Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Commodity boards are excellent resources for farm-to-table educational opportunities, as well as fresh menu-development inspirations like these pork-and-chile wraps. Photo courtesy of national pork board. Commodity boards place a priority on educational outreach to foodservice operators

By Karen Weisberg

As any successful chef knows, there’s always something new to be learned, and education comes in myriad forms. In today’s Internet world, much is easily accessible and free for the searching.

The industry’s many and varied commodity boards are another key resource — both online and face to face — for ongoing education; most provide economical and innovative tips for storage, handling, recipe development and the like. Many also create field-trip immersions for chefs to “experience” their commodity from source to table, while sharing ideas from growers and other chefs.

Indeed, education is never-ending, as Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), points out: “The Idaho Potato Commission has recognized the importance of chefs in our training efforts for almost 75 years. If I could find a way to double or triple the budget we set each year in educational materials, I think we still would not reach diminishing returns on this kind of investment.”

Recently, to address the ongoing question of what size potato to choose, the IPC revised its Idaho Potato Size Guide, which unfolds, accordian-style, showing each potato count life-size. Operators can cut the potato shapes out and put them on a plate to determine what size they want to serve their guests.

“Combined with our old-style slide chart with the matching of size to cost, a chef can figure out the raw-portion costs and decide whether to upgrade a size or move to a smaller portion,” explains Odiorne.

How-to kits boasting information on ordering, receiving, handling and preparation are available in print version and online, and “Potatoes 101” — detailing all steps of preparation as well as different cuts of potatoes (along with photos and video) — will be on the website later in the year.

For the past two years, the IPC’s “Dr. Potato” blog has addressed readers’ questions, and more than 70 short instructional videos are available on YouTube (search “Idaho Potato Videos”).

“Want to know how to make gnocchi from dried potatoes or spice up fries by placing them in a bag and shaking it? It’s all in there,” Odiorne points out.

Championing the growing farm-to-table interest as well as sustainability imperatives, the American Lamb Board mounted a Shepherd-to-Chef campaign with a focus on home-grown lamb “stories” and chef-developed recipes.

“Today’s chefs are interested in how sheep are raised, how they’re fed and how they travel to market,” notes Megan Wortman, executive director of the Denver-based American Lamb Board.

The Shepherd-to-Chef program — with its focus on the stories of individual sheep producers around the country who epitomize the local food movement — includes printed materials and will be part of board presentations to various chef groups nationwide. “Lambassador Chefs,” including Liam Spence (Lola, Seattle), Matthew Accarrino (SPQR, San Francisco), Michael Scelfo (Russell House Tavern, Boston) and Nicholas Stefanelli (Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, Washington, D.C.), have joined to help with the effort.

A range of culinary educational materials developed by the American Lamb Board includes lamb cut posters and a CD-ROM detailing the lamb carcass and cuts, how to French a rack of lamb and more. “The most common questions we receive from chefs and culinary educators revolve around the various cuts of lamb, with a growing interest in butchery,” Wortman says.

This year, the board added a new CD-ROM on cooking American lamb, in which chef Christopher Koetke of Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts demonstrates methods to barbecue, braise, grill and roast lamb.

As a global advocate for the U.S. rice industry, the USA Rice Federation’s mission is education, with a commitment to supporting professional growth in the culinary arts and the food industry. A visit to the group’s website provides segment-specific information, trends and recipes. There, an education center is also available with culinary demos, recipes, menu concepts and solutions.

It’s hard to top guacamole, but there are so many more uses for luscious avocados, including battered and fried wedges for snacking. Photo courtesy of california avocado commission. “USA Rice leverages professional conferences and events to teach chefs and learn from them in order to understand their questions and needs,” asserts Judy Rusignuolo, director of national consumer education and marketing. The federation sponsors master classes and educational sessions for chefs and culinary instructors at foodservice events across the country.

“Classes are structured as hands-on interactive sessions by leading chefs in professional kitchens,” Rusignuolo says. “U.S. rice varieties are highlighted in global applications. In addition, chefs learn rice history, how it’s grown/produced, as well as preparation and cooking techniques.”

Recently, 15 chefs from top New Orleans restaurants attended the 101st Louisiana State University AgCenter Rice Research Station Field Day in Crowley, La.

“The event enabled chefs to interact with farmers, agriculture researchers and rice industry members to see the state’s rice varietal development process first-hand — including a new variety of U.S. jasmine-type rice grown in Louisiana,” she explains.

To experience beef in its “original state,” the Beef Checkoff Program sponsors more than 25 “pasture-to-plate” tours annually for culinary professionals.

“The two-to-three day tours — coordinated by the state Beef Councils — begin with a basic Beef 101 presentation to provide a general understanding of the beef-production process and supply chain,” says Dave Zino, executive chef with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which contracts to manage foodservice marketing for the Beef Checkoff Program.

“Guests then tour every aspect of the process. Nothing is off-limits, and attendees have direct access to experts who are personally involved in the production practices to fully understand how beef gets to their restaurants — and on the menu.”

The cornerstone of the Beef Checkoff’s education efforts is Beef University, a collection of 15 modules designed to provide chefs, foodservice operators and distributors with insights on all aspects of beef, including menu and cut-specific information. Beef University modules can be viewed and downloaded from www.beeffoodservice.com.

“Chefs can download modules directly, and our team of culinary educators and State Beef Council staff is available to provide customized sessions upon request,” Zino says.

Building relationships with chefs and understanding what they need are key in designing the content of educational materials as well as seminars and field trips. Claudia Hogue, foodservice director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), credits chef feedback as the impetus behind a project now in the works.

“We heard back from several corporate chefs that they needed a basic resource, directed to all levels, focusing on how to cook seafood — how to properly grill, sauté, poach, etc. — so in the next few months it will be on our website, along with previously created chef training videos,” she reports.

ASMI offers a wide variety of materials on its website, as well as e-newsletters. “We also have been presenting programs with the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus since it opened in 1995 and have our own section on their website (www.ciaprochef.com),” she says.

Recently, the college and university sector and its Gen-Y market has been the focus of strategic initiatives developed by several commodity boards.

“That market is perfect for the teaching of sustainability,” Hogue contends. “Last year, we partnered with Schwan’s Food Service and brought 20 chefs and managers to Alaska to learn of our sustainability message and see first-hand how the fisheries in Alaska are managed. Our follow-up to that training event resulted in week-long promotions of Alaska seafood on several campuses, including the University of New Hampshire.”

The National Peanut Board reaches a wide range of chefs from all sectors at multiple conferences and events throughout the year; it also regularly hosts customized immersions to educate chefs on the culinary versatility of peanuts and how peanuts fit consumer trends.

“In 2010, we held two immersions with Yale Dining chefs,” recalls National Peanut Board President and Managing Director Marie Fenn. “The first was led by noted chef Suvir Saran and introduced unique peanut recipes that blended familiar dishes with exotic world flavors like Peanut Butter Mac & Cheese. The dishes were so popular that many of them are now on the dining halls’ rotating menus.”

The second immersion focused on using peanut ingredients in baking. The Yale Dining chefs experimented with such recipes as Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Pound Cake and Peanut Pita Bread.

At the Almond Innovation Project, a group of influential chefs, including Neal Fraser from Grace in Los Angeles, helped demonstrate the versatility of almonds. Photo courtesy of almond board of california. The National Peanut Board has an array of online resources for chefs. Two resources are available through the CIA’s ProChef site — one on “Peanuts and World Flavor” and another addressing food allergy and sensitivity issues. “In addition, we have other free digital resources that work for chefs, including e-newsletters and our new Skinny on Nuts website (www.skinnyonnuts.com) where chefs can compare nutritional information on peanuts and other nuts and also find new recipes,” Fenn adds.

The National Mango Board, recognizing that reliable mango yield data was a critical missing link needed to help operators plan and cost out their menus, conducted the necessary research.

“The research was done using a specific cutting technique, and we had those steps illustrated so operators would have the resources necessary to get the highest yield from fresh mangos,” explains Megan McKenna, marketing manager for the National Mango Board.

On occasion, the National Mango Board has worked with PMA Foodservice to sponsor its celebrity chef demos, participated at the NRA Marketing Executive Group and, with chef Allen Susser, has hosted two hands-on learning events for invited chefs in small-group settings. Susser led the events at his restaurant, Chef Allen’s, in Miami.

“The first session happened by chance when an operator and a Mango Board representative met and the operator mentioned his frustration with the flavor profile of his menued chicken and mango dish,” McKenna recalls. “The Mango Board knew that Susser was the perfect person to help, and they proceeded to set up the first ‘Day with Chef Allen.’” Following total immersion in everything mango, including the preparation of mango condiments, marinades and brines, the chefs take what they’ve learned back to their kitchens.

Keeping in close contact with chefs is an ongoing objective for the California Avocado Commission (CAC) staff, with face-to-face conversations, phone calls and e-mail exchanges on a regular basis.

“You develop relationships over time, and chefs come to rely on our team for information throughout the year,” says CAC’s Vice President of Marketing Jan DeLyser. “It’s the best way to keep new ideas coming forth.”

The commission’s website is chock-full of comprehensive menu support and timely crop updates, and there’s an archive of product releases detailing creative uses of avocado in “turnkey” recipes.

No newcomer to hands-on, experiential tours, CAC has been hosting chefs in the groves and packing houses for more than a decade.

“The tours provide an A to Z of California avocados prior to when they arrive in the chef’s back room,” DeLyser says. “While the chefs are with us, we serve all things avocado on the menu, from breakfast and snacks through lunch and dinner, to show the versatility of avocados.”

Early this year, the Almond Board of California (ABC) collaborated with the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to host an exclusive culinary workshop/retreat.

“For this Almond Innovation Project, we brought together seven culinary trendsetters and encouraged them to create/innovate interesting, one-of-a-kind, almond-centric applications,” explains Harbinder Maan, ABC’s North America ingredient and category manager.

“Knowing that trends begin where the industry leaders play, we reached out to chefs who are considered pioneers in their field but who also had some experience working in high-volume kitchens.”

Using a variety of almond forms to develop interesting yet practical concepts, applications included almond flour to mimic the flavor and texture of polenta and to thicken soup, almond milk as a braising liquid and crushed almond paste to add a surprising crunch to a Vietnamese spring roll.

Pleased to sponsor this intimate networking opportunity, Maan looks to the future: “We understand that the chefs we are working with today help to inspire the ‘it’ cuisine of tomorrow.”

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