ST. HELENA, Calif.—The message was loud and clear — produce needs to have double the presence on restaurant and foodservice menus.

Culinary institute brings produce, foodservice industries together

Ashley Bentley

Polly Sang, research and development chef with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Compass Group (left), and Bart Minor, president of the Mushroom Council, work together on a mushroom dish at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone's Produce First!

Acting as the capstone course after three days of a nutrition-focused conference, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone’s annual Produce First! gave chefs and foodservice operators a chance to work with different produce items, thinking about how they could improve produce consumption at their end of the industry.

Of the 30-plus foodservice operators in the room — ranging from Dairy Queen to Brinker International Inc. to Sodexo Inc. to smaller, regional chains — 44% said increasing produce is a high priority. Seventy-four percent agreed that increasing produce’s presence at foodservice can have a significant effect on doubling produce consumption in the U.S.

The biggest barrier for them, though, is customer demand.

This is where the other half of the conference’s attendees came into the picture. The institute’s teaching kitchen was full of chefs and representatives from sponsoring produce companies, who donated product and were on hand to help develop new dishes.

Sponsors of Produce First! included:

  • Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association;
  • Chilean Fresh Fruit Association;
  • Church Bros. LLC;
  • Grimmway Farms;
  • The Mushroom Council;
  • Taylor Farms;
  • TexaSweet Citrus Marketing;
  • the National Peanut Board; and
  • Dole Food Co.
Culinary institute brings produce, foodservice industries together

Ashley Bentley

Steve Church, vice president of operations and co-owner of Church Bros. LLC, Salinas, Calif., squeezes a lemon at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Before getting into the kitchen themselves, presenting chefs shared some of their own produce inspiration. For Suvir Saran, chef of Devi, an Indian restaurant in New York, produce plays the star role, and meat is optional or treated as a condiment.

“Shame on us for not doing the right thing by food,” Saran said. “It’s (produce) not a side dish.”

He demonstrated a citrus salad he serves with fried chicken at his restaurant.

After presentations from John Ash, chair of the institute’s Sophisticated Palate Program and culinary director for Fetzer Vineyards; Joyce Goldstein, chef, author and consultant; Michael Tuohy, chef of Grange Restaurant and The Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, Calif., and James Sanchez, chef of Acenar restaurant in San Antonio,  attendees seemed to be inspired.

“I’m more excited about the food today than I have been all week,” said Paulette Thompson, health and wellness manager of Stop & Shop Supermarket Co.

The event’s market basket experience broke attendees into teams, each with sponsors, chefs and foodservice operators, to think of new ways to make produce “craveable” and center-of-the-plate.

“We’re learning about the versatility of fruits and vegetables and creating new ways to integrate them into dishes for children and families,” said Roxanne Moore, wellness director for Sodexo Corporate Services. Moore said the company was particularly interested in working more produce into desserts, because they tend to be more popular with children. Her team worked on a parfait with Tres Colores, as she called it, as well as an avocado smoothie.

But the operators weren’t the only people learning a thing or two.

“I’m learning how hard it is to work in a kitchen and growing a greater appreciation for what it is foodservice operators and chefs have to do to bring us delicious, wonderful food at a good price," said Bart Minor, president of the San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council.

After their time together in the kitchen, attendees shared the meal and their ideas for encouraging produce innovation in the foodservice sector.