The more-healthful USDA requirements, while easy to write down in an official document, can present challenges to those outside the confines of bureaucratic offices. They can cause headaches for food service chefs trying to re-engineer deep-fried dishes for the oven. They can cause concerns for food-service executives who wonder whether federal workers will just wander off to other eateries that offer fattier foods. And they even raise an eyebrow with time-strapped USDA workers who are, essentially, stranded in a downtown food desert, with few other lunchtime options.
Over at the Library of Congress kitchen, where I.L. Creations is the contractor, chef Chris Rabang was practicing his technique for baking Chinese dumplings in a TurboChef, a ventless, high-heat commercial oven. Rabang, a veteran of I.L. Creations’ kitchens, has been tapped to be executive chef at the USDA cafeterias. He said he enjoys challenges, which is good, because the lack of fryers presents a particular challenge for Rabang and Jimmy Quach, the corporate Asian chef for I.L. Creations, who will also be based at the USDA.
The Rockville company is known for its Asian-fusion dishes, whether vegetable dumplings or General Tso’s chicken, which typically require a deep fryer. The food service company puts a positive spin on its new fryer-less predicament. Chefs and executives alike emphasize that they have been down this road before. They’ve had to learn how to prepare Chinese food, for example, without high-heat, gas-powered woks, which are not available in federal cafeterias.
Still, learning to mimic a wok with commercial kitchen equipment is one thing. Trying to imitate the crispy texture and full, fatty flavors of a deep fryer is another. Rabang’s dumplings from the TurboChef are Exhibit A: Although nicely browned on the exterior, they have a dry, almost cardboard-like texture. Rabang expects his sauces will help mask any deficiencies.
The USDA contract has also forced the chefs to be more conscious about their use of oil, butter and salt. Both chefs have taken to writing out precise recipes, in coordination with on-site USDA dietitian Amanda Barnes. She has more than once told the chefs that they needed to rejigger their recipes to meet USDA’s nutritional standards. “They’re not always happy with me,” Barnes said about Rabang and Quach.
It’s still not clear whether USDA employees will be happy with the changes at their cafeterias, either. Last week, a quartet of USDA workers were outside the Whitten Building smoking, yet another unhealthy habit that has been banished from the workplace. They spoke favorably of I.L. Creations’ food over at the Energy Department and, generally, they approved of the move toward healthful eating.
“I like it,” said Heather Krause, who works for Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for research, education and economics. “But then, like I said, sometimes you want something that’s not so healthy.”
The USDA said it will offer those options, too, just probably not at the agency’s official cafeterias. To bite into hot golden fries and other deep-fried delights, USDA employees will have to venture to the South Building’s sub-basement, where there is a greasy spoon named Valencia Cafe. Although Valencia will start to roll out some “healthy sandwiches” to keep pace with its competition upstairs, the cafe also plans to keep its well-oiled options, including chicken wings, cheese sticks, french fries and onion rings. A few USDA employees expect Valencia’s business to jump with the debut of the revamped cafeterias. Which is what concerns Choi.
He already knows how well fried chicken and the Asian-fusion dishes sell at the Energy Department, even among USDA employees. Those USDA workers may continue to walk over to Energy for their deep-fried fix, but what about during inclement weather, when employees won’t feel like wandering outside? Valencia might look enticing.
“On a rainy day,” Choi said, “we can’t compete with a deep fryer.”