Bringing a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables as a key menu component, leading chefs provided tips to increase fresh produce in foodservice operations at a United Fresh 2011 workshop, “Lessons from the Front Line.”

During the May 4 session, United Fresh Produce Excellence in Foodservice Award Winners reflected on how they make fresh fruits and vegetables a big part of their operations.

Focusing on a seasonal menu and healthy food has been a recipe for success for Chef Clifford Pleau, senior director of culinary and beverage, Seasons 52, Orlando, Fla.

Pleau said Seasons 52 offers seasonal menu changes four times a year, and big reliance fresh produce helps the keep everything on the menu under 475 calories.

Foodservice leaders seek to boost produce presence
Foodservice leaders seek to boost produce presence

Tom Karst

Regis Holden, (center) senior director of culinary services, Eat'n Park Resaurants, Homestead, Pa., makes a point at a foodservice workshop on May 4. Also pictured (left) is Jenilee McComb, director, child nutrition program, Provo School District, Provo, Utah, and (right) Jacques Wilson, executive chef, El Camino Hospital, Mountain View, Calif.

While innovation and new items play a role — baby bok choy and watermelon radishes were in recent menu items — he said diners want brilliance with basics. That could mean cutting broccoli like a steak and seasoning it in a new way, or combining tastes like golden beets and wasabi sour cream.

“It is about finding good vegetables and preparing them right,” he said.

Looking to demystify vegetables for his patrons, Pleau said he does a lot of research and development at grocery stores, watching what consumers select and what they put back on the produce rack.

“I don’t know if you need so many new vegetables, but doing traditional stuff in the proper way,” he said.

Finding success in promoting produce in a school foodservice setting, Jenilee McComb, director of child nutrition programs for Provo School District, Provo, Utah, said that it can take time for kids to acquire taste for some fresh produce items.

“It took a year for kids to acquire taste for the spring mix salad, but they love it now,” she said.

McComb said the district has incorporated nutrition education into the classroom, with visits by a representative of the district’s produce supplier to sample new items with kids. The school has also set up special event days, with fun activities such as line dancing in conjunction with a focus on healthy meals.

“Kids want us to make their food exciting and they want to have exercise as a fun activity,” she said.

Regis Holden, senior director of culinary services, Eat’n Park Restaurants, Homestead, Pa., said the restaurant has removed all prepared salads and instead makes all salads fresh every day. The chain, with a heavy business for its signature salad bar, offers 20 to 25 fresh fruits and vegetables every day.

The restaurant evaluates new menu items with a focus on nutrition, fruits and vegetables, fresh baked bread and adding herbs and seasonings to add to the flavor profile.

The difficult part of the process is the training aspect, he said. With so many locations so far apart — and so many team members touching food every day — he said the restaurant spends considerable time teaching how to prepare food uniformly for a consistent customer experience.

Jacques Wilson, executive chef, El Camino Hospital, Mountain View, Calif., said the hospital has taken fried food off the menu and added more produce. The hospital’s menu items have less protein but more vegetables than previously, he said.

Wilson said the hospital keeps its costs down by working with a seasonal menu and blending various vegetables depending on price points.

Dan Barash, executive chef, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Atlanta, Ga., said the 430-restaurant chain puts a big emphasis on food safety and traceability in produce vendors. Franchise owners can choose their local produce suppliers, as long as those suppliers meet food safety and traceability standards set by the chain, he said.

Martin Breslin, directory of culinary operations, Harvard University Dining Services, Cambridge, Mass., said the dining operation is able to provide squash from a local grower. Breslin said 8% of Harvard’s students are vegetarians, and he said the dining facilities uses all fresh produce with the exception of peas and corn.