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What’s in your kitchen?

Chefs share the trends that are driving their kitchen decisions.

Every year around this time, foodservice research companies like Technomic, groups such as the National Restaurant Association, and a host of trade and consumer magazines disseminate their lists of the major food trends for the coming year. quinoa-salad

The editors at FoodService Director decided to conduct our own informal panel of non-commercial chefs and operators to share their thoughts on what foods are trending in their markets. We asked our respondents to comment on five areas: fruits, vegetables, meats, grains and alternative proteins. Here’s what they had to say.

Fruits

In no segment of non-commercial foodservice will there be a more aggressive approach to fruit than in schools. Government mandates virtually ensure this. The trick, chefs say, is to find fruits that kids will want to eat.

“We do a lot of mixed fruits, which seem to be popular, like melon cups,” says Steven Burke, department chef for the Austin Independent School District, in Texas. “One new thing we tried this year that has gone over very well is [wild USDA] blueberries. We’ve used them in multiple aspects. One was a blueberry cup, lightly seasoned with a little bit of honey and lemon juice. We top that with sour cream with a little bit of vanilla added. Then we take graham crackers and crumble them up and sprinkle them over the top.”

In the Dallas Independent School District, Brad Trudeau, director of production, logistics and procurement, says he’s had surprising success with grapefruit. “You would never think children would like grapefruit,” Trudeau says. “But there’s a local Rio Grande Valley red grapefruit that is very sweet. We make wedges out of them, and the kids absolutely love it.”

Sometimes, it’s not so much what school cafeterias serve as it is how it is served.

“As silly as it sounds, a major development for us is different [fruit and vegetable] cuts to get the kids to eat,” says Lisa Feldman, director of culinary services for Sodexo Schools. “Kids like to dip. So if you have a carrot and you cut it into sticks and give them something to dip it in that’s maybe a protein source, they’re more inclined to eat that than if you give them a steamed carrot. So our development is making fruits and vegetables attractive.”

Trudeau agrees. “Kids, especially the younger ones, have a hard time eating a whole apple or orange,” he says. “If you make wedges out of it the consumption goes up incredibly.”

Making fruits fun can also increase consumption, adds Jason Morse, executive chef for Douglas County School District, in Colorado.

“We freeze grapes and call them grapesicles,” Morse explains. “When it gets crazy hot we offer them at all the elementary sites. Then it becomes a choice and not a forced option.”

In healthcare, as well, the emphasis has not necessarily been on introducing new types of fruit but on promoting increased fruit consumption.

“A challenge at Geisinger Health System [in Danville, Pa.] is conveying to our customers that fruits are more than just a snack or dessert,” says Rick Slear, director of culinary services. “We’re trying to educate customers to choose a fruit side to accompany their meal versus going for a bag of chips. For example, Geisinger features a green apple slaw that goes with our fish specials. Blueberries are gaining in popularity due to their high antioxidant content and versatility in recipes.”

In the Whittier Health Network, in Haverhill, Mass., a primary focus has been trying to “get as much fruit and vegetables as possible into our senior population,” says Joe Stanislaw, corporate director of foodservices.

“Over the years we have added many more tropical varieties in the form of entrée salads and in our sauces and sides,” Stanislaw says. One example is a Chicken à la Jessie, a leafy salad with strawberries and oranges to add bright color. Strawberries also grace a Cocoa Quinoa Parfait at Whittier.

If you want to see exotic fruits, look to college campuses, where chefs are willing to experiment with new varieties.

“People are starting to go back to their North American roots,” suggests Gary Coltek, director of culinary and hospitality services at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia. “We’re now seeing pawpaw, which tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. We use mayhaw [another local fruit] to make jams. We use all varieties of figs, and we have started using the blue honeysuckle berry, which is like a blueberry but long and shaped like a football.”

At Tulane University, in New Orleans, Thomas Beckmann, general manager for Sodexo, also says specialty fruits are in vogue.

“We get honey tangerines, specialty pears, grapples [apples that have been infused with natural grape flavor], dragonfruit, mini watermelons and black plums,” Beckmann says. “We try to leave them as whole hand fruits so students can see what they look like before they’re broken down.”

Vegetables

The movement toward buying local certainly has helped boost vegetable consumption in recent years, and that trend will continue, chefs say. At Tulane University, where Beckmann says 10% to 15% of produce is always local, a partnership between Sodexo and Grow Dat Youth Farm should increase the percentage and variety of local items.

“Grow Dat is a small farm where students from high schools will work on the farm to grow lettuces and other vegetables for local restaurants,” Beckmann says. “At our 1834 Club, the faculty and staff dining room, we use all of their green lettuces. We also get vegetables off a specialty truck, such as different kinds of mushrooms, lollipop kale and micro chives.”

Peter Fischbach, regional director of culinary development for Gourmet Dining, says his company has been adding more collards and kale into menus, as well as growing these greens at accounts that have gardens. He also expects to see increased interest in heirloom vegetables, such as parsnips, artichokes and salsify and unusual herbs such as lovage, which has a flavor and smell similar to celery, and papalo, which is similar to cilantro.

Mark Kowalski, executive chef at Penn State University, in State College, says that his department “continues to develop fruit and vegetable recipes because of the health aspects.”

“We are doing a lot with roasted cauliflower now—I hear cauliflower is to be the new Brussels sprouts—and we just did a Brussels sprouts slaw demo, which was pretty popular,” he says.

Slear, at Geisinger, also says vegetable use is increasing, in no small measure because of the increasing number of customers who claim to be vegetarians.

“We always have a vegetarian soup, our salad bar is extremely popular and we are moving toward offering a hot vegetarian entrée every day,” Slear says. “Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, squashes—all are growing in popularity in our units.”

Austin’s Burke is another chef working with cauliflower.

“Indian food is hot right now, so I’m focusing on a curried cauliflower or squash,” he says. “We’re working on roasting and steaming. Indian flavor profiles work really well with steaming.”

Of course, increasing vegetable consumption is a primary mission for school foodservice directors.

Sodexo’s Feldman says the trend will be to find ways to blend vegetables into popular kids’ foods. “We’ve seen some success when taking things like macaroni and cheese and incorporating broccoli in it,” she explains. “Pasta is another natural place to put vegetables.”

Feldman also suggests that making sure that vegetables fit the parameters of a certain dish can go a long way to gaining acceptance. “A lot of kids’ aversion to vegetables is actually textural,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the flavor of the vegetable; it’s the crunchiness or lack thereof. So if you put vegetables with something else that’s in the context of the dish and it’s the same texture, you see participation go up.

“You can do a raw kale salad and maybe a kid will eat it. But if you cook that kale down with some liquid and garlic and other tasty spices, the kids are going to eat a lot more of it,” she explains.

One trend in pushing vegetable usage is to make a game or competition out of it. In Douglas County, Morse has issued a challenge to 53 elementary schools and eight charter schools.

“We challenged them to see who could put away the most fruits and vegetables,” he explains. “We’re not forcing it on them; we’re trying to get them more comfortable making it a natural choice in their lunches.”

Meats

Leaner is better, say chefs in all market segments, so expect red meat to take a back seat to a variety of other animal proteins—everything from poultry and fish to goat and game meats.

“I think we’ll see some increase in lesser known, not as mainstream cuts of meat,” says Penn State’s Kowalski. “We’ll also see much more chicken and other poultry. We’ve been using ground turkey in different ways, such as turkey meatloaf with chipotle ketchup, a turkey banh mi and turkey meatballs. We’re always looking for new ways to use chicken.”

In school foodservice, chopped is not where it’s at these days. Instead, operators are looking at whole-muscle cuts of proteins like chicken and turkey.

“We haven’t used chopped and processed in years,” says Douglas County’s Morse. “We are looking for clean label, whole muscle, things like chicken tenderloins, unbreaded and skinless.”

Sodexo is also getting into the whole-muscle game. “One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time working on in the last couple of months is a turkey thigh that’s slow-cooked,” Feldman says. “We’re looking to do more global flavors with it.

We’re also taking taco meat and turning it into carnitas [and] taking diced chicken and making a flavorful barbecue sauce and doing a chicken sandwich.”

Fish will be appearing on more healthcare menus, chefs suggest. At Geisinger, fish is being offered at least twice a week, even as the frequency of red meat is reduced.

The same is true at Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University, in Columbus. “With fish I think we will see more sustainable farm-raised fish such as swai and other varieties of flaky, white, neutral-flavored fish,” says Culinary Director Drew Patterson. “We are developing our menu to offer fish two times per week.”

Patterson adds that blended ground meats will also help hospitals offer more healthful dishes. “We use a turkey/beef blend that comes in at 90% lean, but it has a lot of great flavor and moisture because we use dark turkey meat. I think there are a lot of options for burgers, sausages, etc., if we get creative.”

Schools historically have not made much use of fish, but Sodexo’s Feldman says she would like to change that.

“Fish is a giant focus for us,” she explains. “We’ve been working with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers to create a managers guide for creative ways to use fish. Pollock is really the only thing that’s readily available and affordable.”

Pork may have a place on menus in all market sectors, chefs say. For example, Joe Kraft, corporate executive chef for Morrison, says he’s incorporating pork flat iron into menus. Austin’s Burke has begun using a diced pork product.

“We’ve done a lot of work with that,” he says. “We make carnitas and a green chile pork that we serve over rice.”

When it comes to more exotic meats, colleges again lead the adventurous way.

“Primal butchering, using all parts of the animal, is growing,” says Kennesaw State’s Coltek. “We also do a lot of game meat like kangaroo and emu. They go over very well. We also serve wild boar and caribou. Once students taste it, they open their minds a bit on what to eat.”

Gourmet Dining’s Fischbach says pork belly, goat, rabbit and squab are becoming more popular, as are eggs from duck, quail and emu. Some of the items Fischbach has experimented with include curried goat with lemon-parsley quinoa and an apricot-curry glazed grilled pork belly steak over orange-fennel slaw.

Shawn Dolan, executive chef at UNC Healthcare, in Durham, N.C., believes goat “is poised to become an in thing. It does have a strong smell and flavor, so selecting a seasoning is key,” Dolan says. “The best preparation of goat that I had was in Jamaica. It was jerked. The flavor was fantastic.”

But branching out into less mainstream meats does present some hurdles, Fischbach notes.

“The biggest challenge with any trend is keeping costs in line,” he says. “Trendy items tend to be more costly because they are trendy and in demand. The second biggest issue is training employees how to work with new and trendy items to ensure they are cooked properly and made consistently.”

Grains

Have Americans become quinoa’ed out? Although UNC Healthcare’s Dolan suggests that may be the case—“you know it’s over when you’re watching football and a commercial comes on that spoofs the product”—he also notes that quinoa’s brethren may be coming into their own.

“With the anti-gluten movement that is currently underway, ancient grains are the hot trend,” he says. “I like spelt, farro and amaranth. We have a rotation of ancient grain salads that we sell in our retail venues and they sell very well.”

Patterson also favors Job’s tears, a Southeast Asian grain that contains about 18% protein. It is also known as hato mugi or Chinese pearl barley.

“The cooked product swells and closely resembles hominy,” he explains. “The flavor is pleasantly nutty and can be used as a side dish or treated like barley and incorporated into a soup.”

Patterson, at Wexner Medical Center, is another chef who believes quinoa is fading. But he agrees that there are plenty of other grains to take its place.

“I think there will be a push for new and exciting unknown grains,” he says. “We’re using bulgur and farro on our new menu, and I think the more we put them in front of customers the more they become normal. I like how most of the grains have a deep, earthy flavor and more texture. They are more filling and satisfying than, say, a pasta.”

Patterson adds that he mixes the grains with berries, mint, cilantro and citrus “to give them a cool visual appeal and a different flavor than people have had before.”

Although Dolan and Patterson may think quinoa is played out, other chefs see a starring role for the Andean grain on their menus.

“We’re focused on quinoa right now,” says Jay Perry, chef de cuisine at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. “We’re incorporating ancient grains into one of our Latin concepts. It is a bowl concept where students have a choice of options, but the bowls are built heavily on vegetables and dried or fresh, seasonal fruit. The bowls have great flavors, great colors, and the vegetables make the grain stand out.”

At Baylor Medical Center of Frisco, in Texas, quinoa also is becoming a grain of choice. Executive Chef Carl Hall says he already uses quinoa in one of his most popular dishes, Quinoa Crusted Crab Cakes, and plans to incorporate the grain into more menu items. “Our biggest challenge will be educating the consumer about the what it is,” Hall says.

Todd Daigneault, executive chef at Overlook Hospital, in Summit, N.J., says quinoa is also his favorite, along with farro.

“Creating stealth health items with these grains is the next exciting food trend, to me,” Daigneault says. “We are incorporating these grains into everyday recipes that people are accustomed to. For example, we do a typical chicken Marsala with a couscous and quinoa blend, and people are introduced to an ancient grain.”

Morrison’s Kraft also is a big fan of farro. “It is wonderful in seasonal salads and is a great addition to salad bars, made-to-order salad applications and grab-and-go offerings,” he says. “We’re also using farro in center-of-the-plate applications, and it is a great grain to use in risotto-type dishes.”

Kraft also is working kamut, spelt, millet and amaranth into his recipes.

Kennesaw’s Coltek says that his team is experimenting with kañiwa, a grain related to quinoa that has many of its cousin’s characteristics but without the saponins that make it necessary for cooks to rinse quinoa completely before using.

“We also use wheat berries and rye berries in cold salads,” he adds. “Wheat berries will take on the flavor of whatever you’re preparing and it holds really well on buffets. We use teff for polenta or salad sauces, and we use sorghum as a thickener sometimes.”

Gourmet Dining’s Fischbach says his company’s accounts are featuring a wide variety of ancient grains, including spelt, amaranth, teff, chia, freekeh, black rice and quinoa. “We will be expanding on the varieties we currently use,” he adds.

While ancient grains may be all the rage in other market sectors, school foodservice chefs are struggling with a much more basic problem: getting students to accept any kind of whole grain.

“The first thing we’re focusing on—and it’s been much more difficult than you would think—is whole-grain pasta,” says Sodexo’s Feldman. “Pasta is incredibly popular, but creating a whole-grain version that kids want to eat that can hold up during service is really challenging. Pasta has to hold for a couple of hours in a hot box before service.”

She adds that she is working with chefs at two suppliers to come up with products that will fit the bill.

Burke also says that getting crazy with grains isn’t yet a focus in Austin. “We’ve been keeping it pretty basic right now,” he notes. “We’re working on mixes right now, like wild rice with brown rice. We take a grain that’s not familiar and mix it with one that is familiar. They tend to go over better than the straight grain by itself.”

That’s not to say school chefs are backing away from broadening kids’ culinary horizons. Morse says his team is looking at grains like quinoa or brown rice, and Feldman notes that Sodexo is working on using intact whole grains like wheat berries, farro and quinoa.

Alternative proteins

With the increase in the percentage of customers who say they are vegetarian or vegan, many operators are looking at non-meat proteins as a way to satisfy these diners. At Kennesaw State, chefs “use a lot more grains and beans than any other institution I’ve been in,” Coltek says. “They are great alternative proteins. Tofu and seitan are old hat already, and some of the man-made proteins we won’t serve because they’re processed.”

Kennesaw’s culinary services also offers a vegan small plates station in its Commons dining area with fresh-made hummus and a variety of bean and grain salads.

Coltek adds that the key to winning non-vegans over to alternative proteins is education. “We use fresh herbs and marinades to add flavor and we make sure the sodium is low. Once you educate them, they won’t mind going to some of these categories.”

At Penn State, beans are used to supply the protein in the bulk of vegetarian and vegan items, Kowalski says.

“Some of the alternative proteins don’t have as much cross-appeal with non-vegetarians, unlike black beans, which a non-vegetarian might choose,” he explains. “We offer items like black bean quinoa, black bean sliders, and a corn and black bean salsa.”

School foodservice operators are beginning to have more freedom to use meat alternatives. Sodexo’s Feldman says that her team has developed 60 meatless recipes that meet USDA requirements.

“We have put a big focus on beans and tofu,” she notes. “We just now have been allowed to use tofu as a creditable protein and we’ve done a lot of work with how to properly marinate and roast it. We’ve done a lot of international flavors—Latin and Asian are good entry points in getting people to consider meatless.”

In Austin schools, beans are the go-to vegetable protein, Burke says.

“We don’t do any tofu because prices can be high on that sometimes,” he explains. “We messed with seitan a few years ago when we partnered with Whole Foods and worked with their chefs. We were making it in house but the labor was really high for something that didn’t go over very well, and it costs too much to purchase.”

Douglas County’s Morse says Greek yogurt is currently his district’s non-meat protein of choice, while other alternatives aren’t being requested.

“A year and a half ago, I was getting all these emails about how we have to have Meatless Monday,” Morse recalls. “There was always this desire to have a different protein rather than an animal protein. I don’t know why, but I’ve seen that disappear. We have our work ahead of us to see how we can get in that vegetarian option.”

Stanislaw believes the Whittier Health Network will continue to find more innovative ways to use beans and legumes.

“One particular recipe that has been received well is our lentil pilaf. Quinoa is another alternative that we are trying to introduce to our senior population,” he notes. “Unfortunately we get pushback from the current seniors. I believe once we start to see the next generation of seniors come on board they will have much more knowledge and acceptance of quinoa.”

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