CHICAGO — Plant-based proteins, local produce, heirloom varieties and exotic fruit are some of the ways that a panel of award-winning chefs are looking to expand the use of produce on menus.

In a lively June 15 United FreshMKT workshop called "Chef Insights: Foodservice & Restaurant Trends from the Best," moderator Brian Denton, director of marketing and brand development at Pro*Act, peppered a panel of eight chefs with questions. The panel members were winners of the 2017 Produce Excellence in Foodservice Awards, selected from more than 100 award nominees.

Asked by Denton about some of the ways they are using produce in creative ways, chefs offered several insights.

Eric Lindstrom, deputy director of retail dining/executive chef of the U.S. Naval Academy, who won in the colleges and university category, said universities and colleges have used more plant-based proteins and Meatless Mondays. Lindstrom said he has offered a plant-based burger at the Naval Academy that was well received.

More parts of vegetables are being utilized and appreciated, such as broccoli stalks, chefs said.

Robert Cuellar, child nutrition program director for the Laredo Independent School District and the winning chef in the K-12 category, said the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program has expanded the education horizon for elementary school kids, and teachers have added menu planning skills that include fruits and vegetables. 

Winning chef for casual dining, Shane Schaibly, corporate chef and vice president of culinary strategy, First Watch Restaurants Inc., said the company rolled out a fresh juice program in more than 200 restaurants. Chefs can mix popular juices such as apple with less familiar and less popular choices such as kale, and that helps expose consumers to new tastes.

“I wouldn’t say tricking them, but, you know, trick them a little by mixing apple juice with turmeric or with beets,” he said.

Denton asked if consumer tastes are changing.

Ted Mathesius, executive chef, Adobe Café Lehi/Bon Appetit Management Co., who won the business and industry category,  said he tries to make produce center of the plate as much as possible and consumers respond. For example, cauliflower rice is a popular option when offered as an alternative to rice or noodles when beef stroganoff is served.

"We have to push the envelope, to expand pallets and mindset,” he said. "We are still going to sell 200 burgers but hopefully we’ll sell 100 salads too," he said.

Winner of the fine dining category, Varin Keokitvon, chef of Heartwood Provisions, said he is adding heirloom varieties and exotic fruits like durian to incorporate into menus, educating staff about the items to build excitement for the items among patrons.

Matt Smith, executive chef at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel at Capitol Square, who won the hotels and resort category, said he must be much more responsive to special dietary needs than a decade ago, with perhaps 5% of those served at a catering occasion having special dietary needs.

Denton asked how much risk chefs are willing to take when they introduce new fruit and vegetable menu items to multiple units.

"Every time we roll out a seasonal menu, it is a bit of a risk. It is an opportunity to try new things," said Lacey Hudgins, head of product development at the Wildflower Bread Company, and winning chef in the quick service category. "At this point we are small enough so we can fail at some things and find our way."

New menu items are always needed to keep a menu from becoming stale. Bringing in meat alternatives and more varied vegetable items is a necessary risk to bring in younger consumers, she said.

Schaibly said First Watch has 200 restaurants, but the chain has 12 restaurants in the Tampa, Fla., region that test all potential menu items a year ahead of introduction.  "The testing ground works for us, and that's where we prove ourselves from a culinary side," he said.  

The restaurant likes to focus on seasonal produce changes in the menu rather than regional changes because of the national reach of the chain. He said boards and commodity commissions can be great resources to suggest new menu items.


Local pull

Ralph Chavez, system executive chef for Touchpoint Healthcare Services and winning chef in the hospitals and health care category, said he has been an advocate of sourcing local and seasonal produce. Chefs help educate retail customers and patients where their fruits and vegetables are coming from.

“We let them know we are buying local and supporting local farmers in their community,” he said. “It is never really good news when you are staying in a hospital, so we try to make their experience better."

Denton asked the chefs about the challenges and opportunities in local production.

Chavez of Touchpoint Healthcare said one of the biggest challenges is finding enough local volume for the needs of an entire hospital. "We’ve encouraged chefs to run something (local) for a week or even a few days, but use local if they can," he said. Ten percent of the firm’s purchases were local produce over the last year. “We are always looking for different ways to use local production."

Hudgins said produce distributors could also help foodservice operators find more local.

"All distributors need to be looking at hyper local sources," she said.