In a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), more than 1,000 members of the American Culinary Federation named ethnic cuisine, particularly Pan-Asian, Mediterranean and Latin, as one of the top 20 hottest food trends for 2007. Two Midwest restaurants have found ways to make the most of their ethnic specialties by taking a core group of basic ingredients, one basic cooking method and, simply by varying spices, sauces and accompaniments, creating exciting and diverse menu offerings that can easily be adapted to any buffet format.
At the Flat Top Grill, a restaurant operation with locations in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, diners fill their own bowls with their favorite ingredients from the stir-fry bar. Among the selections are various fruits and vegetables; rice and noodles; house-made sauces; proteins ranging from prime beef tenderloin and chicken to seasonal seafood and game; and a selection of spices. The filled bowls are given to the restaurant’s stir-fry chefs for cooking.
Not only can Flat Top customers customize their orders by choosing the specific ingredients, they can also have their bowl contents prepared and served in a number of ways inspired by Pan-Asian cuisines. Instead of the simple, straightforward stir-fry, they can have their cooked ingredients made into a soup with the addition of hot and sour or vegetable broth, tossed with mixed greens and a vinaigrette dressing for a salad, wrapped in thin mu shu pancakes or as an open-face sandwich atop a thin Indian bread called roti prata.
Whether you refer to them by their Greek name of souvlaki, Indian satay, French brochette, Japanese yakitori, Russian/Turkish shashlik or, most familiar of all, Middle Eastern kabob, seasoned skewers of grilled meats are relatively quick (10 minutes or less) to cook to order and “offer easily adjustable, ethnic flavors profiles with the addition of various herbs, spices, marinades and dipping sauces,” according to Culinary Institute of America-trained Chef Charlie Baggs, who heads his own product and flavor innovation company in Chicago, Illinois. (Kabobs are the largest-selling type of fast food in Eastern Europe and a favorite after-hours snack in Great Britain, he explains.)
Kabob.a.Licious, a quick-service restaurant operation based in Schaumberg, Ill., slides the chunks of beef, chicken or lamb (they also offer veggie and tofu versions) that have been cooked to customer order on metal skewers onto either clay oven-baked bread, salad greens or rice. Metal skewers are best for holding and distributing the heat during cooking, but are removed before serving for safety’s sake, says owner Kazem Safari.