Menu Innovations | August 2015 | By Sherri Daye Scott

At the Chef’s Table

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Gerard Craft

Porano Pasta, St. Louis

Culinary Credentials: Food & Wine Best New Chef; Food & Wine Innovator of the Year; James Beard winner for “Best Chef: Midwest”

A family trip to Italy inspired Chef Gerard Craft’s first fast-casual concept, Porano Pasta. The concept is designed to translate the hospitality and simple food Craft experienced in Porano, Italy, and that is served at his casual Italian eatery, Pastaria, into a quick-service setting. The menu is build-your-own and features quick-serve rarities such as farro, heritage pork meatballs, Calabrian-spiced organic tofu, and organic pastas.

Craft calls Porano “fast food” versus “fast casual” because he wants to change perceptions.

“I grew up eating fast food as a kid,” he says. “I feel like the food was different then. Roy Rogers was an all-time favorite … and the bacon cheeseburger. I remember them being so awesome. And Tastee-Freez in the summertime. So I have a fondness for fast food.”

Craft says the quick-service concepts from fellow chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson (Loco’l) and Steve Ells (Chipotle) inspired him to push the fast-food boundaries at Porano.

“They are introducing quality ingredients and unique flavors fast and relatively affordable compared to a lot of restaurants,” he says. “I love how Loco’l was working on adding things like rice to hamburger meat to make it more affordable but still healthy.”

With the menu at Porano, Craft is taking a page out of the Ells playbook, using a few simple ingredients to give guests a variety of options.

“This allows us to reduce the labor involved in prepping the menu, which in turn helps us keep the price point at the fast-food level,” he says.

It is that kitchen know-how that puts chefs in a unique position to change fast food, Craft says.

“Chefs understand flavor in a way most corporate CEOs don’t,” he says. “There is a high level of integrity found in great chefs that will help bring a little more honesty and transparency to the fast-food industry. There is a need for good, honest food served quickly, and right now the choices are limited. I want people to have faith in food again.”


Geoff Alter

Costa Vida, Multi-State

Culinary Credentials: Presidio Golf Course, Zuni Café, Sir Francis Drake Hotel

Clean eating is at the heart of Chef Geoff Alter’s menu at the Mexican fast-casual chain Costa Vida. This makes his job more complicated than the average quick-service chef’s, especially when it comes to purchasing. A key element of his job, in addition to menu development, is sourcing—determining what’s possible, how to get the ingredients, and where the challenges lie. But as a former Sysco employee, Alter has a unique perspective on sourcing healthier, more nutritious food. It’s a numbers game, he says—one that requires strong partners.

“Volume can make purchasing quality ingredients affordable,” Alter says. “But buying the right items at the right yield is the best way to save money.”

To illustrate his point, Alter offers up how antibiotic-free chicken is sourced at Costa Vida. He uses Red Bird Farms chicken, which costs 30 percent more than commodity chicken. But because the product comes cleaned and prepped, Alter estimates he saves up to 10 hours a week in labor. The product also offers a superior yield: 100 percent compared with 40 percent.

“That means that 30 percent cost increase is 5 percent less than using commodity chicken,” Alter says. “I make my decisions based on four qualifications: yield, quality, cost, and health. All are equally weighted to tell me if something is right for Costa Vida.”

Still, even with his background in distribution, Alter acknowledges that serving healthy food in a quick-service setting is not an easy process.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” he says. “Most chefs don’t know what it takes to go GMO-free. You have to take it item by item. You have to source properly and have trust in your vendors. The broad liners react to market trends. They literally have everything because they work with healthcare, schools—places where nutrition and diet matter more than most foodservice.”

Alter suggests operators start by using the best ingredients they can afford.

“The better the ingredient, the less you need to do to it,” he says. “Simple preparations keep out the chemicals and additives. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do we have a menu engineered around the right cooking techniques?’ McDonald’s sourcing standards are high. They are purchasing quality ingredients; it’s how they treat those ingredients that makes the difference.”

Alter’s commitment to serving better fast food does not stop at ingredients. He is equally focused on ensuring guests leave Costa Vida feeling full, but ready to tackle the day.

“I want to leave people feeling energetic after their meal,” he says. “I engineered our menu around how the body digests food. It’s a technique I learned as the chef of a little scuba-diving boat. Pressure can cause indigestion, so I had to figure out how to serve food that wouldn’t give them heartburn. That’s the true definition of customer service: anticipating what your customer needs and providing that before they need it.”

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