Operators continue to expand their ethnic repertoire in order to keep up with—or perhaps stay a step or two ahead of—their customers’ increasingly sophisticated palates.
Each of the world’s varied cultures is reflected in its regional and national dishes, rooted as they inevitably are in the herbs, spices and assorted proteins indigenous to the local terrain.
Today’s chefs find little difficulty in sourcing authentic ingredients although, for somewhat more exotic fare, advance notice to suppliers of a week or two may be needed. And today’s serveries typically boast an international station where dishes originating from all corners of the globe are generally available frequently if not daily.
Many chefs menu a wide array of ethnic dishes—from the pedestrian to the more exotic—based on their personal passions and/or past training. But most are willing to learn from their customers if a specific ethnic favorite is suggested and the “expert” just happens to be on the other side of the counter.
At the eBay Café in San Jose, Calf., more than 500 daily lunchtime customers who work for “the world’s on-line marketplace” can choose from a broad array of authentic ethnic dishes each day. At this Bon Appetit Management Company account, general manager and chef Mark Marelich offers a daily Global Station that “encompasses every cuisine” as well as a full taqueria.
Daily dose: “We have daily burritos and tacos as well as fresh Mexican cheese made right down the street,” Marelich says. “There’s also a daily specialty such as handmade tamales, poblano enchiladas or perhaps ceviche —it’s whatever our (cook) feels like making. Items I’d want her to make would be things she typically would do at home.”
Marelich and approximately 70 to 80 customers each day are fans of her fish tacos. To prepare, she tosses mahi mahi in a bit of masa harina (a very fine corn meal), then fries it off. An order of two fish tacos, shredded cabbage, fresh lime wedges, pico de gallo and other toppings sells for $5.99.
“We do have some Mexican employees (i.e., customers) here, but most importantly, everybody’s getting exposed to it,” Marelich says. “Especially here in San Jose, Latinos are such a big part of the culture that Mexican (cuisine) is good across the board.”
Asian rotation: For those looking for Asian cuisine, Marelich invites a local sushi restaurateur to come in each Wednesday to prepare handmade sushi at the Global Station. The sushi chef takes orders as the customers stand in line and prepares them within six or seven minutes. On the other four days of the work week, the station might menu a Vietnamese pho noodle dish, Korean ribs with kimchee (a very spicy fermented cabbage dish) or oerhaps handmade pork and shrimp wontons with orange beef and fried rice or chow mein noodles.
Marelich feels right at home preparing them. “I’ve had experience working with Asian chefs, plus Bon Appetit has offered training on Asian techniques,” he says. “I think my Asian food is pretty good but in this corporate environment it’s important to specialize in all of them. I try to emphasize real authentic cooking and cross-train my staff with all the different flavor profiles—everyone gets to learn.”
Etouffees and all that jazz: Brock and Company’s team at the Washington Post, in the nation’s capital, do quite a bit of Creole and Cajun cooking. Friday is usually fish day in this cafeteria, where Louisiana baked whiting is menued from time to time.
Executive chef Daniel Dernetz has trained with several chefs who worked in New Orleans as well as with Jeff Trunks, owner of several Washington restaurants with a Louisiana flair. “Seafood is a passion of mine,” Dernetz asserts. “We’ll do a Creole or Cajun theme with different jambalayas at our daily World Bar. We might do etouffees, gumbos or four different types of beignets including seafood. Gumbos, made with a real dark, traditional New Orleans roux, are on at least once a month.”
But Dernetz might just as easily menu a truly authentic German dish, having worked with a German chef when he was based in Finksburg, Maryland. He’s especially proud of his Wiener Schnitzel, spatzle red cabbage and Kalbshaxen (i.e., veal shank). To prepare beef Rouladen, another Washington Post staff favorite, Dernetz pounds the end of a New York strip steak to form an individually rolled portion.
According to Mark Torrence, Brock’s general manager at the Post, Mexican and Asian dishes are always solid sellers, but Italian theme menus, especially for catering, are extremely popular. “We like to offer ‘nibbles’ including antipasto and a small wedge of melon wrapped with Parma prosciutto as well as cheese puffs and homemade ravioli,” he says. “And the crustini of bread with smoked mozzarella, basil pesto plus a balsamic reduction are easy to grab at a party.”
Dernetz also finds that ethnic flavors of the Southwest can be featured for a banquet. He likes to include a Southwestern egg roll of chicken, black beans, corn, pepper jack cheese, spring onions and cilantro, all rolled in a traditional egg roll wrapper or wheat tortilla; he prefers a wheat tortilla to one made of corn, finding it a bit more flexible and less brittle when exposed to air.
The world tour: Julie Hanrahan, fsd at St. Thomas Moore School, a Flik Independent School location serving approximately 200 students plus 100 faculty and staff in Oakdale, Conn., treats the cafeteria’s monthly ethnic Food Focus like any teacher would who’s giving a course on cuisines of the world. In fact, she has a whole loose- leaf binder brimming with recipes and notes covering all the ancillary materials she needs: from signage and decorations to suggested music and appropriate speeches to post.
Many of the “special” ethnic dishes prepared throughout the year, such as beef bolgogi, have been so popular they’re now incorporated on the school’s cycle menu. “That’s a Korean dish prepared with a simple marinade of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugar, chives, fresh garlic, sesame seed oil, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper,” Hanrahan explains.
“We’ve used this marinade with pork tenderloin, chicken thighs and beef—perhaps flank steak on skewers. Marinate the meat overnight, then grill it. We do have a large Asian population—about 25% to 30%—and students as well as staff love this dish.”
Swedish meatballs, which may be less familiar to many, isn’t generally menued for school kids. But at St. Thomas Moore, the students appreciated them well enough during the month-long Scandinavian focus that they, along with homemade rye bread and yellow split pea soup prepared with pork shoulder, were added to the cycle menu.
Whether Hanrahan and her staff are featuring Korean, Mediterranean, Brazilian or German Oktoberfest recipes, there’s always an Asian station available complete with slow cooker for authentic steamed rice. As another option, there’s either a chicken or pork stir-fried dish, a pasta bar, a fruit and yogurt bar, and a dessert station since “the headmaster wants all the kids to be happy,” Hanrahan points out.
Over the years, Mark Petrino, associate director of dining services at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., has been trying to spice up the Americanized versions of the ethnic dishes menued for the approximately 2,000 students and about 300 staff and faculty he serves daily.
Asking for help: Recently, he and his staff reached out to various student clubs including African, Hispanic and Asian organizations to get their input—and possibly family recipes for theme dinners. “The Asian groups put together menus and provided recipes,” Petrino reports. “We got the ingredients, then about eight of them came into the kitchen to teach our staff. We served their recipes one night and ran a sushi night on a different evening.”
When an ethnic theme is run, Petrino usually plans it for two or three of the four dining halls so that regular fare is available at the same time. “What usually happens, though, is that students want to be part of it—they like to try different things,” he says.
Executive chef Mark Thompson recalls the guidance and suggestions provided by a professor for the annual Russian themed event. “Dara Goldstein, a professor of Russian here on campus and a cookbook author, was gracious enough to do a demo and we did the cooking with her,” Thompson says. “Among other recipes, we prepared thin blini (buckwheat pancakes) using real buckwheat, egg yolks, egg whites and heavy cream. The final product is really nice and airy.”
Thompson and his staff also gained some expertise in using caviar as a blini filling, from ostryga, a Grade-A caviar, to beluga and the less expensive shad roe caviar. They prepared crème fraiche flavored with lemon and cracked pepper, then garnished with a bit of green scallion. Professor Goldstein also supervised production of dessert, including an apple chocolate cake prepared with a bit of sour cream to keep it moist. This recipe has become a popular mainstay, menued 10 times a year.
Summer time: Foods from West Africa have also been in the spotlight at Williams, thanks to the efforts of Gloria Dickenson, a visiting professor and guest lecturer from Princeton University. “Now we have a rice chicken yassa dish which is a stew of chicken (including giblets), cut into eight parts. Seasoning includes garlic, onions, fresh chili peppers, plus red vinegar and soy sauce. The chicken is cooked in the braiser, then you add the easonings, combine it with rice and simmer it down like you’d simmer a jambalaya.”
Thompson is looking forward to the completion of the new student center and the opening of Teppanakyi Grill that he, along with dining services director Bob Volpi, designed as an international station featuring Middle Eastern, Asian and Spanish cuisine.
Jamaican, Caribbean, Cuban, Greek and West Indian dishes often get top billing on the menus prepared by Charles Fox, director of food and nutrition services at Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, a Morrison Senior Dining location in New York. More than 1,100 employees and 730 residents constitute the diverse population representing numerous ethnicities. “We do have special theme days in our retail cafeteria and we recently offered a made-to-order salad bar for Cinco de Mayo,” Fox points out.
It included a quesadilla bar, taco bar, rice and beans and fried plantains. And, for St. Patrick’s Day he menued corned beef and cabbage with potatoes and Irish soda bread prepared from scratch. But items like braised oxtails or a Peruvian lamb stew go over extremely well, with or without being linked to a specific ethnic theme day.
A Scandinavian Feast
If you’re traveling to the Northfield, Minn., area right after Thanksgiving—it’s only 45 miles from Minneapolis—you might want to plan a visit to St. Olaf College, the site of an internationally renowned annual Christmas festival of music and Scandinavian food.
The event has been taking place for 93 years and this past year over 100,000 requests were received for the 12,000 available tickets. Over a four-day period starting the Thursday after Thanksgiving, nightly concerts are given, attended by a standing-room only crowd of about 3,000 guests. Bon Appetit Management Company provides foodservice to these guests as well as to the operation’s 1,725 students and their guests.
At the ready: General manager Hays Atkins is already looking forward to November and to offering the traditional Norwegian/Scandinavian fare that’s part of the traditional Christmas Fest menu each year.
Highlights of the Christmas Fest menu include:
- Lutefisk with drawn butter and/or cream sauce. “Lutefisk is cod cured in lye,” Atkins explains. “Originally, it was a way of preserving fish in winter or for the trans-Atlantic voyage, so it’s seen as peasant food.”
- Lefse with butter, cinnamon sugar and brown sugar, is flat bread similar to a tortilla, made from potatoes. “It’s a staple for Norwegian-Americans of all generations but real traditionalists eat it with molasses,” Atkins says.
- Julekake, or jewel cake, is a bread prepared with dried fruit.
- Medisterkaker with brown sauce and lingonberries, similar to meatballs, is a patty of ground beef and pork seasoned with clove, nutmeg, onion, salt and pepper. It’s served with brown gravy and garnished with lingonberry preserve on top.
Following Doctors’ Orders
Italian, Asian and Mexican dishes are always popular among the approximately 1,000 daily cafeteria customers at 455-bed Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Ore.. Executive chef Vince Giglia, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and at one time owned his own restaurant, brings his background to bear in all that he prepares.
He doesn’t hesitate to tweak standard recipes to better serve the needs of a large number of customers. For example, in his lasagna recipe, traditional lasagna noodles are replaced with ziti.
“I developed this recipe for ‘Ziti-zanni’ in my restaurant to take the place of the traditional layered meat/cheese/pasta dish,” he says, “since lasagna looked messy after the first three portions were served. This is easier to dish up and the appearance is better.”
Switchin’ with chicken: Eggplant and chicken parmigiana are both popular among his customers, but Giglia is sticking to chicken just now since the price of eggplant is fairly high. His customers—including any of the patients on regular diets (and with the consent of their doctor) who request cafeteria fare—also enjoy chicken Marsala, a dish Giglia prepares with fresh shallots, homemade chicken stock and fresh mushrooms. He suggests using only sec (dry) Marsala vs. dolce (sweet) for best results.
For the recent annual Doctor’s Day repast—and in response to their request for a theme other than Italian—Giglia prepared a Indian-inspired pork vindaloo as well as a spicy Thai shrimp dish accompanied by sautéed diced vegetables that were added to fried rice along with chopped scrambled eggs, soy sauce and fresh ginger.
Curry Causes a Flurry
Indian cuisine and curry dishes tend to pose a particular challenge for many chefs who wind up concluding they are too hard to master. They hear their customers indicating an interest in both, but most lack hands-on experience in preparation in this area. Some say they need special equipment, such as a tandoori oven, to make an authentic Indian meal, and others recognize that curry dishes are as diverse as the many regions from which they originate, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand and other countries.
Mark Marelich, general manager and chef for Bon Appetit at eBay in San Jose, Calf., admits that preparing Indian dishes is not one of his strengths. “We do menu it on occasion but I haven’t been personally exposed to all the different flavors—although it’s a very popular cuisine,” he points out.
Mark Torrence, Brock & Company’s general manager at the Washington Post in Washington, echoes Marelich’s sentiments regarding Indian cuisine. “We do some masalas, but it’s very hard to do right,” he contends. “You really need a tandoori oven so we do a little bit such as a very simple chicken curry with rice.”
Another obstacle: sources of supply for authentic ingredients. “For Indian recipes, the biggest challenge is finding ingredients since we’re not near a big city,” says Mark Petrino, associate director of dining services at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
“We’re three hours from Boston and an hour from Albany (N.Y.). But a couple of our distributors can source for us as long as we give them two weeks notice.”
At the International Corner within Café Med at UCLA Medical Center, Indian and Thai curries (alternately one week beef, one week lamb), have become the main attraction with more than 275 of the approximately 3,000 lunchtime customers choosing them each day.
Mmm-mmm masaman: Beef masaman curry, a Thai dish, is the most popular of the beef curries, according to executive chef Mark Dyball. “We use sirloin tips as our stew cut beef and buy our own masaman curry paste so it’s totally authentic,” he says. “The recipe also includes fresh garlic, ginger and curry powder, but the curry paste is the main (seasoning) element, plus fish sauce, a popular ingredient in Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian recipes.”
Dyball offers tandoori salmon about once a month. “I rub it with tandoori paste made from scratch, wrap it in banana leaves, then bake it in the oven at 325°F for 20 minutes,” he explains. “When it’s done, I remove the leaves and slice it in front of the customers. They love all four of the different rubs I use on salmon—tandoori, Malaysian, Singapore and Panang from Thailand.”
Café Med customers also enjoy the curry bar because it features authentic dahl, a red lentil dish. He prepares lemon dahl with a bit of tumeric for color, mustard seeds, fresh cilantro, onions, fresh ginger, garlic, jalapeños and lemon juice. Notes Dyball: “There’s lots of protein and fiber in it so our dietitians really like to see dahls on the menu.”