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The power of produce

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Imagine that there is a single solution to help your restaurant demonstrate social responsibility, create delicious meals and tackle health problems ranging from obesity to high cholesterol. Does that seem impossible? A panel of experts at the NRA Show 2011 think all of these goals can be accomplished with produce, and they set a goal of doubling produce usage by 2020.

The larger food trends are focused on world flavors, health and wellness, and menu ethics, said the Culinary Institute of America‘s Greg Drescher. Demographics in the U.S. are changing rapidly, and produce-heavy cuisines such as Mexican and Mediterranean are taking center stage.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest health issues facing restaurants, including sodium level, calorie count and saturated fat, can be solved with produce. Make produce the star of a meal instead of a meat-based protein, and you have a nutritional profile that jives a lot better with healthy eating. However, consumers are not only asking what’s in their food but also want to know where it came from and under what conditions. Produce always has an easy answer.

How can restaurant owners and chefs deliver and market a tasty, nutritious, profitable dining experience? Some tips from the panel:

  • Collaboration across the supply chain. Chefs and restaurants require a variety of produce and excellent flavors, much of which depends on the supply chain as well as distributors and suppliers working toward those goals.
  • Lose “stealth health” idea (and all of those “healthy” icons). Don’t make a big deal out of produce on your menu. Just feature flavor-driven food that isn’t marked “healthy.”
  • Produce companies need to hire and work with chefs. But don’t get too weird — if a consumer doesn’t recognize a food (or, in one case, sends a purple potato back to the kitchen because the consumer thinks it’s rotten), the person won’t want to eat it.

The best story of the session relates to research done at Yale University’s salad bar a few years ago. Produce consumption at the salad bar went up at least 10% when ingredients were grouped according to flavor palate.

Which world cuisines have you taken inspiration from on your menu? What vegetables do you like to feature front and center?