them have 10 ingredients. We found that for this environment ketchup and grape jelly works well. It’s a one-to-one ratio. You add a little mustard or honey to it. While it may not speak to high-end culinary ideals, it’s something that is cost effective and pretty darned good.”

Kerry Paterson, executive chef, University of Colorado, Boulder: “Recipes can come from various sources. Some of them can come from culinarians. Some of them can come from students. Some of them can come from conferences we’ve been to, which is a big one for us. We get a lot, especially for international recipes, from the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference and things like that.

[Once a recipe is chosen] we will look at the dish and probably test sample it. We will adapt it to larger volumes if we can—think really carefully about if it will work or not. We run it through some different scenarios, different culinarians and different people who know their audiences. Then we will do a trial with it.

On our cycle menus at the moment we introduced the Chef’s Potential New Menu Item. It’s where we actually put the item on the menu and get feedback from the students. The menu item itself may end up being called something like Taste and Tell. We do that twice every four weeks. This idea is so the chefs can come up with new ideas, submit them and get feedback and then we can take the idea through a more formal process. We have a person who is assigned to go around and talk to the students who take that dish to find out what they thought of it.

Authenticity is the big thing for a lot of the different cultures. For example, Persian—what we thought was Persian food was actually just Middle Eastern food. So we had to redefine what we thought Persian food was. We had to learn the palate styles, which was a challenge because Persian has a little more sour taste to it than we are used to. For Persian, we actually worked with a local consultant and local Persian groups to get the tastes right.

Sourcing ingredients can be hard. Luckily Asian is getting a lot easier. We will go to some of the specialty Asian stores if we have to. For Persian, we have a truck go down to a local Persian market once or twice a semester to pick up various key ingredients. Depending on the volume of ingredients we need we may get our prime vendor to stock some items for us. For example, we had a specific type of rice we wanted to use so we got them to stock it for us.

Look among your own staff and see what expertise you have. We have Chinese, Nepalese and South American staff members. Use the resources available and experiment. Get the feedback from those who want to eat or know how to eat that particular type of food. Be prepared for constructive feedback.”

World Cuisines Recipes
Aloo Mutter with Tomato Curry Sauce
North African Gumbo

Bonus Online-Only World Cuisines Recipes
Persian Chicken Kabob
Black Bean Casserole
Pesto Pasta with Chickpeas

Be sure to check out our online-only section on developing recipes for catering. Plus, there are even more recipes! Clcik here to read more.

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