Noncommercial chefs expand spice inventories to meet growing demand for international dishes.
This article first appeared in the 1 August 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds. Wait for the seeds to pop and sputter; then add fresh curry leaves and whole dried chiles. Pour immediately into the dal.
More and more, chefs who operate foodservice operations for colleges or corporations are boosting their spice inventory to better recreate authentic dishes from India, southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. It's a movement that has staying power among increasingly diverse and culturally curious populations: Use of global spices draws in the growing number of consumers who seek authentic flavors. Demonstrated spice savoir-faire also can set an operation apart from the competition. "Our clients are always asking us what we are doing that is going to be different from everyone else," says Jeff McClure, director of culinary services for the education market of Gaithersburg, M.D.-based Sodexo.
For Sebastien Pinson, a chef with Palo Alto-based Bon Appétit Management Co., spicing up his cooking style meant embarking on a steep learning curve.
Pinson uses spices 75% more often as chef de cuisine at Market Cafe, a busy eatery on the San Jose, Calif., campus of Cisco Systems, than he did a year ago as executive chef of a French restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. To keep the more than 2,000 Cisco employees who eat at the cafe daily engaged with the menu, Pinson draws inspiration from everywhere from Mexico to Ethiopia. But he's careful with his experimentation.
"One thing I have learned here is to keep it 100% authentic, or else you will get a lot of grief," he says.
Achieving the authentic flavor of ethnic home cooking, even with a rich inventory of spices, isn't easy, however. It involves constant education to determine if a spice needs to be toasted or fried, poached or ground. Pinson spends his free time dining at ethnic restaurants to better understand traditional ethnic flavors and presentations.
"The most difficult part is finding the right flavorings," Pinson explains. "You can read a recipe and do what it tells you in the recipe, but if you don't know the flavor, it's hard to get it right."
McClure agrees. "When we roll those different ethnic dishes out, it's amazing what recipes.rimag.com:80/recipe.asp?id=1823">http://recipes.rimag.com:80/recipe.asp?id=1823" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">students'] comments are," he says. "'It's not spicy enough,' or ‘It's too spicy.' ‘Did you fry the spices in oil to release the fragrance?' What I find is that in America, it's those details that we forget to do," he says.
Even so, training staff to take the extra steps toward authenticity can be worth it. Although the more than $3-billion domestic market for seasonings hasn't grown dramatically this decade, it has shifted toward natural and authentic seasonings, according to a 2007 study by Mintel International. The Chicago-based research firm also found that 18-to-34-year-olds are most receptive to the use of ethnic seasonings. Executive Chef Barry Schneider has found that to true at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he likens writing campus menus to cooking for "83 different ethnic groups."
It has had an impact on USC's spice inventory. "Any professional kitchen will have a mix of basil, oregano, black pepper, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg," Schneider says. "We're also using cardamom, tamarind, turmeric, Cajun spices and garam masala."
Infusing menus with international spices starts in the planning stages. "When we go into ideation, we want to keep the flavor authentic," McClure says. But the limits of a kitchen pantry also are taken into consideration. An ingredient deck with about 50 components forms the base of McClure's menus, from which versatile spices such as cumin are valuable for crossover uses in several ethnic cuisines.
Applying spices early in the cooking process gives dishes subtle layers of flavors. "Over the last three to four years, we're seeing a trend more toward building a flavor profile as opposed to seasoning a dish at the end," says Scott Keats, director of culinary development for Philadelphia-based Aramark's business-and-industry services. Keats challenges chefs to find overlooked opportunities to layer flavor in dishes. For example, adding cumin and cayenne to a pot of dried black beans soaking in water imparts subtle flavor to the beans that improves the finished product.
Jars of spices are on display at The Pavilion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. The campus foodservice operation, which has both a kosher and a halal kitchen, began broadening its use of spices a year ago, boosting the value of its spice inventory to $500 from $300. Yet manager Robert Lester says he's just beginning to tap spices' potential. "The layers of flavors that you can achieve, we're just begin to understand them," he says.
To ensure he's serving dishes that resonate with the audience, Lester asks students who have grown up with the sought-after ethnic flavor profiles to coach his staff. "Students will tell us when the cardamom pods don't seem to be roasted long enough," he says.
[RECIPE: The Pavilion's Curry Chicken >>
Not all consumers are as adventurous when it comes to trying new spices. Keats finds that adding the spice or spice blend to a more-familiar food can help beat diner doubts.
"If I was to do a harissa spice blend, the average consumer would say, ‘What's that?'" Keats says. "I might add some traditional items to it. Most of our guests know what tapenade is, so I would blend tapenade with harissa."
Simplicity also can be a recipe for success in spiced-up dishes. A hit at Cisco's Market Cafe is chicken that is marinated for three hours in cumin, caraway, fennel, mint, lime, ginger and cilantro before being grilled briefly to add a smoky essence. The dish is finished in the oven and served over a green salad.
"It's not just grilled chicken on top of a salad," says Pinson. "It's a very flavorful chicken served on top of a salad."
The Hot List
Three do-it-yourself chile blends can heat up menus.
Harissa: While this North African chile paste is a great condiment for roasted meats, it also can spice up mayonnaise.
- To make, stem, seed and soak 8 small dried chiles. In a food processor, blend chiles with garlic, 1 tsp. each cumin and caraway seeds, and 1/2 tsp. coriander seeds. Season with salt; top with olive oil.
Chermoula: Also from North Africa, this spice paste can marinate fish and meat.
- To make, mince 1/2 cup each shallot, garlic, parsley and cilantro. Add 1 Tbsp. paprika, 2 tsp. ground cumin and 1 minced serrano chile. Season with sea salt; top with olive oil.
Sambal Oelek: No Indonesian table is complete without this slow-cooked condiment.
- To make, take equal parts in weight of stemmed Thai chiles and jalapeÁ±os and diced yellow onions, as well as 1 to 2 heads peeled garlic cloves. Process in a food processor with vegetable oil until a paste forms, and then cook slowly in a low oven for 6 hours (add a splash of water if mixture starts to dry out). Adjust flavor with tamarind paste and fish sauce.
(Source: Napa Valley Cooking School, St. Helena, Calif.)