Ingredients & Dayparts | March 2015 | By Sam Oches

Chef Q&A: Todd Downs

The executive chef at Trine University through Bon Appétit Management Company has some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to potatoes.
Quick service restaurants can learn potato tips from Trine University chef.
Todd Downs, Executive Chef, Trine University, Bon Appétit Management Company Bon Appetit Management Company

Many people think of baked potatoes and french fries when it comes to potato dishes in restaurants. What are some new ways potatoes are finding their way to menus?

I think smashing or ripping and then flash frying is a hot trend right now. Poutine is still pretty hot out there, and I’ve had really good success with serving it here, with a customization situation where the students can create their own dish. The fingerling potatoes are huge, too. The great thing chefs like about those is they don’t have to peel them and they’re available in so many different colors and sizes now. You can do everything from chips with a fingerling to roasting or even smashing and frying them. Their flavor seems to be a little bit more deep or intense than a russet at times, and the visual appeal is a little more striking. And it’s a little smaller of a portion, so I think people who are conscious of what they’re eating would adapt to something that’s just a few bites.

Tots are still huge, too. I have a cult following here at the university for our tots. We do them a little differently. We cook the potatoes and then shred them, almost to a mash level. Then we add either a cheese or a protein, or some herbs or some sort of savory elements, and then roll them into a more finely shredded potato and flash fry them from there.

What are some good flavor pairings with potatoes?

Things like garlic, fresh herbs, and then, if you’re going to toss something in olive oil, use a nice olive oil that’s fruity and flavorful. If you’re going to fry it, of course there’s duck fat and beef fat. Roasted garlic seems to permeate really well into the potato, either using it on the exterior of the whole potato or tearing it or smashing it and tossing it in an infused oil or sauce.

What do you see as potatoes’ role in the healthy-eating trend?

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the whole carb diet in regard to potatoes. If customers are going gluten-free and eliminating crusts and breads and pastas from their diet, there’s this innate, almost primal craving for that thing that carbs give you, whether it’s the energy or the comfort. And I think potatoes can satisfy that need, that primal need for whatever carbs do for our body that make us feel so satiated and comfortable.

What is your advice to operators interested in adding more potato dishes?

Meat prices are so exorbitant these days. The profit margin shrinks and shrinks because you can only charge so much for a steak; there’s a top end that you can’t cross. They start to absorb those costs, and it cuts into their bottom line. When you look at price per pound and return, I think with potato sides, you can charge a premium price for some of those things—like truffle fries, different kinds of smashed potatoes, mashed potatoes, hash, tots, fresh-cut fries—and really make up on the profits you’re losing on your meat items. So it’s a really good alternative for those guys, because they can make up a little bit in the profit margin.

What is a good way to keep your potato dishes cost efficient?

You definitely need to source the potatoes at the right time. The more you do in-house in terms of preparation, the more you’re going to save money just about on every turn. I’m not sure what the cost breakdown is exactly, but I know that making your own fries has to be a world cheaper than buying the frozen, pre-blanched, coated product. Being a little bit more judicious with the things you’re flavoring your potatoes with, and being aware and cognizant of what you’re adding to the plate cost, is huge as well.

What are some challenges you face in serving potatoes?

Getting people to think a little differently about them. The potato skin that TGI Fridays popularized years and years ago is still a mainstay, just like spinach and artichoke dip and buffalo wings, on a lot of these menus. So it’s getting people to think outside the box. Maybe use the skin as a carrier, but maybe make it a Greek potato skin by putting in some Feta and olives and some fresh oregano and herbs on it, maybe some diced tomatoes. Or do it Spanish-style with dry-aged chorizo, a Spanish cheese like Manchego, or even some Serrano ham as a garnish on top of it. Those are ways to elevate it and gets them to buy in a little bit, but then it offers variety and gets them out of their comfort zone a little bit.

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