Chefs bowl over diners with on-trend bowls

Operators and guests dig the convenience and customizability of meals in a bowl.

Bowls continue to trend as meal carriers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Both operators and the guests they feed appreciate bowls for their convenience, customizability and creative combinations. Build-your-own stations are increasingly popular ways to offer bowls in college dining, corporate venues and school and hospital cafeterias. But building a satisfying bowl takes more planning than randomly tossing ingredients together in one vessel.

Playing with layering

“Texture is the secret ingredient for a successful bowl,” says Kevin Cecilio, senior director of culinary innovations for Sodexo. Cecilio develops concepts for both the B&I and C&U segments, recently opening a cafe in a government building in New York City with two build-your-own stations.

“I’m offering a plant-forward approach with an array of grains, beans and vegetables. Each layer works with the layer before it,” he says.

For the first layer, customers can choose from beluga lentils, quinoa, brown rice and farro—all ingredients that provide that all-important texture. Next is a protein section, with tofu, falafel, grilled chicken or salmon. What Cecilio calls “lovingly manipulated vegetables” create a third layer. For example, he roasts broccolini with olive oil, salt and pepper to give it some char and add flavor; tri-color carrots are roasted with the skin on to add texture and chew, providing a “mindful eating experience.”

“Steamed vegetables don’t measure up,” he says.

To top it off, guests can choose from an assortment of textural and flavor additions, including various fresh herbs, seeds and condiments, such as harissa, vinaigrette and vinegar-based hot sauces. Cecilio says that a bowl recipe needs a little acid to add a layer of contrasting flavor.

Although 80% of guests choose to customize a bowl, “well-crafted chef-created bowls may start to overtake them,” Cecilio believes. Time-crunched customers may find ready-made bowls more convenient, and curated combinations can offer better flavor balance and creativity, he adds.

Breakfast in a bowl

Mornings are often more of a time crunch than lunchtimes, creating an opportunity to capture rushed customers with grab-and-go breakfast bowls. For a hearty option, Cecilio again focuses on plant-forward ingredients, building layers of texture and flavor. He starts with a base of beans or lentils topped with scrambled eggs—“They hold up best,” he says—then layers of crispy diced potatoes, just a little bacon and a dash of hot sauce.

Jonathan Smith, senior regional executive chef for TouchPoint Support Services, a healthcare foodservice contractor, changed up the carrier to tempt breakfast customers. He starts with a bread bowl, filling it with breakfast meats, cheeses, a medium egg yolk and choice of toppings.

And Matthew Cervay, executive system chef for Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, lightens up breakfast bowls by swapping in healthier ingredients. He subs chicken sausage for pork and roasted potatoes for fried, combining them with vegetables not normally seen at breakfast, including Swiss chard, spinach and beans. Guests can opt for salsa verde, pico de gallo and cotija cheese to pump up the flavor. Cervay reports that multitaskers tend to choose bowls over sandwiches, as they can hold their phone in one hand and a fork in the other while they eat.

The ethnic influence

“Asian cuisine invented the bowl,” Cecilio claims. From Japanese ramen and Chinese noodle bowls to Vietnamese pho, noncommercial operators are finding these preps to be very adaptable to build-your-own stations and Asian concepts.

While Asian dishes may dominate bowl menus, other cuisines are making an impact, too. Mark Augustine, executive chef and operations manager for Minneapolis Public Schools, offers a Mediterranean bowl at the district’s Global Markets. Students can customize with ingredients such as pasta, garlic-grilled chicken, Bolognese beef, marinara, Alfredo sauce and crunchy toppings. He also offers Caribbean and Indian bowl options.

“It’s fun to develop flavors from around the world for students to try, as our populations are becoming more diverse,” he says, adding that bowls are a platform that allows students to make more daring flavor choices.

Photograph courtesy of Sodexo

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