College and healthcare chefs adapt menus to meet operational challenges

FSD’s Culinary Council members share how food costs, labor shortages and evolving consumer tastes are impacting what’s on the menu.
Michigan State has changed the layout of some buffet lines to emphasize lower-cost items first. / Photograph: Shutterstock

Chefs and foodservice directors in C&U and healthcare are still dealing with some of last year's challenges as they move into 2023. Kitchen help is hard to find, inflation is pushing up food costs and consumer tastes continue to evolve.

To take a pulse on how all this is impacting menus, we reached out to several members of FSD’s Culinary Council—a group of chefs representing the different segments in noncommercial foodservice. Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening in their operations.

Easing the labor and supply crunch

Jeff Varcoe, managing chef at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., is purchasing more value-added products to make up for fewer hands in the kitchen.

“We’ve changed menu items to include more value-added items to reduce our labor, including pre-breaded chicken and prepared pulled beef, instead of braising and pulling our own,” he says. “On the service side, we added self-serve garnishes and toppings to our buffets instead of serving a complete composed plate.”

Over at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., Corporate Executive Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski had to remove numerous turkey products from the menu for a while, and at the beginning of 2023, “we still have only one unit able to use sliced turkey in sandwiches. We’re also having issues with liquid eggs and have to limit where and how these are used,” he says.

Keeping a lid on costs

With food costs rising or fluctuating unpredictably, chefs are changing up sourcing strategies and menu items to manage the increases. “We took pan-seared salmon off the menu and now offer flaked salmon as a protein option for our pasta and stir-fry dishes. The new portion is two ounces and will likely be our biggest savings,” says Zachary Schwab, corporate executive chef at Swedish Medical Center in Everett, Wash. “We are also able to buy whole fillets with the skin on, which are cheaper than the portions we used to purchase.”

Schwab also switched from cod to less pricey tilapia for a menu favorite: White Fish over Roasted Red Pepper Coulis.

At Penn State, Varcoe is looking to reduce both seafood and beef costs. “Although we haven’t made many decisions yet, we are working in that direction. But we did remove a NY strip steak from one brunch menu and replaced it with a wonderful pulled pot roast open-face sandwich on a buttermilk biscuit with beer cheese sauce,” he says. “Very rich and delicious.”

On the build-your-own buffets at Michigan State dining halls, ingredients were moved around to encourage students to take more vegetables, grains and lentils and less of expensive proteins. By placing meat, chicken and seafood at the end of the line, diners are encouraged to pile plates with less expensive ingredients first. 

Putting more plants on the plate

Cost is not the only motivating factor in pushing plant-forward dishes; health and sustainability come into play, too.

Michigan State is using more lentils and vegetables throughout the menu, with a special focus on Indian fare. “We’ve added numerous new Indian dishes, such as lentil tamarind curry, curried cauliflower, carrot raita, cucumber and tomato raita and aloo gobi (spiced potatoes and cauliflower),” says Kwiatkowski. “We did focused R&D work this past summer on many main and side dishes, and ingredient sourcing was very important. We brought in a special authentic basmati rice and specific dried seasonings.”

Kwiatkowski is also exploring a plant-based seafood option, while Penn State is testing the acceptance of faux chicken. “But we’re also adding more vegetables to our stir-fries and developing more dishes that use traditional proteins as accents instead of the center of the plate,” says Varcoe.



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