Menu Innovations | January 2015

Chef Q&A: Lorenzo Boni

The executive chef of Barilla America discusses noodle trends and what operators today need to know about noodle development.
Fast food restaurant operators can innovate menu items through pasta and noodle dishes.
Lorenzo Boni - Executive Chef, Barilla America Barilla

What makes a really good noodle? 

Pasta is an incredibly simple food—just wheat and water. So the quality and type of wheat are critical for the al dente texture and durability, as well as the flavor. At Barilla, we use hard durum semolina, sourcing the best from North America and all over the world. Lower-quality or softer wheats will result in pasta that turns to mush under production in a fast-casual or quick-service environment.

What trends are you seeing in noodle dishes today?

As an Italian company, we are continually inspired by the enduring popularity of Italian cuisine in America. Younger generations are saying they want to see even more of it, especially at restaurants. To satisfy that demand, we’ve been seeing operators go beyond the Italian-American classics and explore regional Italian cuisines from places like Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily, and beyond.

What kinds of outside-the-box ingredients pair well with noodle dishes?

One of the best things about pasta is that it can be a platform for almost anything—proteins, from shellfish to lamb to game meats, and all manner of vegetables. One of my favorite dishes is a lasagna with seafood and saffron béchamel, and we recently served a balsamic lamb pasta dish at an event. Both delicious, and each so different.

Most people think Asian and Italian when it comes to noodles. What are some ways it can break those molds?

Regional American flavors work really well with pasta—think New Orleans/Cajun/Creole, or a buffalo chicken mac n’ cheese.

What do consumers today want from their pasta/noodles?

More than anything, they want authenticity. Today’s consumers are very savvy when it comes to food, and want more than just a simple bowl of pasta or noodles. They want a high-quality experience, and a bit of adventure, too. Especially in fast casual, they want to call the shots, and customize everything that goes into the bowl. Oh, and these days they often want their pasta to be gluten-free, too.

How is fast casual’s growth affecting the humble noodle?

Brands like Noodles & Co., and the growth of other concepts doing fast-casual Italian and pizza, have definitely widened the range of places that pasta can go. It’s made consumers expect pasta to be served fast, but also shown them that they can get it quickly without sacrificing quality.

How might today’s rising food costs affect noodle development?

Operators have always leaned on pasta’s ability to stretch expensive proteins while still providing satisfaction and value to the guest. We saw a lot of that during the recession and are still seeing it now as a way to take pressure off of those volatile items like beef and chicken wings. Add a killer mac and cheese and you’re less dependent on those lower-margin, high-cost items.

What basic ingredients are included in a noodle? What else could be included on top of those basic ingredients? 

While traditional pasta is just wheat and water, we have a number of different varieties, from gluten free (ours is white and yellow corn and rice) to veggie, made with 25 percent vegetable purée—like butternut squash, carrots, and tomatoes—in the dough.

With consumers today demanding more fresh, natural foods, how does the noodle fit into that? 

Pasta dishes are a great place to showcase fresh, local produce and natural meats while moderating your food costs. Consumers understand pasta as a simple, clean food, and even dry pasta gets credit for having been “made fresh” by the restaurant.

What should brand chefs and R&D teams know about menu development with noodles? 

These days, pasta can fit into just about any format and operational setup. There are better options than ever for pre-cooked fresh and frozen pasta, even pre-portioned. You don’t have to have a pot of boiling water to serve pasta anymore. Pasta has a unique role as a universal comfort food that can take on many personalities, from humble to extravagant, all-American to exotic, healthy to indulgent. It makes for a great tool for R&D chefs.

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