Bento boxes are an idea that Nazim Khan, executive chef at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Neb., had kept on the back burner of his mind since his days as a hotel chef on the East Coast.
“When I started my culinary journey in Sag Harbor, we used to do bento boxes for VIP events with things like miso soup, teriyaki salmon, salad with ginger and mocha for dessert,” Khan says. “This stayed with me because people like it. It’s very neat, very orderly and clean.”
Sensing that the time was right, Khan recently purchased 24 bento boxes for a test run at the medical center’s east campus. The boxes are made of sturdy dishwasher-safe plastic with a removable compartment that’s divided into four squares with a smaller square in the middle for sauce.
Khan isn’t limiting the bento boxes to just Japanese food.
“The concept of the bento box is always Japanese, but it doesn’t have to always contain Japanese food,” he says.
The first bento boxes created in the test program last week were healthy-choice themed and included visually appealing items neatly in their own compartments: poached salmon (served cold) with parsley-lemon preserves on top, a salad of chickpeas and quinoa simply dressed with lemon and olive oil, roasted vegetables and panna cotta for dessert.
Khan plans to move the bento boxes across retail concepts at the cafés, and he has some interesting ideas for how that would look and taste: an Italian bento box with meatballs, caprese salad and cannoli, for example, and an Indian bento box with chicken tikka masala, cucumber salad with raita and roasted cauliflower or dal. The boxes could even venture into pizza and roti territory as well.
He’s also incorporating an action-station element into the bento boxes, with cooks at each station assembling the boxes in front of customers with prepped items.
If the bento boxes catch on, Khan hopes to buy more boxes and expand the program onto the west campus.
As with any new idea, Khan faced a bit of skepticism at first, when hospital higher-ups were interviewing a group of doctors and needed to order a working lunch.
“The administrator wasn’t sure,” he says. “But I said, ‘Trust me, they’ll love it.’”
Sure enough, the group did love the bento boxes and requested them again for the next meeting. Khan intends to keep the buzz going.
“Food should be fun,” he says. “People don’t just to fill up…they want to get excited, talk about it, post it on Instagram. Yes, at a hospital.”