Skip navigation
Making it Authentic, Making it Ethnic

Making it Authentic, Making it Ethnic

Jean Ronnei, director of school nutrition services in St. Paul, MN, sees ethnic foods as a way of welcoming and honoring students from diverse cultures.

Above: Its long experience with Asian cuisine has enabled Garfield Medical Center foodservice staff to offer very sophisticated fare in the doctors' dining room. Bottom: Stony Brook University Hospital foodservice employees have expanded their cooking and food production skills along with the expanded menu.

Eric Ingoglia's expansion of Stony Brook University Hospital's menu included the introduction of classic French, Spanish and German desserts.

Chef Stanley Tso tapped his extensive culinary experience and personal cultural background to create authentic Chinese menus for New York's Cabrini Center.

School foodservice staff in Loudoun County, VA, developed a number of vegetarian menu items, like vegetarian wraps to satisfy a cross-section of cultural groups and dietary restrictions.

Remember when menu items like tacos and collard greens were considered ethnic—even exotic? For most onsite operators, those days

are as long gone as glass milk bottles and cork-lined bottle caps.

Welcome to the world of congee, vindaloo, mangu and suqaar, where foodservice directors are offering menus and services that reflect highly diverse customer and employee populations and a wide-ranging gamut of tastes, special ingredients and preferred flavor profiles.

Pumpkin Soup with Shark's Fin
One of the very first hospitals in the country to try to carve a niche—and establish a reputation—as a culturally blended facility was Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, CA. For almost two decades, the hospital has been experimenting with approaches and services that combine Eastern and Western traditions.

Located in the heart of one of the country's largest Chinese-American communities, 70 percent of the physicians are Chinese. A high percentage of the staff speaks Mandarin and/or Cantonese as well as a number of other Chinese dialects and there is a 24hour Mandarin news channel broadcast to patients' rooms.

"We realized early on that designing an authentic Chinese menu would not be as easy as taking the menu from a local Chinese restaurant and cooking the food in bulk," says Jerry Miller, director of food and nutrition services at the 210-bed facility. "What our patients wanted were porridges and stews—the comfort foods—their mothers cooked for them when they were sick as children."

The entire hospital focuses on Asian-style service. The most popular breakfast item is Chinese rice porridge, but patients also can choose steamed Chinese buns, pork sung and hot soy milk. The doctors' dining room serves fish cakes, traditional fried rice, ginger crab and walnut shrimp. A special Chinese New Year menu started with a pumpkin soup with shark's fin and shredded chicken and also featured braised whole duck with dried scallops.

In converting the foodservice at the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, in New York City's Chinatown to a Chinese kitchen, Rosetta Montalbano, director of culinary services, hired Stanley Tso, a Chinese chef who had owned his own Chinese restaurant in the area for 17 years.

"He has a sophisticated sense of texture and seasoning, a first-hand knowledge of Chinese ingredients and a keen sense of what the population can handle," says Montalbano. Tso is Chinese and Cantonese and "brings this authentic cooking experience with him. The combination of items you see on our Chinese New Year banquet menu is nothing like what you would find on a conventional Chinese restaurant takeout menu. It is very unique."

Yucca and Fried Onions
The first item Tso and Montalbano added to the menu was congee, a rice gruel or soup, which is served three meals a day at Cabrini (plain for breakfast and with added ingredients at lunch and dinner). Sticky rice is served every lunch and dinner and tofu appears frequently.

The lavish Chinese New Year's banquet for residents and their families included seafood soup with scallops, shrimp and Chinese vegetables, homemade steamed dumplings, Chinese broccoli with black mushrooms, fish in garlic sauce, shredded chicken with scallions, sticky white rice and a Chinese sponge-like cake with very light cream for dessert.

Vindaloo and Vegetarian
At Stony Brook University Hospital, Executive Chef Eric Ingoglia started his new menu with popular comfort foods—a "chicken-on-the-bone" item every day, a Spanish chicken and rice dish, and an Indian dish, vindaloo, a chicken dish prepared with wine vinegar, rice and Indian spices, including tumeric, cayenne and garlic.

In Loudoun County, Kollaja says she is expanding the school menu by focusing on vegetarian items because they appeal to a variety of populations. This includes not just vegetarians, but also groups that do not eat beef, chicken or dairy products. Her school menu now includes vegetarian chili, vegetarian lasagna and a number of vegetarian wraps.

Tapping Staff Expertise
To serve her expanding, increasingly diverse student base, Kollaja is relying on her menu committee, which consists of managers, teachers and students, to a greater extent.

"Our school district administration stresses the small-town feeling here even though we are growing," says Kollaja.

"That means we have to be very accessible to parents, teachers and students. Our menu committee was a very informal group for awhile and it met every six weeks. Now it is much more formal and meets every month. It's a good tool for public and community feedback and evaluating menu additions."

The real gift for institutions when their neighborhood and customer base changes is that the profile of their work force, because it is drawn from the same community, changes in the same direction. Chances are your employees will know what your customer base wants because some will be from the same demographic or ethnic groups.

"Talk to your customers and see what they want," advises Ingoglia. "Weigh that against what you are capable of within your time frame and your price range. Good communication will help. Involve your employees in creating new menu items and make them want to succeed.

"You want to start with well-known items, like paella and noodle-based Cantonese dishes or fajitas and yakatori—dishes that are not too much of a reach for many customers to purchase or try," advises Ingoglia. "Once your customers trust you, you can move on to newer, more intense flavors and more exotic dishes." Newer menu items at Stony Brook include scrod Oscar, saltimbocca and scarparillo.

Montalbano has a wealth of cultural and ethnic information on site at Cabrini. "We have 15 cultures represented on our staff and we have only 30 employees," she laughs.

"Where we really see the impact of employee involvement is in our Heart's Desire program. Basically, it allows residents to order anything they want on their birthday and we will get it for them. And we mean anything. Many of them order lobster or steamed whole fish with scallions. Our employees get very involved in this program because it's so personal. One resident ordered baccalao [salted cod fish] for his birthday. An employee may say, ‘Oh, let me make the baccalao' or ‘Let me bring in the baccalao. There is a shop in my neighborhood that makes the best baccalao.'"

In St. Paul, Jean Ronnei, director of school nutrition services, was getting nowhere in her efforts to find authentic ethnic dishes for the school menu. She said she even ran an article in the local newspaper. Then, while working on a county-wide grant application committee, she met a county public health administrator who knew the owner of a local Thai restaurant that employed two Hmong mothers.

A year later, Ronnei approached Abdisalam Adam, a school district employee who is Somalian. Adam, his wife and a friend of his wife's agreed to visit the home of Jim Groskopf, nutrition services' purchasing analyst, and cook up authentic Somali dishes as a sampling.

The recipes were refined and tested and the result was a Somali menu day featuring chicken suqaar at a St. Paul middle school.

Looking for Balance
In reinventing his menu at Stony Brook University Hospital, Ingoglia works with a five-week cycle menu with five hot entrees daily and no dishes repeating within that five-week cycle. His minimum customer cut-off for placing an item on the menu is 75 servings and he will give a menu item three tries to get to that cut-off. "For example, I've tried a penne pasta dish with salmon and white beans. If I am lucky, I will sell 40 to 60 servings," he says. "I will put it on the menu one or two more times to see if I can get those numbers up."

Ingoglia makes an exception to the 75or-off policy for items popular with the very vocal vegetarian group. "We do a lot of tofu dishes that are popular with them. We have a sesame encrusted tofu with Asian vegetables. We might sell only 40 but we keep it on the menu because this group really loves it."

At Cabrini, Montalbano says that she tries to balance entrees so that all cultural groups are represented and also tries to use the same main protein ingredient in both entrees on a particular day. For example, on the day an Italian entree is offered, the other entree choice will represent another culture. When shrimp salad is on the menu, shrimp with Chinese vegetables will be a second option. Chinese do not eat pizza, or egg salad or tuna salad so, when those items are on the menu, a Chinese alternative is always offered.

"It is an eclectic population and our staff's skills reflect that. The chef [Tso] makes a great pasta primavera and our two cooks—who are Polish—make a mean chicken cacciatore and they do a terrific job with barbecued chicken and collard greens."

Taking Advantage of Convenience Ingredients

The introduction of ethnic menu items has been known to pose some unique and challenging stumbling blocks. Ingredients often are hard to find or they are hard to find in large quantities. Non-English-speaking vendors may be difficult to communicate with and unaccustomed to dealing with institutional buyers. And many recipes can be too expensive to replicate on a large scale or the production may not lend itself to bulk cooking, or the taste profiles of popular ethnic dishes may be too unfamiliar to be accepted by a general population.

The biggest barriers for schools in introducing authentic ethnic dishes, explains Ronnei, "is the time commitment and the budget restraints. It takes us a year to get an item on the menu by the time we standardize the recipe and taste-test it.

"For example, we talked about and experimented with sesame chicken over brown rice for about a year. It finally made it to the school lunchrooms this past month. Add to that the fact that we only have about 52 cents in food costs to work with for each entree. There's a limited range we can spend. Maybe we could use diced chicken. But we won't be buying goat."

Kollaja, in Loudoun County schools, agrees that the budget is a huge factor for specialty items. "The federal regulations [on school meals] don't allow for a lot of diversity within the meal pattern. We have production kitchens in our schools so you can't have something on the menu where you only serve five portions. Anything we put on our menu has to be acceptable and popular with a certain number of students."

Ingoglia has trouble getting bean paste and topiko (flying fish roe). But because of Stony Brook University Hospital's large size "I am the number one customer for our purveyor and I have some leverage in getting him to carry certain ingredients for me," he adds.

In Florida's Osceola County School District, Palmore shops the small Spanish neighborhood markets for the spices popular with her students—adobo, sazon, soffrito and racaito.

The main ingredient in gandules, a popular item with students, is "pigeon peas," which she buys in 16-ounce cans from a local grocer. "We can't find this item in foodservice-pack size and end up opening all those small cans ourselves," she says.

Even at Cabrini, located in the center of a neighborhood with an abundance of authentic Chinese ingredients, Montalbano has had problems. It's true she was able to locate beautiful Chinese china dishes nearby for the Chinese New Year banquet and a rich choice of decorations, including silk and gold fabric for window coverings. But for recipe ingredients, the vendors who do carry them, when initially contacted, were not accustomed to dealing in large quantities and were used to cash payments on delivery from local Chinese restaurant customers.

Ethnic's Impact
Adding ethnic items to menus can be financially rewarding. Sales at the Pavilion Cafe have grown by $500 to $600 a day and the number of transactions has increased tremendously. At Stony Brook's Marketplace Cafe the response was immediate and sales are have grown from $13,000 to $15,000 a day to $20,000.

But in such venues as schools and colleges and nursing homes, the impact is in something beyond dollars.

At Garfield Medical Center, the extensive and authentic Chinese food offerings are an important component of the medical center's efforts to adapt its services to better reflect the cultural values of its patients and visitors.

The Somali menu first served at St. Paul's Highwood Hills Elementary School, which has a predominantly Somali student body, was not about the food.

"When we had the Somali menu, we invited the community elders to come in for the meal," says Ronnei. "For them and for the Somali students, the meal showed respect for their culture, it was a recognition, a way of making them feel welcome."

There are many reasons behind the demographic shifts and changing faces in the communities served by schools, hospitals, colleges and nursing homes. And there are many reasons behind the culinary shift in the menus offered by their institutions. Here are a few examples.

An estimated 70 languages are spoken by the students in the culturally diverse St. Paul, MN, school district.

> Affordable housing. In Osceola County, FL, developers advertised "affordable houses" in Spanish-language newspapers in New York City and Puerto Rico and targeted their marketing to Hispanic first-time homebuyers. Today, Hispanics represent approximately 40 percent of the county's 52,000 student population and Jean Palmore, the district foodservice director, regularly serves up plantains, rice and beans, and gandules (pigeon peas) seasoned with adobo and sazon.

> Job Opportunities. In Loudoun County, VA, business is booming for Lockheed Martin and Verizon, two corporations headquartered there. Corporate recruiting drives to fill newly created openings have attracted job-seekers to the area with homebuilders quickly responding, erecting houses throughout the county.

Some of those houses were also snapped up by buyers who work at the Pentagon and in Washington, D.C., an easy 30-minutes-or-less commute. As a result, Loudoun County has become the third fastest growing county in the country and Suzie Kollaja, supervisor of the school district's foodservices, is scrambling to expand the menu and respond to increased demands from a larger and more culturally diverse customer base.

> Committing to Quality. At Stony Brook University Hospital, on Long Island, NY, Executive Chef Eric Ingoglia, a culinary school graduate, experienced chef and former culinary school instructor, was recruited specifically "to take the food to the next level, improve its quality and develop menus for the target population, which is culturally very diverse."

> Changed Customer Base. At Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, adjacent to New York City's Chinatown, it was pretty clear to Rosetta Montalbano, the new director of culinary services, that a menu overhaul was in order. She says a kosher menu prepared in a kosher kitchen was being offered to all the residents in the 240bed facility, despite the fact that a growing percentage of the residents were Chinese. "The Chinese residents were eating cottage cheese and fruit salad plates for lunch and dinner every day," says Montalbano.

> Immigrant Populations. In some areas of the country, foodservice directors are seeing their customer base change with the arrival of immigrants from war-torn areas of the world, who follow their relatives to new lives in hospitable U.S. communities. About 15 years ago, waves of Hmong refugees arrived in Midwestern towns, where they were welcomed by churches and where they felt comfortable in the agrarian environment. They have recently been followed by Somalians fleeing the ravages of war and devastation in their country. In the St. Paul, MN, school district, where 70 languages are spoken, the staff of Jean Ronnei, director of nutrition services, has developed recipes for Thai peanut noodles, Hmong beef fried rice with scallions and cilantro, and Mexican pinto beans with tamales.

At Williams College, ethnic menus serve dual functions— nourishment and education.

Ethnic Menu 101
At Williams College, in Williamstown, MA, authentic ethnic menus are not just about the food. The food often serves as a peg on which to hang a lecture, a foreign language class, a travel documentary or a fundraiser.

The dinner menu for Soup for Sudan, for example, featured salata ma jibna (cabbage salad), shorbet ads (lentil soup), tamayya (falafel), koftah (ground meat balls) and creme caramela (caramel custard) for dessert. The keynote speaker was Darius Jonathan, former adviser to the vice president of Sudan, who spoke about the Darfur Schools Project, for which the banquet was raising funds.

For the past two years, the traditional Russian Butter Festival was celebrated with an authentic Russian menu, orchestrated by Darra Goldstein, a Russian-American faculty member at Williams and the author of two Russian cookbooks. The buffet included caviar, smoked salmon and authentically prepared blini surrounded by a variety of toppings.

A Bulgarian student at Williams, Vladimir Andonov, spearheaded a Bulgarian meal, getting recipes directly from his grandmother in Bulgaria. The meal featured stuffed peppers and buhtichki, a dessert of fried dough smothered with honey and powdered sugar.

Robert Volpi, Williams' director of dining services, says the challenge is not just to prepare ethnic foods that use authentic ingredients and taste authentic but also that are presented authentically. The Bulgarian peppers were prepared so that only the stem is removed and the perimeter of the pepper top is carved so that it presents a concave covering over the stuffing. The caviar, for example, was presented in small containers with a traditional mother-of-pearl serving spoon. And the accompaniments to the blini were arranged smorgasbord style around the blini.

Michele Flournoy, Allen Pavilion employee, chooses from the expanded menu being offered at Pavilion Cafe by Jose Tavares, first cook, and Jasmin Gutierrez, senior dietary worker.

New Foodservice Venues
Sometimes, it is the institution itself that decides to take its foodservice up a notch. At New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, the opening of an expanded, renovated Pavilion Cafe at the Allen Pavilion last November became the impetus to expand food offerings and improve menu quality. NYP consistently reviews market competition outside of the hospital and tries to tailor its services to meet the best competitive model.

The hospital also seeks feedback from its employees. In an extensive employee survey, NYP posed the question, "What would be the increased likelihood of your eating at Pavilion Cafe if the following were offered?" Ethnic food was the second top response, with 49 percent. Raquel Rosen, operating as site administrator to overhaul the menu at the cafe, says that "despite the fact that 60 percent of our customers are Hispanic, and the majority of them are Dominican, there was not much of a Hispanic menu, except for the occasional rice and beans."

Rosen, who is herself Cuban-born, knew exactly where to start the menu overhaul at the Allen Pavilion. Every morning when she arrived at work, she took note of the take-out breakfast orders that employees had delivered from outside vendors. This was her primary focus each day.

The first breakfast item she introduced was Spanish oatmeal, which she describes as "a nice blend of oatmeal, cream, sugar, cinnamon and cloves that is beaten down to an almost-farina-like consistency." She also introduced yucca as a morning option and the root vegetable boiled and served with fried onions.

Listening to her customers, she also put French fries on the breakfast menu, along with an expanded number of ingredients at the made-to-order omelet station. Rice is offered every day—replacing pasta, which had been a not-very-popular but very frequent offering—and rice and beans quite often.

Rosen says a very popular entree is oxtails, a stewed meat dish that "is simmered for a very long time with Caribbean spices of cumin and a mojo sauce that includes olive oil, garlic and lemon juice." Curried goat meat is another popular entree. The panini grill now incorporates a Cuban flavor to prepare very authentic Cuban sandwiches. Leftover bread is used as an ingredient in a West Indian bread pudding that Rosen says "sells like crazy for $1 a slice."

In making changes, "The first place you look is at the employees and staff ," says Tom O'Donnell, a director of support services at NYP Hospital. "Tapping into them and listening to them will tell you what you need to know. Raquel really listens to the staff and she has her finger on the pulse of the employees. This whole program reflects that."

At the Allen Pavilion, one of five campus sites that constitute New York Presbyterian, "each facility has a special niche," says O'Donnell. "You have the umbrella of NYP for the same products and the same vendors but under that umbrella, you have to allow some wiggle room for each facility to tailor its offerings to its own population."

When Rosen introduced fresh yucca to the Pavilion Cafe menu, "It was very hard to peel and had a limited, very short shelf life so if it had to be used quickly. We have since found frozen, peeled yucca and many other convenience foods for this market. And there are more coming on the market all the time." Mangu is another popular menu item—steamed, mashed plantains served with butter, salt and pepper since Rosen recently found frozen convenience plantains on the market.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.