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January 27, 2017

2017 Food Trends: Part 4 African Menu Strategies

Lamb
By Piet E. Jones

So, you’ve decided to add a little African flair to your menu. Great! Now what? It might be the trending flavor at the moment, but if you don’t capitalize it properly, you may find it languishing and dying on your menu. What to do? Well, there are a few strategies to get those dishes out of your kitchen and onto the tables.

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January 20, 2017

2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 3, Southern Shores

South africa
The South African national dish bobotie features ground beef and lamb browned with onions, garlic, curry, turmeric, chopped apricots, apples, raisins, and almonds along with the zest of a lemon and a beaten egg to hold it all together.


By Piet E. Jones

Wrapping up our look at African cuisine, we move south and to the islands off the eastern coast. The flavors get a little lighter but are no less unique and exciting.

South Africa

Fish is abundant in South Africa and one of the preferred methods for cooking fish is in banana or plantain leaves. Either a whole or filleted fish can work, score the skin if whole, salt generously, add lemon or sliced leeks or onions, maybe a splash of wine, then wrap tightly—no steam should be able to escape.  An oven can work, but to really exploit this method, low burning coals are the best. A little charring is okay, but don’t let the leaves burn. The result is an intensifying of the flavors without it becoming fishy, not to mention the wrapped fish looking stunning on the plate. 

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January 10, 2017

2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 2, North Africa

Tagine_foodcentric
Lamb tagine with chickpeas, apricots and pomegranate seeds.

By Piet E. Jones


Our journey across African cuisine continues. Next we find ourselves north of the Sahara and along the upper eastern coast. Here the cuisine is a convergence of African with Middle Eastern and Asian influences. One spice, cardamom, is used across Africa but comes into play with heavy prominence here where its earthy flavor adds to the fragrant mix of the cooking. In the United States cardamom tends to be most frequently used in desserts, but maybe it’s time to take some of it up to the main line of your kitchen.

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January 3, 2017

2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 1

Foodcentric_jollof_rice
Jollof Rice with fried plantains

By Piet E. Jones

Every year, the prognosticators polish off their crystal balls and try to predict what the next hot trends in dining will be. Getting ahead of the next of the next big thing in dining can be great for keeping the buzz going about your restaurant—fine tuning your dishes to perfection so you’re the one people think of when the trend peaks and every local publication is churning out “best-of” listicles for where to get that dish. Sure, not every trend will work for your restaurant, but look at how ramen, a dish that popped huge a few years ago and is still winding its way towards peak saturation, has shown up on the unlikeliest of menus. The key is identifying the key trends early and finding what techniques and ingredients can complement your dining philosophy and excite your customers.

For 2017, one trend that has been identified by those with their ears to the ground is African cuisine.  Which leads many a chef to draw a complete and total blank.  First, that’s a bit like saying the trend is European cooking and, while that might be more familiar, is equally broad and undefined. Then there’s the reality that many chefs in America are simply unfamiliar with what might constitute African cooking.  A quick look across the vast continent, though, and you’ll find an array of techniques and rich, earthy flavors that can be easily incorporated into your existing menu.  It’s just a matter of narrowing your focus and finding the right region or country for your inspiration. Let’s start with Central Africa.

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December 20, 2016

Beef Wellington is Back

Beef_welly_foodcentricBy Piet E. Jones

Ah, those classic French dishes. Back in the day, they were the height of cuisine. Over time, however, changing tastes and an overabundance of kitchen shortcuts led to many of them to fall out of favor.  Duck à l’Orange, a beautiful dish when prepared in the right kitchen, became a cloyingly sticky sweet mess. Chicken Cordon Bleu, a wonderful convergence of haute cuisine and comfort food, devolved into an overly breaded sodium bomb that most have only sampled from the freezer aisle.

Dining these days, though, is a high-demand, ever-changing business and many chefs are looking to the past for inspiration. Old techniques and classic sauces are appearing on menus, often in new and novel combinations. One dish that is getting a new lease on life owes its revival to a TV reality show—Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen. Yep, Beef Wellington is back on people’s minds.  Bad pastry and a propensity to be overcooked all but killed it off in the 80’s, but in the right hands it can be a showstopper.

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December 16, 2016

Lehja Holiday Traditions

LehjaBy: Piet E. Jones, Photography by Brooke Marsh

We all know the scene, little Ralphie and his family from A Christmas Story eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant to most everyone involved’s amusement. There’s even a bit of a real life tradition of going out to Chinese restaurants for Christmas dinner. Some restaurants, though, have a little difficulty making their cuisine relevant to the American holiday season.

One person who doesn’t is Sunny Baweja, executive chef and co-owner of critically acclaimed Indian restaurant, Lehja, in Richmond, VA. “Indians celebrate every event and food drives you together,” says Sunny who embraces the concept fully.

Sure, there is no tradition of Thanksgiving in India, but the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, is celebrated very close on the calendar and being a time to celebrate friends and cherish family, is an easy cultural translation. This year, as part of Richmond’s Fire, Flour and Fork food festival, Sunny hosted a Kiss My Indian Grits brunch leading up to Thanksgiving where he strives to “break habits” and show that Indian cuisine doesn’t have to be “static.” Traditionally Southern dishes, popular around the holidays, like biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits translate easily into Lamb Khari Bhaji (using lamb from a local farm) or Shrimp with Vegetable Umpa Cake - a semolina variation on grits.

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November 30, 2016

Yes, You Need a Coffee Program

By: Piet E. Jones

Coffee_foodcentricSo, your wine program is the talk of the town. Your craft cocktail program gets updated seasonally to raves and online buzz. Your coffee program…. Wait, what? You don’t have a coffee program? Why not?

People willingly drop big money on coffee. Plus coffee is an integral part of the closing part of any good meal service. It can even be a way to jump that check average up by ten or twenty bucks per person. Without coffee, they might not get that extravagant dessert or relaxing cordial to wrap things up. Or worse, they know someplace else to get that robust cup and either leave to spend that money elsewhere or never come in in the first place because they want a fuller dining experience.

The sad reality, too many restaurants treat coffee as an afterthought and the lack of planning to integrate coffee into what is otherwise a well-choreographed meal shows. Yes, you made the pasta yourself with imported, small batch flour that’s been extruded from a custom ordered, hand-made bronze die. The sausage was created in-house using a heritage pork breed. Everything is served on ceramic plates, made from locally sourced clay, thrown and glazed by two ladies living off the grid just outside of town. Your coffee, well, your coffee comes from the same machine and is served in the same Bunn carafes as the culinarily questionable greasy spoon down the street.

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October 31, 2016

How to Open on Thanksgiving Without Making Your Entire Staff Hate You

By: Piet E. Jones

Thanksgiving_foodcentricGreat, you’ve decided to open for Thanksgiving. Now the next question, how do you pull this off without sending staff morale into the basement? Competition for both front- and back-of-house staff is fierce, especially for experienced and competent employees. Sure, you may get through the holiday without anyone actually quitting, but a month or two down the line when the new locavore bistro around the corner opens or there’s a position at a downtown high-end hot spot, your staffers may remember not being able to spend a holiday with their family and be more open to making a move. Watching that sous chef you’ve spent the last year training and grooming or the bartender who created your hot cocktail program walk out the door represents a lost investment and can be disruptive to your future earnings.

Striking a balance for both the business and your staff is key. Some restaurants, especially those in hotels or resorts, are expected to be open. Others have a long history of holiday dining. Employees recognize this but, in terms of your staff, make sure days like this aren’t taken for granted. A few relatively simple steps can go a long way toward making them feel better about missing time with their families.

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August 26, 2016

Bring State Fair Flair to Your Menu

State_fair2By: Piet E. Jones

Summer is winding down and there is something in the air. Well, yes, the kids are getting ready to return to school but there’s also something else. The smells are familiar. A little greasy. Something sweet hangs in the air along with some… more earthy smells… 

Yep, it’s time State Fair time again.

The sights and smells of county and state fairs are ingrained into most American’s childhood memories and even if your patrons are no longer the fair going type, there’s much that can be done to play off this seasonal nostalgia. Play up the theme. Pull out a few blue ribbons and celebrate the local foods that make your region great.

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July 29, 2016

Smoothies on the Upswing

By: Piet E. Jones 

SmoothieGone are the days of artificial and chemically produced flavors. Fresh, real flavors are what customers are looking for these days. One way to take advantage of seasonally fresh flavors is through fruit smoothies. Relatively easy to make, smoothies can help you leverage local produce that’s in season and appeal to health conscious customers who want to enjoy a refreshing beverage but are avoiding over sugared sodas.

From berries to melons, the seasonal abundance of fruit (and corresponding affordability) allows seasonally shifting choices that will keep interest as fresh as the fruit. Of course, after you’ve picked out your fruits for puree, either single or a blend of multiple fruits, what other choices can you make for an exciting beverage?

First, you need a liquid to get the puree to a drinkable state. Apple juice or cider brings both liquid and flavor to the party but not might match with every fruit combination. A 1% milk will add smoothness to the drink or, for the lactose intolerant or those just avoiding dairy, almond milk will achieve a similar result. For true trendy appeal, try coconut water.

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