Despite our love affair with international cuisine, American staples like barbecue are still popular.
The culture of the United States is blessed with so many ethnic influences that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we have our own indigenous food traditions, from Boston clam chowder to New Orleans gumbo, hominy grits to planked salmon.
Take barbecue, for instance. “It’s different all over the country,” says Jonathan Dye, chef and assistant foodservice manager at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Dye, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a hotel industry veteran who came to Iowa in 2006, has spent the last year testing a new concept in the Hillcrest Market Place called Riverside Smoke House. The concept has been so successful that an in-house smoker has been added, and this fall the Smoke House will serve all-scratch regional American and international barbecue.
“We had an international station in there that wasn’t working out for us, and we needed something new,” says Greg Black, director of residential dining. “Jonathan pitched the idea of barbecue and we decided to give it a shot.”
The station pays tribute to Hillcrest’s location not only in the heartland but also on the cliffs overlooking the Iowa River, with a new logo and signage to call attention to the Riverside Smoke House. The menu started with the basics, including purchased pulled pork, barbecued chicken and ribs, and such traditional side dishes as baked beans and coleslaw. “Basically, we started introducing students to various kinds of barbecue,” notes Black. “Most people are familiar with meat cooked with barbecue sauce, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
With 300 or more students partaking of items from the Smoke House every day, the decision was made to go, well, whole hog, into onsite smoking and all-scratch preparation. Dye spent the summer experimenting with everything from Texas-style smoked brisket to Korean bulgogi. “We’ll mix it up with all kinds of different regional American barbecue styles,” says Dye. “Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, Texas. We’ve even done Pacific Northwest barbecued salmon with huckleberry barbecue sauce.”
He’ll also work farther afield, with Asian barbecue style like tandoori and satays. Protein selections are also accompanied by appropriate sauces, condiments and sides, such as the calico beans and cheesy corn bake that’s served with the Carolina-style pulled pork.
Dye says he is looking at using different smoking woods, including pecan, walnut, hickory and apple. He also hopes to produce other items in the smoker, such as smoked tomato sauce and cream sauces for the pizza station. “We swap out with other locations on campus,” he explains. “For instance, while Hillcrest serves sushi there isn’t a huge demand for it, so we contracted with Burge Market Place (the other major resident dining facility on campus) to provide it for us.”
Soul food is another legendary American tradition. “It’s the ultimate comfort food,” says Fran Cassidy, director of food and nutrition at Cooper University Hospital, a 60-bed tertiary-case hospital in Camden, N.J., that serves some 2,500 meals a day. Owing to the demographics of the staff, hearty soul-food items like fried whiting with greens and rice, Cajun catfish and fried chicken are always popular.
“We do lots of down-home cooking here,” says Cassidy. “People line up out the door for the fried chicken. We make everything from scratch—that’s real important with this kind of food. We even make our own chicken wings, and people who know their chicken wings say ours are some of the best.”
Lately, she’s been trying to make healthier soul food specialties, like braised beef with red potatoes and greens, which Cassidy adapted from a recipe by the famous Southern cook Leah Chase, who helped develop a heart-healthy cookbook for the American Heart Association. “It’s a challenge with this kind of food, but you just have to keep working at it.”
To help keep employees interested, Cassidy does a lot of theme menus. This February, during Black History Month, she invited Corinne Bradley-Powers to come in and cook. Bradley-Powers, the chef from the popular local soul food restaurant Corinne’s Place, prepared a veritable feast for her many fans: platters of pork ribs, turkey wings, rice and gravy, stewed cabbage, macaroni and cheese, potato and macaroni salad, cornbread and banana pudding.
“We considered using her recipes and making the food ourselves, as we have before in the past, but a lot of people know her and it’s just not the same thing,” says Cassidy. “People were lined up out the door, down the hallway, and down the steps to eat her food—everyone tried it.”
When Bradley-Powers ran out, she and her cooks made more (Corrine’s Place uses the same vendor as Cooper University Hospital, who helped coordinate the deliveries). When they got behind, says Cassidy, her own kitchen team pitched in, feeding more than 1,200 all together. “They were so honored and pleased to be working with Corinne,” says Cassidy, “and that alone made it all worthwhile.”
The Regional Approach
Senior living centers’ menu philosophy provides regional flexibility.
At Classic Residence by Hyatt, the idea of regional cuisine is taken really seriously. “One of our primary missions is to be conscious of the local community and population demographics,” says Don Clawson, assistant vice president of food & beverage for the Chicago-based collection of luxury senior living facilities. In this, he could be speaking not only of the culinary mandate, but also of the communities themselves—nearly two dozen in all, ranging in location from Teaneck, N.J., and Naples, Fla., to Dallas and Monterey, Calf., each with its own distinct personality.
“We don’t have any core ‘Classic Residence’ menu items, none at all,” explains Jon Benson, director of culinary operations, who joined the company earlier this year from the ranks of luxury hotels and other public operations.
The menus are worked out by the individual chefs and directors and reviewed by the resident food committee, and they are designed to reflect both the season and the cuisine in that particular area.” The system allows chefs the kind of creativity that keeps residents interested—and makes the job more attractive as well—but also ensures some checks and balances on flights of fancy that aren’t in keeping with customer demand.
“The less we dictate, the more aggressive they’ll be in meeting customer needs, and keeping their own creative potential alive,” notes Clawson. The six-week, restaurant-style cycle menus feature a fixed set of choices for that period on the left-hand side—four to six each of appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts—with a slightly smaller selection of daily specials on the right. “That allows us to showcase fresh seasonal produce, patron favorites and other features,” adds Clawson. “It’s part of what makes us unique.”
Wellness issues are addressed nutritionally with a separate set of menu choices: Classically Caring Cuisine features items that are generally lower in sodium and fat, and desserts that are generally lower in sugar, reflecting the company’s belief that food is an essential factor in the quality of life.
Hiring trained executive chefs who understand the local market is another linchpin in the strategy. “Each location has its own, very specific demographic,” notes Clawson—Teaneck, for instance, has a resident base that is 95% Jewish. There, under the supervision of executive chef David Barbieri, menu items might run from traditional chicken noodle soup to roast Cornish game hen with herbed jus.
In Naples, Fla., on the other hand, there’s room for Floribbean flavors and fresh, tropical influences, such as hearts of palm salad with pear tomatoes and roasted walnuts, and grilled chicken with a coconut rum sauce and tropical fruit salsa.
“Right now, it’s a juggling act, balancing a desire for comfort and familiarity with a desire to pump up flavor profiles and introduce more global menu concepts,” says Benson. “The Depression-era residents who are our customers now have memories of food that are very different fropm the next generation. Baby Boomers will be even more sophisticated and demanding.”
That goal is already being reflected in the individual locations. In Scottsdale location, residents can choose among items as diverse as arroz con pollo and tenderloin of beef with mild ancho chile sauce and Monterey Jack cheese polenta, to tuna carpaccio with grainy mustard sauce, courtesy of executive chef Manny Ramos.
New construction in markets like Denver and renovations of older facilities will incorporate designs that will allow the dining staff to more easily adapt to current food trends, including showcase kitchens and centerpiece equipment like rotisseries and woodburning ovens, says Clawson.
Making Comfort Healthy
Cancer center’s new chef finds ways to satisfy patients’ need for comfort and nutrition.
As the new chef de cuisine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Justin Evans has the opportunity to help bring comfort to people who are facing difficult times. But he also has the responsibility to provide healthy and nutritious food offerings in a hospitality setting. Adding items that can serve these twin purposes is a challenge that he relishes, and a learning experience into what makes food—and people—tick.
“When I hear the word comfort it makes me think of all the things in life that make me happy and relaxed. Comfort is a feeling of being around familiar sights, sounds and smells. When the word comfort is used in food terms, then I think about all the dishes my mother used to make for me: fried chicken, lasagna, meat loaf, fried catfish and grits, salmon croquettes, pot roast…
There are many ways to eat your favorite comfort foods in a healthy environment, such as changing cooking methods, excluding some of the fatty ingredients, even changing the main ingredient itself. My new career with Memorial Sloan has opened my eyes to healthy alternatives to comfort foods and how some people can’t enjoy them like they use to because of one or two ingredients they can’t consume. Some of the ideas that eliminate one or two ingredients that will be added to the menu at Sloan are:
Bulgur Wheat Meat Loaf: The binding agent that holds this dish together are the grains of bulgur wheat instead of the traditional breadcrumbs. I use plenty of fresh herbs to add flavor, instead of the traditional three ground meat products. And it can be served with a light vinaigrette instead of ketchup.
Tofu Française: The thing I like about this is the fact you can leave out the egg part of the recipe, and use cornstarch and the moistness of the tofu to give it that traditional crispy texture. Topping it with a roasted tomato-basil and caper ragout gives it more flavor in a light, healthy way.
Southern Fried Portobello: The term ‘Southern Fried’ gives many of people the idea of a heavy, greasy food product, but you can put a twist on all this by using a portobello cap, seasoned with fresh herbs and coated with a nice seasoned cornstarch mixture. The cornstarch only needs a couple of minutes to get crispy, so the portobello doesn’t stay submerged in the deep-fryer. In this dish you have eliminated eggs, buttermilk, bleached flour and the long cooking time in the deep-fryer. The portobello still gives that appearance of going through the traditional batter concept but when this dish is served on a nice bed of mixed greens topped with a Dijon-balsamic reduction, its taste speaks for itself.
There are so many ways to keep comfort foods a part of life, with some procedure changes and an imagination for ingredient substitution.”