In the research and development phase for new menu ideas, a chef can easily look around online to learn about, say, Peruvian cuisine. Or, that chef could pack his bags, settle into a long flight and wake up in Peru. Vibrant open-air markets become the research; hot empanadas and cool ceviche become the inspiration. And that can lead to a menu unlike any other.
That is the model being used every year by a team of 12 chefs at Taher, Inc., a Minnetonka-based contract management company that serves mostly K-12 accounts in more than 400 public school locations.
For the past few years, they’ve been bringing authentic recipes and techniques back from markets, streets and homes all over the world: Sicily, Jerusalem, Peru, Morocco, Japan, Thailand, Amsterdam and Paris, to name a few.
“When you travel, you find things you never would’ve found on the Internet,” says Chris Murray, Taher regional chef. “It’s not just the food, it’s the culture. When you live in a place for seven days, you start to learn the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and ‘becauses’ of that cuisine.”
The company’s president and CEO, Bruce Taher, has a background as a chef, and knows how important it is for chefs to create exciting new menu items. So Taher, the team and a few guest chefs have been getting out of the kitchen—far out. Last year, they traveled to Jerusalem, and they just recently returned from Sicily.
Off the Beaten Path
The group of chefs makes an effort to get off the beaten path when they travel, seeking out new friends and family meals.
The recipes are recreated as K-12 menu items that are pretty faithful to the original versions, allowing kids to get true tastes from around the world.
“Authentic food is what we’re looking for,” Murray says.
Walking through the alleys of Japan really left an impression on the Taher chefs.
“In Japan seeing the pho and buncha in alleys...that was incredible,” he says. “The aroma and the fresh produce…and to see the way they created a convection oven by putting a fan on the grill. The way they adapt and create their own systems of cooking is pretty impressive.”
In Vietnam, the chefs ventured hours outside big cities just to see what life there is like.
“We stopped and met some farm workers on our way to the ocean, and we were roaming around cabbage and bean fields, watching them do the work.
“People have been completely welcoming and friendly and engaging,” Murray says, recalling time spent learning to make kimchi with a group of Korean women, sharing the bond of cooking, the language barrier hardly even an issue.
“I accidentally said something inappropriate in Korean, and they were all just laughing at me,” he says.
Bringing It Back Home
“When we find something we like that could be usable for us, we translate it to the menus. We stay authentic and don’t change it too much. We’ve had a lot of success doing that.”
One such dish is Lomo Saltado, a very common Peruvian dish that’s a one-bowl meal of steak, potatoes, vegetables and french fries served over rice.
“The flavor is Asian-South American fusion,” Murray says. “There is a huge Chinese population there and the fusion of flavors is exciting and different."
Lomo Saltado is "an example of something you wouldn't see unless you went down there yourself," he adds.
Earlier this spring, Murray prepared Lomo Saltado at Le Center Elementary and Middle School, one of Taher’s accounts in Minnesota.
As Peruvian beats played in the background, students lined up to try something new.
“They liked it, and when students come up to me and personally thank me after lunch, that’s why I do this,” Murray says. “That’s when I drive home with a smile on my face.”
Peruvian Sliders are another menu item that successfully translated to school menus.
“When we got back, we found out that Wisconsin, the next state over, is one of the country’s largest producers of alpaca meat for consumption,” Murray says. “It’s a small world.”
The sliders are served two-to-a-plate with Aji Amarillo sauce (a creamy sauce with a kick made of amarillo peppers and queso), Salsa Criolla (an onion relish with lime juice) and shoestring sweet potato fries.
The vegetables in the sauce and the salsa provide enough vegetables for a serving according to school lunch guidelines, Murray says.
From Japan to K-12 to B&I
Noodle dishes are really catching on in this country, and the Taher chefs have been on the cutting edge, especially since their visit to Japan. They recreated pan-seared lotus root and green onions with udon noodles, a dish that appeals to both kids and adults.
“The interesting part of that dish is that it crossed over from schools into B&I accounts, and several other dishes have, too,” Murray says.
“Another example is from Morocco. The best thing we brought back was the tagines (slow-simmered stews with root vegetables and chicken thigh meat, traditionally cooked in a clay vessel).”
Translated to big-volume cooking, tagines come out great when roasted in hotel pans and served over couscous, Murray says.
“Morocco had the most interesting outdoor markets,” he adds, summing up the whole point of traveling as a chef. “They’re out in the middle of nowhere.That’s how you see the culture—you go out and experience it.”