At the 2013 NACUFS National Conference in Minneapolis, chef and author Mai Pham revealed secrets for wowing college students with vibrant Asian food that is healthful by tradition.

“You can use the wonderful Asian flavors as a platform for advancing your own ideas of health and sustainability,” Pham told the audience.  Those ideas “almost always resonate with what we do in the Asian kitchen,” she added.

Pham came to the U.S. with her family in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, and has used authentic food to get to know her roots and to share with others. Her return to Vietnam in 2000 was televised by CNN: a show called “My Country, My Kitchen.”

“I’m not really the kind of chef who likes to put my own spin on things. I want to devote my life to preserving traditions,” Pham told the audience. And, with a laugh, added, “By the way, I have no tattoos on my arms.”

The traditional Asian plate is mostly made up of fresh, vibrant vegetables and raw herbs served with meat in small portions. Seafood plays a major role. Rice and lentils are front and center. Many items are grilled and the food is gorgeous to look at. Toppings, like crunchy peanuts and fresh cilantro, add texture.

 It all leads to an opportunity for increasing vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and enticing vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free students at the same time, Pham said, citing items like banh mi, Thai curries, Asian grill and stir fry and pho noodle bowls.

Pham has consulted in college foodservice operations coast to coast, from UMass Amherst to Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and others, bringing her operationally friendly techniques and authentic flavors.

“It’s all about flavor,” Pham said, going on to describe methods for getting that fresh Asian flavor in a foodservice setting. Choose the items your customers will embrace, use the right knife cuts and prep smart. You’ll be on your way to small plates that entice and a more interesting Asian station.

Here are 12 takeaway lessons from Pham’s Asian kitchen-to-campus strategy, ways to make healthful food interesting and craveable:

  • Play to your audience. If curry might be a little far out for them at first, start with stir fry. Banh mi (sandwiches) also make a great “gateway” food. Wraps are a good “crossover” vehicle and are perfect to make ahead for grab-and-go situations. A banh mi wrap looks familiar, but can be layered with red leaf lettuce, cucumbers sliced on a mandolin, pickled carrots, Thai BBQ chicken, green onions and Sriracha aioli (Just mix Sriracha with mayo!). To layer even more flavor, drizzle with a yellow curry sauce before wrapping.
     
  • Prep work really matters. “The way we cut things makes the plate look and taste authentic,” Pham said. “If you cut things in the chunks characteristic of Mexican food, then it won’t be the same.”
     
  • Pham’s refrain during her presentation was: “Do not cook this at 9 am and serve it at noon.” Asian food will not be nearly as appealing when it’s left to languish on a steam table. A little prep and forethought can go a long way.
     
  • What to do when you have a staff of one doing 600 covers? Layer pre-cut veggies in a pan and pop it in the oven for five minutes just before service. Reheat on the station quickly. Blanch ingredients like bok choy ahead of time. Grill and chill onions the day before. Make sauces fresh two times a week.
     
  • Use an action station for stir frys and small batch cooking. It’s the perfect place to do last-minute prep and also to make the cuisine an exciting experience.
     
  • Onions and garlic, cooked on the flattop, are the fastest ways to bring wonderful flavor to vegetables.
     
  • Incorporate your Asian station into your existing healthful dining program. Multi grain rice works very well, as do rice blends that feature legumes. Create an Asian pilaf with a pre-made rice blend, or blend your own. “That conveys the message of healthfulness,” Pham said. Also, sauces can be served on the side. “Students can control the flavor and the sodium.”
     
  • Serve smaller portions unapologetically. The idea of tapas or amuse bouche is well-known to ‘foodie’ students, but Pham acknowledged that many diners on campus will still try to fill their plate with as much chicken as possible. Still, “how you present a dish can look really special and they won't be disappointed.”  Serve small portion, but dress them up with garnishes and sauces and you will find that people won’t say, ‘Give me more chicken.’”
     
  • Plate individually sometimes. Even if you pick just one dish for one day, say, 3 oz. of chicken thigh plated up with cilantro and roasted peanuts, plate it up individually instead of using a steam table and watch those plates fly off the station.
     
  • Dishes like Korean bibimbap play up vegetables in a way that will be irresistible to vegetarian and vegan diners.
     
  • Seek out ingredients like lemongrass and kefir lime leaves (“Even one leaf cut into slivers will make a big difference.”) These will give your Asian dishes street cred and flavor to spare.  And lightly pickled vegetables are one of the easiest ways to get authentic flavor on an Asian dish. Use a very neutral vinegar—distilled white or apple cider vinegar work well.
     
  • Don’t beat up the food when you’re preparing it. “If you keep stirring it like spaghetti sauce, you will end up with spaghetti sauce,” Pham said.