How chef Chris Aquilino is making strides in sustainable menu development

The director of culinary development at Elior North America focuses his cooking philosophy on people, food and the planet.
Chris Aquilino has more than 30 years of experience in the food industry. / Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

When he was three years old, Chris Aquilino’s parents put a piece of clay in his hand—they constantly encouraged him to create.

Now, as the director of culinary development at Elior North America, Aquilino views the craft of cooking as an artistic medium. 

His passion for cooking was sparked at a young age, during hours spent in the kitchen with his grandmother. “It was absolute alchemy," he said. "It was just like, you know, the smells and the sounds and everything that was coming out of the kitchen—I was like, I want to know how to do that."

In the time since, Aquilino has worked pretty much every position in the kitchen. He's held various roles with Compass Group, starting as an operator and, seven years later, running 25 accounts. He also worked on sustainability research and strategy for that company, and has experience in restaurant consulting and food photography.

All of this has given him a holistic view of how kitchen staff work together as a team, he said. “Since I have worked all of those positions, it's helped me understand how a good brigade works, how a good kitchen can run.” 

One role in particular—his time as a culinary specialist at an all-natural organic grocery store—opened his eyes to environmental concerns in the kitchen.

“I started as a chef," he said. "I was concerned with where the food came from, but I wasn’t really necessarily connecting it. I was looking at quality and authenticity and flavor, but I wasn’t looking at the people who grew it, necessarily, and sustainable practices and kind of fair treatment. That opened my eyes quite a bit.”

Now, sustainability is ingrained in his DNA, Aquilino says, and it was this passion that helped him land his new role at Elior North America.

Before joining Elior, he hosted a cooking class for its c-suite, and he made such an impression on the team that he received a call about eight months later.

The rest, Aquilino says, is history.

Since starting his position in January, he's aimed to make strides in sustainable menu development. From culinary innovation to menu planning, here’s a dive into how he's working to invoke environmental change.

Food, people and planet

Aquilino’s personal cooking philosophy is one that can be described as simply “looking forward versus the rear-view mirror.”  

His work is rooted in respecting where ingredients come from and understanding the impact the food industry can have, he said. He considers sustainable and local sourcing, shying away from commodity ingredients and ensuring workers are fairly treated.

“My philosophy has always been if you can create the best-case scenario, it’s worth the effort," Aquilino said. "It’s absolutely worth the effort.”

A big part of his job is understanding where Elior has stood on these issues in the past and where it sees its future. 

“We're not there yet is basically what I'm saying because it is so new,” he said. “But the evolution and the trajectory of where we are going is that we are utilizing the right ingredients, and with sustainable sourcing and understanding from our manufacturer partners: who they are, what their stance is and how they can kind of help us tell our story.”

Creating a roadmap

The company is currently guided by its Doing Good platform, a set of social and environmental guidelines that covers  reducing food waste and carbon emissions, engaging with diverse suppliers and using sustainable ingredients with animal welfare in mind. 

Last year, Elior North America committed to serving 50% meatless entrees by 2025, and providing plant-based options is a big focus for Aquilino.

When developing these items, he places vegetables at the center of the plate, and in many ways, treats them like a classic animal protein. For example, he partially steams a medallion of butternut squash and then does a hard sear on it to mimic the preparation of a steak. Additionally, Aquilino  likes to pair plant-based options with ingredients that are trending, such as brown butter.

“I think that a big part of creating plant-based innovative recipes is really just goes back to what people like to eat, what people like to really enjoy from ... a flavor memory standpoint,” he said.

 Chris Aquilino.
Chris Aquilino / Photo courtesy of Elior North America

Additionally, Aquilino believes it is important to look at equipment and "reimagining" the kitchen when it comes to sustainability. 

This means utilizing equipment like electric ovens or converge ovens that work essentially as a small convection oven, but offer more functions such as steaming, air frying and baking, or replacing equipment like fryers, which he said can produce harmful byproducts.

Aquilino also noted that it's important to consider the people who are preparing the food when talking about social responsibility.

He helps do this by working as a career and mindset coach for chefs. “I want to make sure we’re continuing to keep the welfare of the food producers, the chefs, the cooks, the front-of-house staff in mind in that situation,” he said.

Culinary architecture

Another important challenge Aquilino seeks to address is food waste, which he said he views holistically, looking to reduce surplus even while writing recipes.

One way Elior is reducing waste is by rotating menus within a single dining concept. Currently, it's implementing that strategy with a concept serving barbecue, comfort food and ramen or pho.

“It's kind of up to the operator, giving the guests more versatility and more options and, you know, kind of like kitchen theater, something to be excited for as the brands rotate out,” Aquilino said.

As the menu options change, the ingredients remain the same, utilizing leftovers and decreasing the amount of food going to the landfill. This translates into the serving same sides, with different preparations, for the comfort food menu and the barbecue menu, or using proteins from the barbecue menu as toppings for ramen.

“I call it like culinary architecture or smart menuing," he said. "And that smart menuing is a way to reduce the amount of SKUs [stock-keeping units] coming in your back door, which is great from a labor and cost standpoint, but then you are reducing food waste in a creative way.” 



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