Journey to the centre of the plate
At The International Centre in Mississauga, Ont., executive chef Tawfik Shehata looks forward to serving the foodservice community at the annual Friends of We Care Gala.
Often, for large dinner events, he is relegated to the traditional people-pleasing chicken breast or beef tenderloin and he doesn’t have much freedom to “play with interesting proteins.”
Usually this means his focus is on using high-quality meat and cooking it well, while adding creative flair with seasonal sides.
“My focus is a lot on the veg and the starch components,” Shehata said. “I think interesting sides are what makes the plate. We do brussels sprouts with sage and caramelized onions in the winter months.”
It’s at events like the We Care Gala when Shehata and his kitchen team have the opportunity to get creative with the protein.
“The theme was Kentucky Derby, so we did a southern-style spicy, pickled shrimp as a starter with a cornmeal crostini,” he said. For dinner, smoked and grilled Cornish hens.
The traditional North American plate consisted of a large piece of meat, a side of vegetables, a starch and a sauce. That large piece of meat was always the centre of the plate, the largest cost with the highest return, the item the dish was built around.
With food costs expected to continue rising and international cuisine becoming commonplace, the centre of the plate isn’t always as clear.
The culinary minds behind Canada’s Smartest Kitchen in Charlottetown — specifically product developers Jen Bryant and Marshall Bell, Tiffany Tong, strategic initiatives lead, and Emilee Sorrey, marketing and communications — put their heads together to look at the trends and evolution of centre of the plate.
They suggest, as Canadian palates have become more multicultural, food isn’t as “compartmentalized.” Instead of everyone having their own plate, many cuisines are composed of smaller dishes, shared on a large table, for example Chinese dinners or Ethiopian meals. In these instances, “there is no real centre of the plate.”
According to Technomic, chicken will remain the leading centre-of-the-plate category. The research company’s data shows chicken is the leading entrée at the top 250 limited service restaurants and the second most popular — slightly behind pork — at the top 250 full service restaurants.
Due to its high prevalence, this means, “differentiation will be crucial” to restaurateurs.
When asked what protein consumers eat at least every 90 days, 89 per cent of consumers answered chicken and 81 per cent said beef. Pork, seafood and turkey followed with 68, 57 and 39 per cent, respectively.
When it came to vegetarian substitutes, Technomic data indicates 22 per cent of consumers order these entrees, while 10 per cent have ordered vegan substitutes as a main dish in the past three months. Interestingly, the number of respondents was more heavily weighted to those in the 18-to-35 age range (27 versus 19 per cent for vegetarian and 12 versus 9 per cent in the vegan category).
“Meat-free options can help drive traffic and sales by broadening appeal and reducing the veto vote, especially among younger consumers,” stated the Canadian Centre of the Plate key themes report.
Andrea Nicolson, Maple Leaf Foods’ corporate media and social chef, believes the centre-plate formula is evolving.
“I think centre of the plate is really changing now — look to how we’re really focusing on vegetables and alternative proteins. I think that old concept of building a dish around a six-ounce portion of protein, two ounces of vegetables, a starch and a sauce, I think that’s really changing,” she said.
“[Chefs still] build a dish around a decent-size portion of protein, but I don’t think it’s as literal as it used to be, where you have to have those three components of a dish.”
Nicolson’s role with Maple Leaf includes creating the benchmark product for the research and development as well as developing recipes for the consumer-facing Appehtite.ca.
“We get a lot of insight that people still are looking to eat really healthy and clean so, a lot of our centre of plate are a simply cooked, but properly cooked, piece of protein,” she said.
Hand on the pulse
In addition to lean meats, Nicolson has been experimenting with alternative proteins.
“We’re really venturing into pulses,” she said. “A pulse is such a great vessel for flavour; you can carry such strong flavours with pulses.”
She suggests mixing them with ground meat to create a chicken lentil meatball, for example.
“It changes the flavour completely; it also gives you a really smooth consistency,” said Nicolson. “It kind of eliminates that need for bread crumbs and then you get added nutritional benefits.”
Pulses are nutrient dense and high in fibre and protein. They are also good for the bottom line and are considered to have a low carbon footprint.
Beef it up
Brad Heard, protein category manager for Flanagan Foodservice, said two decades ago beef was the most sought-after protein in restaurant — it probably still is.
“During the last seven or eight years, cattle have become way too expensive for the average restaurateur to be profitable,” said Heard.
Operators are combating this with portion size — smaller, but high quality — and the use of different cuts.
“Everyone still wants a steak — or they want a lower-end steak — they just don’t want to pay through the nose for it,” said Heard.
Cuts that used to head straight for the grinder, such as chuck, are being used in new ways.
“You see major chains in the Canadian marketplace putting chuck rolls on the menu, rotisserie-style chuck rolls,” said Heard.
When Allan Weisberg founded The Butcher Shoppe 35 years ago in Toronto’s Kensington Market, up-and-coming chefs wanted something different, so that’s what he provided. Weisberg cut steaks to specifications, made sausages and took custom orders.
A few years later, when The Butcher Shoppe moved to its current location on Shorncliffe Road in Etobicoke, Ont., and turned its focus from retail to wholesale, Weisberg stuck with that method of operation.
Now, they serve about 1,200 Ontario foodservice customers every month, shipping 60,000 pounds of meat every day.
“What do chefs want now? There has been lots of change in the last five years, as much as there has been in the last 35 years,” said Stacey Weisberg, Allan’s son.
He pointed to the increase in attention being given to food and restaurants — where it comes from and how it’s prepared.
“That’s impacted the industry in a wonderful way,” said Weisberg.
Thirty years ago, steaks were generally cut from three muscles: the tenderloin, striploin and rib.
“Everything else was pretty much ground up, diced up or not presented as a centre of the plate item,” he said.
A cow has far more than three muscles and Weisberg estimated that a dozen are now used on restaurant menus.
“I think that’s a huge shift … we’re using all of the meat in different ways, in a great way. We’re highlighting all these different muscles in a more premium way,” he said.
Weisberg suggests this shift was producer-driven, although chefs and consumers certainly had important roles to play.
“It’s costly today to raise a cow,” he said. Being able to make more money on secondary, non-traditional, cuts of meat as a centre-of-the plate option — instead of the price when ground or cut up — helps make up for that cost.
On the other side of the value chain, Weisberg noted chefs have also looked for new, creative ways to stand out and perhaps decrease costs in an increasingly competitive industry, thus finding ways to use other parts of the cow.
“We’re using a lot more of the animal in a lot more creative ways, innovative ways and wonderful ways,” he said.
According to Technomic, socially responsible initiatives will be increasingly important to Canadian consumers. This applies to every protein category.
Consumers are looking for sustainably raised and harvested fish and seafood. On land, claims signifying natural production such as hormone- and steroid-free as well as raised without the use of antibiotics are being increasingly sought. According to Technomic, consumers are willing to pay more for beef raised that way.
“Every customer that I see — and I probably see about 100 to 120 a year — they are all asking the question: ‘What can I say about my product’?” said James Keppy, national culinary manager at Maple Leaf Foodservice.
He noted that in the past, cost was pretty much the deciding factor, but now they want to tell a story and they want cleaner decks.
“My line has always been: every adjective is worth 45 cents. You want to tell a story about the product, say where it’s from, how you made it, why it’s different,” said Keppy.
When it comes to free-from production claims, Heard warns there may be some faulty advertising involved, specifically with respect to chicken without steroids or added-hormones, but the label still sells.
“There are no hormones in any chicken in any farm in Canada, it’s against the law,” said Heard.
He isn’t sure free-range, organic, and raised-without proteins — the “no-no products” — are a trend.
“That could come and go, that could become just tradition,” said Heard.
Halal: the next veto vote
According to Pew Research Centre, the number of Muslims living in Canada is expected to double in the next 15 year to nearly 3 million people in 2030, up from about 1.3 million in 2015.
Halal is a major buzzword in the meat world, according to Heard. It’s not a trend or a moniker; it’s the way a growing part of the Canadian population must eat in order to be in accordance with Islamic law.
“I think it will change manufacturing for a long time,” said Heard. “Halal is a growth industry, 100 per cent, and it’s going to grow extremely fast. All the manufacturers that I deal with have already launched, or are in the process of launching, halal product lines.”
Keppy noted universities are often on the cutting edge of change in the foodservice scene and some have completely made the switch to halal in order to meet the needs of their Muslim student population.
“We’re finding more and more of the chain restaurants and some of the independents are realizing the money that can be made if they start using halal products. They didn’t realize the business they were missing,” said Keppy.
Once a halal protein enters the kitchen, it must remain halal all the way to the guest’s table. Chef and kitchen managers should understand the standards and how to handle a halal request.
Pork and alcohol are haram, meaning forbidden, the opposite of halal. Other meat and poultry must be slaughtered according to Islamic law to be considered halal, which means permissible.
If a server receives a halal request, the guest should be offered the opportunity to speak with the kitchen manager, who can explain how the operation will handle the meal.
During storage, ensure halal food remain separate from non-halal food before and after cooking.
Ensure all other ingredients are permissible food, according to Islamic law. Grains, vegetable and fruits are generally acceptable, but avoid alcohol, animal lard, pork and pork by-products.
Use a clean or separate, designated cutting board from non-halal products to avoid cross contamination.
Use a separate, designated fryer, clean part of the grill or bake in the oven to avoid contamination. French fries, onion rings and seafood are halal by nature and can be cooked in the same fryer oil as halal proteins.
When plating, ensure utensils (such as knives and tongs) haven’t been used to handle non-halal foods.
Compiled with information from Mina Halal, a division of Maple Leaf Foods.