Beyond the rack: This enticing Turkish-style lamb flatbread is just one of the approachable and cost-effective ideas that Meat & Livestock Australia has for utilizing different lamb parts. photo courtesy of meat & livestock australia. Meaningful industry collaborations result in menu-development wins
By Karen Weisberg
For many operators in all segments of the foodservice industry, partnerships with commodity boards have proven their worth. After all, boards are charged with promoting use of their products, and most of them see chefs as key to that success. Their interest in a particular operation’s guests, challenges and menu is deep and focused, and can result in a meaningful win-win relationship.
Bob Coyle, marketing consultant for the National Peanut Board (NPB), first connected with chef Patrick McDonnell at a trade show about 10 years ago, and he’s been working with McDonnell to support his various clients ever since.
As a consulting chef, McDonnell (along with eight other chefs on his team) works with restaurant companies to develop new concepts, especially those promoting American products. In working with HMS Host at the Honolulu Airport (one of about 98 U.S.-based airports with services provided by HMS Host), McDonnell learned from the contractor’s development chef that they were seeking more Asian, especially Japanese, concepts. He and his team turned to NPB for help with ideation. The resulting menu for Umaizushi Bistro Bar boasted five items with peanuts in the build.
In the skewer concept featuring chicken, beef or pork, brown sugar and soy-encrusted peanuts are part of the plate presentation, with a peanut vinaigrette provided as a dipping sauce. The Bowl platform features rice noodles tossed in a rice wine vinaigrette and incorporates roasted peanuts as an add-on garnish in a separate bowl.
Always aiming to be a resource to chefs seeking new ways to think about peanuts, NPB’s Coyle is proud to report that over the past five years there has been a 107 percent increase in mentions of peanuts on the menus of the Top 500 chains. And of course, that’s how commodity boards benefit from collaborating with chefs. But the relationship is beautifully symbiotic—when McDonnell shared news of a new retro movie-plus-restaurant concept, Coyle was eager to provide menu support.
“Peter Brown [former chairman of AMC Entertainment] wanted to develop a retro 1940s or ’50s concept—you watch a movie, then go to the diner next door with your date or a bunch of friends,” McDonnell says. The first such location opened earlier this year in Prairie Village, Kansas; it boasts a movie theater plus a 230-seat restaurant, Standees. The menu aims to be classic American with a twist—no surprise that peanuts are a component of several items. Chun Chun Wings, a Thai/Indonesian dish, features wings marinated in a blend of soy, red chile, peanut butter, brown sugar and red wine vinegar. A County Fair Sundae is topped with brown sugar-roasted peanuts, while Brioche French Toast boasts wedges of pan-seared bread and butter set on a raspberry sauce. The brioche is topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream plus a squiggle of piped-on peanut butter mousse (a whipped combo of peanut butter and cream cheese).
Coyle, on behalf of NPB, continues to work with chefs on ideation and through immersions several times a year during which chefs and peanut farmers are brought together.
Commodity boards typically don’t hold chefs on staff to work directly with restaurants or chains, as Jann Dickerson, director of national accounts for Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), explains: “Clients have their own chefs, know their own customers and want to feel that ideas are their own.” Therefore, ASMI provides training materials focused on the proper and safe handling and cooking of seafood. ASMI also provides chef-training sessions at The Culinary Institute of America, and continually works to develop contacts at the R&D level.
One longtime contact, chef Wade Wiestling, had been with Oceanaire Seafood Room—which boasts a commitment to sustainability—when he worked with ASMI in developing a yearlong promotion of Alaska king crab and black cod (sablefish). When parent company Landry’s acquired Morton’s The Steakhouse, Wiestling, as Landry’s vice president of culinary, knew he wanted to craft a program with ASMI for Morton’s.
“We knew the ASMI label and logo was connected with a strong brand that stood for quality and sustainability—the sea is the last great frontier on earth,” Wiestling says. “More importantly, it was an NGO [non-governmental organization], and, politically, we don’t want to get caught in the middle.”
As he began to work with Morton’s, Wiestling aimed to grow the menu to include more seafood items, and fresh halibut seemed to be the perfect choice. “Folks love the juicy texture, and it’s readily available [from mid-March to mid-November] to any of our 73 locations in the country, plus the dozen Oceanaire Seafood Room venues,” he says. “It just made good sense for us to run a seasonal feature with Alaska halibut in both of our restaurant concepts.”
A walnut-panko breadcrumb topping for halibut is an example of the accessible recipes developed by chef Mike Isabella in conjunction with the California Walnut Board. photo courtesy of california walnuts.
To mount the campaign, Wiestling had professional photos taken at Landry’s corporate office to support the marketing materials for social media, in-store promos, menu supplements and electronic marketing. “It costs money to do all that, and as long as we include their iconic logo on our marketing pieces, ASMI helps support that,” he says. “We submit the plan to Jann, she signs the contract and pays the check. They’re really good people, and we consider them friends.”
Dickerson recalls that Wiestling wanted to create something to show Morton’s customers the newly diversified menu—that it’s not all steak. “Guests love halibut since it’s beefy like steak, plus he wanted to increase the amount of flavor, color and action on the plate by layering height to create a real showy seafood dish,” she says. “He also wanted to capitalize on the long halibut season.” The resultant recipe places pan-roasted halibut with brown butter-caper sauce atop fresh local spring vegetables. Grilled lemons and micro greens complete the presentation.
Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) is the North American region agent for Australian livestock farmers and is tasked with creating and maintaining connections with the foodservice industry. During the past five years, the board has identified and acted upon the need to provide menu-development support and has placed a strong emphasis on working with restaurant chains, according to Elissa Garling, MLA’s North America business development manager for foodservice.
The shift in emphasis was made in part to counter the sharp decline in demand for lamb that hit about five years ago as result of soaring prices. “Since it was then primarily the rack that was being utilized for fine dining, the price increase effectively resulted in removing all lamb from menus,” Garling says. “In addition, we were finding the younger generation had never even tried lamb.”
Going on the offensive, chef Stephen Edwards, Garling’s predecessor, set about making lamb into more approachable quick-serve items, scaling it down from the loin into burgers or other handheld items such as po’boy sandwiches, kabobs and lamb salads, with price points in the $5-to-$10 range. “Now, we’re starting to see lamb belly, shank, T-bone, lamb shoulder, etc., with specific operators,” she says. Garling typically makes face-to-face connections at trade shows and often visits the chefs’ operations to demo various cuts of lamb and explain how those cuts can be utilized to add menu variety while retaining value. “We’ll present a whole range of menu ideas using various cuts at various price points that suit the particular brand,” she says.
Since Rainer Zinngrebe, vice president, culinary and corporate chef for Luxury Brands/Ritz-Carlton, has been working with MLA for more than two decades here and overseas, he knows that when he calls for assistance, they’ll come pronto. “They’re supportive, and they never say ‘no.’ Even at the last minute if I say, ‘I need you to fly in a chef/butcher from Australia—plus a couple of carcasses—to a chef workshop in Las Vegas,’ they’ll be there,” he says. Zinngrebe recently ran a two-and-a-half day workshop in Las Vegas that was attended by Ritz-Carlton domestic executive chefs from most of the 40 hotels in the chain. “Like most hotels, about 40 percent of sales are banquet-related food and beverage with constant pressures on costs and delivering margins,” he reports. “Therefore, I invited MLA to do a segment in my workshop on non-primal cuts of lamb to show the value and quality of those secondary cuts to be cost effective.”
In the day-to-day running of a large hotel’s food and beverage operations, executive chefs rarely have the opportunity to de-bone a whole carcass; in fact, management responsibilities often preclude them from cooking, Zinngrebe says. “It was great to see a master butcher and hear about some of the creative cuts out there,” he says. “MLA folks are very good in keeping up with the new trends.” After the master butcher had de-boned a carcass, attendees were challenged to create a plated banquet dish in one hour. The part of the lamb they would use was “awarded” by drawing numbers from a hat. “Actually, the chef who drew number 20 got a rack—the 19 other chefs who drew lower numbers were happy to go for more ‘challenging’ cuts,” Zinngrebe says.
As MLA’s Garling points out, her board is currently focusing on “expanding the cut repertoire.” She finds that for quick-serve and casual chains, shoulder, shank and mini T-bones can be a fit—although mini T-bones are perhaps better suited for family casual, full-service venues. “For the shank, we’re seeing a lot of popularity and big demand, especially in hotels. Sous-vide applications have really helped the lamb shank along—the operator just needs to heat it and serve with a side.”