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6 ways foodservice operators are making progress with plant-based dishes, sustainability

Menus of Change, an initiative launched five years ago by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, gave the results of its annual checkup last week. The prognosis: Operators are making modest but meaningful improvements in serving healthier, more sustainable food.

The report kicked off the 2018 Menus of Change conference held at the CIA’s campus in Hyde Park, N.Y. Through culinary demos, panel discussions and multimedia presentations, chefs, operators and other industry folks showed how they are bringing Menus of Change principles, which center around health and sustainability, to life.

Plant-forward eating—with a culinary focus on elevating “deliciousness”—was at the forefront of the action. Here are some of the innovative ways operators are reshaping menus and consumers’ food choices.

Looking beyond Asian, Latin and Middle Eastern cuisines for ethnic-inspired plant-forward dishes. Ghanian chef Selassie Atadika, owner of Midunu restaurant, demoed a West African grain bowl called waskye. It starts with a native grain called fonio that’s similar to quinoa, but brown rice, sorghum or millet can be used in its place. It’s topped with red beans, arugula, pickled carrots, tomato stew and chilies.

Choosing verbiage carefully. Words really matter when menuing a dish, said Bill Billenstein, senior director of culinary and nutrition strategy at Guckenheimer, the contractor behind Google’s foodservice. “Calling something out as vegan tells customers what they’re missing and alienates other customers who might try it,” he says. “Lead with flavor instead.” He often calls out the cooking technique when naming a dish, using words such as smoky, charred or infused.

Increasing healthy food buy-in with indulgent messaging. Jean-Xavier Guinard, a sensory expert at the University of California at Davis, cited the example of carrots from a study he conducted with college students. At a bowl station, students were offered vegetables labeled “carrots,” “healthy carrots,” “low-sodium carrots” and “twisted citrus glazed carrots.” All were prepared identically, but the twisted citrus glazed carrots disappeared, while those from the other categories were left over.

Broadening plant-focused appeal. University of New Hampshire did away with Meatless Mondays and now holds Flavor Forward Dinners on Wednesdays. The dishes are still primarily plant-based, said David Hill, director of dining hall operations, but the name change attracts more students. On other days of the week, stations serve customizable veggie-forward items such as tacos filled with roasted Brussels sprouts and eggplant, fresh spring rolls with vegetable fillings and grain bowls.

Using a favorite carrier to capture veggie-resistant customers. Chef Jehangir Mehta, owner of Graffiti Earth restaurant and consultant to the University of Massachusetts’ dining program, fills dumpling wrappers with unfamiliar vegetables, dusts chicken cutlets with chickpea flour and introduces beets in a sorbet instead of a salad. Once customers realize they like the flavor of these ingredients, you can menu them in other applications, such as a chickpea patty in a slider, he said.

Taking blended burgers to the next level. Chef Chandon Clenard, director of culinary for Guckenheimer, created a tamari-glazed pork tsukune and shishito skewer, featuring a meatball made with ground pork and mushrooms. He serves it over a warm lentil salad mixed with quinoa and sauteed greens. Pork is more sustainable than beef, he said, and only a small amount is needed to create the meatball.

Photo courtesy of Menus of Change

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