Students at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee lined up out the door when Restaurant Operations featured an Asian stir-fry dish on the menu, says executive chef Matthew Powers.
The students' reaction to that stir-fry selection inspired a new menu of ethnic dishes from around the world — South America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa.
“The demands and the requests of the students are evolving,” says Powers, who has served in his role for the past 10 years. “We still need to offer the comfort foods, but we continually try to branch out from that. There are a lot of foods and flavors to explore.”
Global dishes and ethnic cuisines are gaining popularity on foodservice menus, particularly those serving adventurous millennials. Chefs and operators are delving into more unique dishes, flavors and ingredients, while also emphasizing authenticity and menu transparency to a younger generation of diners.
“Millennials have shown an exceptionally high level of interest in ethnic foods, particularly for many Asian and African cuisines,” says consultant Maeve Webster of Menu Matters. “Ethnic food, either mash-ups or authentic versions are great ways to reach millennial consumers.” Millennials range in age from 18 to 34.
“Our customers today are very discerning, and authenticity is of the utmost importance,” says Craig Tarrant, executive chef for the foodservice operations at Microsoft in Seattle. “They are more interested than ever before in global cuisine and trying new flavors. . They love experimenting with different food palettes and connecting directly with our chefs on campus to learn more about the origin and history of the foods we serve.”
Microsoft’s campus has 90 dining destinations, including 23 cafes, three full-service restaurants and several convenience locations and retail shops. The foodservice operation daily feeds some 40,000 people of all ages and backgrounds. The menu includes such popular peanut-centric dishes as chicken peanut satay salad, peanut chicken chow mein, shrimp pad thai and a zesty peanut chicken.
The Pacific Rim Kitchen at Café 9 is the most popular station at Microsoft, says foodservice director Mark Freeman.
“We have a very diverse population at Microsoft, so not only is it important to have and offer food from around the world, but authenticity is super important, too,” he says.
Offering ethnic dishes which are prepared true to their indigenous culture is important to foodservice operators who seek to remain transparent to their customers, Freeman says.
“We want to be authentic,” he says. “It appeals to people from that region when you are authentic, but it also appeals to those groups who may not come from that region but want to enjoy the food.”
Maintaining authenticity means using ingredients not often found in American dishes — daikon, kimchi, various roots and vegetables that are not as common but tend to spark consumers’ imagination, Powers says.
The University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee's foodservice offered Bibimbap, a Korean bowl containing vegetables, chorizo sauce, pulled pork and a softly fried egg. Another of the university's new, more popular bowls is the African stew, doro wat. Sweet potatoes, peppers, zucchini, green beans, kale and okra are sautéed together with chicken or shrimp. Then the doro wat broth of onions, peppers, coconut and peanut butter is added. Peanuts and plantains garnish the dish.
“A few dishes on our menu may be new to millennials or students coming in,” he says. “We gauge the reaction and see how they feel about it. We train staff to explain the flavor profile and hand out samples.”
Familiar ingredients, such as peanuts, can help draw young American customers to an ethnic dish, notes consultant Webster.
“If a chef or operator is looking to appeal to a broader audience and bring more patrons into the fold, yet make something innovative and approachable as well, peanuts help do that,” she says.
Peanuts also are more common in global cuisine, particularly along the Pacific Rim, Tarrant says. Almonds and cashews are popular in Indian dishes. Like all of the top eight allergens, dishes with nuts are always labeled for those who are allergic
“We have to be very careful of the allergies,” he says. “And at the same time, we do not want to forget about the importance of authenticity and diversity.”
Operators also stress the importance of training staff on proper procedures when handling potential allergens such as nuts, soy, milk, wheat, fish or eggs so they can be served safely.
“Peanuts, for example, are a great source of protein and fiber, so it’s a shame not to have them on a menu, especially for those who are vegan or vegetarian,” Powers says.
Peanuts give dishes more texture and flavor, notes chef Roberto Santibañez who owns Fonda restaurants in New York and consults on menu development.
“They have the fattiness and that dense oily protein we love from nuts,” he says.
Webster says millennials also have shown a greater interest in health issues — vitamins, minerals, protein, etc. — and how food impacts their ability to do what they need to do during the day.
“Health isn’t about missing out or living without but rather balance and eating mindfully,” she says. “Peanuts have a great health story that is solidly based. Telling that story will be important.”