Wellness Station

Reasons to love food

Tara Fitzpatrick | Jun 05, 2017

If it’s fresh, funky, customizable, heart-healthy, safety-conscious or super cool, count on chefs to discover it.

Excitement in the kitchen gets baked into the whole dining experience, so here’s to being hungry for what’s next, whether it’s a guacamole on wheels, brunch with a zydeco band, state fair-inspired ballpark eats or the mother of all tortilla makers.

  • Customizable okonomiyaki (grilled as you like it). “Something we’re jazzed about at UC Berkeley is okonomiyaki,” says Jose Manuel Martinez, senior executive chef, Cal Dining. “It’s something new we’re experimenting with in residential dining and we have gotten a lot of great feedback from students.” Okonomiyaki, which is translated as “grilled as you like it,” and comes in the form of a savory pancake, is a perfect fit for customization-crazed college students. They can choose from shrimp, pork and veggies, and a recent special version, lamb okonomiyaki puffs. “Word of this dish is getting out on social media from students, and we expect the line to be very long,” Martinez adds.
  • Secret use of a juicer. “I use a juicer a lot,” says Jonathan Pye, executive chef with American Dining Creations at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. “It’s one of our most important tools, especially for reductions.” Using a blender for reduced sauces yields different results, since cooking carrots or spinach ahead of time dulls the color and makes the sauce coarser. Juicing makes a beautiful, bright sauce from veggies in their raw state, like this carrot-miso sauce with rockfish, broccolini and sushi rice, served at the museum’s Rozzelle Court venue.
  • The high-energy zydeco brunch. Parts of the dining room become a dance floor when a live band (or a DJ some days) cranks up the zydeco music and the dining team cranks up the Cajun food at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Cypress Lake dining room. The Zydeco Brunch, which takes place before big football games and on Mardi Gras, serves about 1,000, and features rib-sticking dishes like boudin-stuffed bread, crawfish queso, and shrimp and grits. In a genius move, the dining team has partnered with the transportation department, coordinating shuttle buses directly from the brunch to Cajun Field. Talk about letting the good times roll! 
  • The rotisserie at Kardia. Since UNC Rex Healthcare’s new $235 million North Carolina Heart & Vascular Hospital opened to patients at the beginning of March, Kardia, a healthy Mediterranean café, has been at the heart of it all. The name is Greek for heart, and the menu is heart-healthy. This rotisserie makes succulent chicken that’s a component of many menu items, like the chicken gyro, which Executive Chef Ryan Conklin, CEC, calls “a gateway” to other less familiar items.
  • Down-home grilled corn. Miami University’s dining team has created a homestead of comfort food at Traditions, a new concept in the student center with a menu of rotisserie chicken every day, a rotation of carved meats, hearty sides, and three fresh salads and veggies that just may steal the show, like this grilled corn.
  • A luxurious gluten-free chocolate torte. An indulgent, wow-worthy dessert choice that’s gluten-free and fabulous at Northern Arizona University, this raspberry gluten-free chocolate torte is filled with chocolate mousse and fresh raspberries, then blanketed with chocolate ganache.
  • State fair-inspired stadium food. The ballpark meets the fairway with concessions treats like this chicken funnel cake sandwich by Levy at Chase Field and this churro poutine with ice cream and caramel sauce at Rogers 
    Centre by Aramark.
  • The Tortilla Mama. Anyone who’s had a fresh tortilla in their life will tell you there’s no substitute. Well, there is, but it’s not as good. For Tulane University Dining, a state-of-the-art tortilla-making machine named Tortilla Mama has made all the difference, churning out 500 tortillas per hour. It’s the centerpiece of Al Fuego, Tulane’s new Latin American concept, which offers six kinds of signature salsas to accent a variety of tacos, burritos, nachos, quesadillas and bowls. Students are reportedly mesmerized watching “the mother of all tortilla-making machines” at work. Balls of dough are loaded into the top, and tortillas are spit out onto a spinning metal disk.
  • Melt-tastic school lunch grilled cheese. Chef Rob DeLuise, foodservice director with Flik Independent School Dining at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, R.I., knows kids love grilled cheese. He’s just helping them get more sophisticated with these options: a caprese panini with housemade fresh mozzarella, nut-free basil pesto made with hydroponically grown basil from a local green house; and a roasted butternut squash, sage and mozzarella panini. 
“In our quest for cleaner, transparent ingredient labels, we wanted to create a solution to puréed foods that does not incorporate the use of commercially prepared additives or thickening agents."
- Adam Grafton, FLIK senior corporate executive chef, on creative ways to use legumes to thicken sauces
  • A rolling guac cart. Kara Perez, executive chef at the University Union at Binghamton University (SUNY), explains how tableside guacamole can happen in a college setting. The secret is in the prep work. “Before lunch or dinner service, dice onions, jalapeños and tomatoes; chop the cilantro; cut limes into halves or quarters,” Perez says. “Then place all the ingredients in individual bowls —something small but appealing that can fit on a pushcart.” Next, that rolling cart is loaded up with whole avocados, a paring knife, a serving spoon, a couple of forks and a molcajete (basalt stone bowl). When it’s go time, the cart is rolled out to each table, and the guacamole is made, mashed up and served in the molcajete.
  • Fresh new speed-scratch items. Why is speed-scratch cooking so important for school food? “Because it allows us to control food costs without increasing labor costs for center-of-the-plate items, while offering a tasty, fresh, veggie-rich option,” says Pam Dannon, RD, registered dietitian with the School Health Initiative Program at Williamsburg-James (Va.) City County Public Schools. At a recent food fair, several great new speed-scratch dishes debuted, including teriyaki steak, bangin’ Thai shrimp wrap, harvest beef stew, Cajun beef with beans and rice, Hawaiian delight sandwich and Italian zucchini with tomatoes. The items incorporated local produce along with new products like multigrain orzo, red quinoa and mushroom-blended meatballs. The winner was the shrimp wrap, which includes popcorn shrimp, a spicy sauce, diced tomatoes and cucumbers on a whole-grain tortilla.
  • A Natural New Sweetener. Last year we got all worked up about jackfruit, and it’s still gaining popularity for its ability to impersonate pulled pork to a T. New “it” ingredients, which of course can become yesterday’s news just as quickly, keep the food world interesting. For example, monk fruit has been getting attention lately, mostly as a stevia-like sweetener with antioxidant properties, zero calories and the purported ability to fight fatigue (It’s known as “longevity fruit,” so maybe the trend will have staying power as well).
  • Two classic culinary techniques rediscovered for senior dining. For senior dining management company Flik Lifestyles, puréed foods and modified diets are given a classical French accent. “We’re going back to our cooking roots to energize our residents’ palates and team members’ creativity,” says David Stoltzfus, corporate executive chef with Flik Lifestyles. “We are looking at classical cooking methods to reinvent presentation and taste.” For example, instead of having to eat “puréed salmon and cauliflower,” residents can enjoy “poached salmon mousseline, infused beurre blanc and cauliflower purée.” With that approach, Stoltzfus says, “The residents’ perception of the dish and satisfaction is off the charts.” Using legumes as a thickener is another classical technique, and it’s been working great for Adam Grafton, Flik senior corporate executive chef. “In our quest for cleaner, transparent ingredient labels, we wanted to create a solution to puréed foods that does not incorporate the use of commercially prepared additives or thickening agents,” Grafton says.
  • An outdoor woodfire pizza oven/outdoor classroom. Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera is a California-cool example of kids going back to the garden. Jason Hull, chef, director of foodservice and co-director of the Culinary Farm, helps weave farming into the curriculum along with science teacher Bob Densmore. The outdoor oven adds a lot to the lessons, allowing for farm-to-pizza teaching moments. And if the kids like the pizza, then they’re ready to eat more veggies, like roasted beets, which they “eat like candy,” Hull says.
  • Keeping safety first. Nothing can give you paper-thin slices of sweet potato or cucumber like a mandoline. But it’s also the source of more than few chefs’ battle-scar stories. Chef Jonathan Pye at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art recently got a new mandoline and was super excited about it. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a kitchen with a brand-new one,” he says. “When the mandoline is old, you’re forcing it, and that’s why people cut themselves. With a new one, you barely have to touch it. Just keep it steady.”

*Originally appeared in Food Management, June 5, 2017.