Judging from his time spent in the college dining environment at Virginia Tech and now in healthcare dining, Nazim Khan, CEC, executive chef at Bryan Health Medical Center in Lincoln, Neb., feels that eating gluten-free isn’t a fad; it’s a dietary preference that’s here to stay.
“When I first started my career in New York City restaurants and hotels years ago, the only allergy I’d ever hear about was that someone would have a seafood allergy,” Khan recalls. “But now, gluten-free is huge. I get so many requests every day. People who have celiac and people who just feel it’s healthier. I like to give them options.”
And with customers who are better informed than ever, those options should never be skimpy or feel limited. That means no cutting corners, lazy presentations or ingredients that aren’t the best possible.
Khan kept those factors in mind as he was revamping and developing new concepts for the healthcare system. Here’s how he incorporated three great gluten-free options that work seamlessly across three concepts: Asian noodles, a burrito bowl and pizza. And he’s working on more gluten-free options all the time.
“It’s not like one option is OK,” Khan says. “[Customers] are asking for lots of options.”
Gluten-free noodle bowls
While Khan was experiencing all that Manhattan had to offer as a young chef, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines were a big part of that experience. Now, the noodle bowls he offers at Bryan Health are inspired by both Vietnamese pho (clear broth, protein and noodles) and Thai curries (a creamier coconut broth, protein and noodles).
“All the broths—beef, chicken and coconut curry—are gluten-free,” Khan says. “You don’t use any kind of thickener. Even in ancient times, Asian cooking doesn’t use a roux like French cooking does. If you want to thicken something in Asian cooking, you use cornstarch. Asian cooking is gluten-free friendly.”
The noodles for the gluten-free bowl are rice noodles, not soba (buckwheat), which is also an option. In another dietary twist, carb-conscious customers have been forgoing the noodles altogether, Khan adds. “When someone is really watching their carbs and say they don’t want a noodle bowl, I tell them, ‘Just get it without the noodles.’”
Much of this station’s appeal is in the presentation. Khan had his eye on some gorgeous—but way too expensive—enameled cast-iron pots and pans to use as serving vessels. Then he found a more cost-effective brand, just as high quality, and available in the same bright blue color as the hospital’s logo. Used instead of chafing dishes, this serving ware has been making a difference in the perception of the station.
“One pan has rice, one has beans, another has beef or pork or chicken…people like that style of serving. They say, ‘I want to try what’s in here,’ so much more than chafing dishes,” Khan says.
In order to go gluten-free at this concept, there are no tortillas and rice acts as the starchy foundation to hold together all the fiery, smoky components. Khan is a big fan of chipotle powder, and makes sure to layer the flavors for a perfect burrito bowl experience.
This bowl features shaved rib-eye, the same beef that goes into a classic Philly cheesesteak, which is shaved in a frozen state for the thinnest possible slices. Here, it’s seasoned with chipotle powder, as are the black and pinto beans simmering in one of the pots. Vegetarian diners can get double beans for protein. The bowl is topped with cheese, fresh pico de gallo, corn and bean salsa, guacamole, lime juice and pickled jalapenos. With so much flavor going on in this perfectly executed bowl, who would miss the gluten?
Here’s where good ingredients come in. Khan determined early on that making any pizza dough from scratch isn’t a good fit for this operation. The labor involved, the margin for error…it just doesn’t add up from Khan’s standpoint.
So he worked with his distributor to find the best possible premade pizza crusts, including a gluten-free version that fits the profile for a great crust: crispy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside.
It may not be made from scratch, but the dough—both traditional and gluten-free—is getting rave reviews.
“Some chefs try to do every little thing and it can come out so bad,” Khan says. “Unless you’re running an artisan pizza place…you need to examine your workflow. You can have a great idea, but if you can’t bring it to reality that’s a problem. I’m feeding a lot of people on a budget and I want to execute it perfectly. I use lots of fresh produce, oregano-infused oil and basil in a chiffonade—no one is going to tell me this isn’t gourmet.”