The Art of Corporate Catering

The first-ever U.S. chef to win the 2014 Culinary World Cup, ACF Chef George Castaneda is a proven unstoppable force in the kitchen.

Currently based in Nashville, Tennessee, Castaneda is the Executive Chef of Sodexo North America, a wide-standing corporation dedicated to influencing and offering healthy, delicious products to restaurants plus executive, patient, student, faculty, luncheon and other special dining facilities nationwide.

McCormick for Chefs® spoke with Chef Castaneda about his process for developing menus for such a wide-range, diverse roster of clients, as well as how one stays inspired in a time of constant culinary change.

As the Executive Corporate Chef of Sodexo, explain your process for developing menus for a variety of clients from country clubs, colleges and universities to hospitals?

We work with a variety of clients across the country but in my case, it’s specifically the Southeast region. The process of menu development is somewhat simple but, at the same time, it’s complex because of the different demographics within one building or facility. With that in mind, I typically develop a menu that can goes across all demographics.

For example, Italian, Mexican or Asian; those are some of the most popular ones. Of course, I can always go down the modern American path which includes a variety of foods, flavors and techniques that are developed not just for the cooking time but also when displaying and serving. Additionally, plant-based foods and gluten-free are now very common requests from clients.

How do you alter the flavor ingredients like spices, herbs and seasonings to create dishes that are well suited for each of your clients?

First, we focus on the basics. We develop flavor from the beginning and do so by using high-quality products, from herbs to spices to dry rubs. These are items that traditionally help maintain the quality and integrity of the product. At the same time, they are items that can actually enhance or elevate the finished dish that, at the end of the day, satisfy our customers.

In developing catering style dishes for your clients, which techniques do you utilize to ensure maximum flavor upon delivery?

It’s somewhat similar; I would just say that we always use the best that the market can offer. I believe that if you start with good quality products, it will show in the end result. It carries through the whole process; from the development of the recipe to the execution of the dish, whether it is applying herbs and spices directly to the product or using the same spices to create a marination or finishing sauce. I’m always looking for that opportunity to create another layer of flavor no matter what.

At Sodexo, you’re creating thousands of meals daily. Where do you find inspiration for each of these meals?

We have clients and customers who challenge us to come up with a variety of food ideas that rank from classic to comfort to modern flare. Food, to me, is a constant moving target and by that I mean it evolves every day. Chefs across the country are changing, experimenting and doing something we call “playing with food.” I believe that, as chefs, it is important to stay in touch with current trends, know what’s going on in the marketplace and know in what direction food trends are moving. This is the only way you can stay competitive.

I get my inspiration from all the chefs in our own kitchens as well as ones that I follow on social media. Of course, there are always websites and great books out there you can drive from. Once inspired, I meet with each client and I learn as to what they want, that’s the starting point. We then develop from there.

What are three tips a corporate catering chef needs to know in order to be successful in this type of environment?

  1. Think “customers first.” Your customers should always be your priority.
  2. Always choose good quality products that enhance the end result.
  3. Stay current.

If you do these three things, you will always be ahead of the competition. You will also increase your customer loyalty and be a financially sound business.

Which new flavors and ingredients can we expect to see making their way to the centre-of-the-plate in the near future?

Plant-based entrees are making a strong comeback. I just recently developed at least three or four new plant-based entrees that were gluten-free and one hundred percent vegan. That trend used to be called vegan but there is an increase from the customer base that don’t want to eat meat, or at least not as much meat as they used to, but don’t want to have the label of “vegan” or “diet” anymore. They have moved that into what we now call a plant-based lifestyle. You’ll start seeing that more and more on a lot of menus in the marketplace.

Also, flavors and spices from the Middle East are starting to show across the country and I believe that it’s a trend that will continue for some time. I think we have had in our pantries for a long-time items like turmeric but now that there is an added health benefit, you’ll start to see it more in menus and restaurants. Sumac is a great spice; it’s a sour mix, that you can substitute for lemon or orange peels. We’ve had cardamom for a long time but now it’s being used more in bars, for example, for infusing beverages. We’ve had cumin mainly for Latin American dishes but it’s now transitioning into some of our more Middle Eastern flavors.

Content sponsored by McCormick for Chefs

Breaking Out Black Pepper with Jacob Lefenfeld

Jacob Lefenfeld is co-owner and bar manager of Baltimore’s Basque-inspired La Cuchara. Image(2)Rated “Best Bar Program” in the city by The Baltimore Sun, Lefenfeld is used to pushing the boundaries and leading beverage innovation. His approach to beverage development incorporates flavor-forward techniques from the back of house, especially in using spices and herbs in his drinks. In collaboration with McCormick Chef and culinary mixologist Gabby Quintana, Lefenfeld discusses the nuances of black pepper flavor and his winning approach to cocktail development.

What aspects of pepper do you like the most, and how do you feel it factors into cocktail culture?

Pepper creates a deeper, more savory flavor which people seem to want more of in cocktail culture. Many customers are moving away from overtly sweet drinks in search of flavor complexity and balance but I believe even classically sweet beverages can benefit from a dash of black pepper as it adds more depth and a nice back bite of heat to even the most one-dimensional cocktail. It basically contributes enough in the background to make the flavors pop.

A good pepper should accent a chef or bartender’s expression, not alter it.

What do you find to be the key to flavor balancing? How do you figure out where to start when developing a cocktail and where to go profile-wise?

The starting point is always the base spirit I want to work with; selecting the centerpiece, examining unique characteristics, and building upon them in an exciting but logical way. I isolate individual flavors that come together to make the spirit complex then seek out ingredients that will naturally highlight them and add depth. A lot of it is trial and error as something crazy sounding might actually balance well. You just have to be willing to fail and start all over again.

You use a number of surprising ingredients in your cocktails, such as butternut squash. How do you go about creating things like that?

Personally, I benefit from Ben’s culinary experience. Bartenders who can learn from the Image(1)kitchen have an extra card to play in cocktail development. Seeking out the methods and techniques, not just ingredients, that are traditionally only used in kitchens can open up a whole new playing field behind the bar.

La Cuchara is a Basque restaurant, which is a type of cuisine many people may not be familiar with. What do you consider when designing a cocktail to complement a Basque menu?

Located between Northern Spain and Southern France, two of the most culinary rich countries, the Basque region pulls the best influences from both places to create a truly unique cuisine.

So, when I’m designing the cocktails for La Cuchara, I then try to use Basque’s most prominent items, things like Armagnac, Vermouth and gin. Different Vermouths from different sub regions can radically alter a cocktail as it’s not a spirit but a very fortified wine, a product which is shaped nearly entirely by the nature of where it’s produced. Some are herbaceous, some are sweet, others are intensely floral. You can make the same cocktail hundreds of different ways, all by using various Vermouths from different places–it’s that unique as an ingredient.

Is there a particular cocktail you’ve created where you found that black pepper really shines?

Sangre del Toro, or “blood of the bull”. It’s a variation of a gin and tonic that has black peppercorn-infused simple syrup, Black Pepper Beet Espuma and cracked black pepper. The black pepper tempers the syrup’s sweetness while pronouncing the earthy flavor imparted by the red beets.

Stepping out from behind the bar, are there any foods you find pair exceptionally well with black pepper that people wouldn’t normally think of?Image(3)

I truly enjoy it when pepper is included in a sweet dessert, such as a black pepper angel food cake inspired by our pastry chef Carrie Goltra. She has actually used black pepper in several of the desserts she’s created for us, like our roasted pineapple sorbet with black pepper marshmallows, and our cinnamon churros that are spiced with pepper and annatto and served with a warm chocolate sauce.

For more flavorful inspiration visit:





Building the Perfect Summer Cheese Board

In the summer months, cheese can take on a tangy, grassy flavor as dairy cows graze on green, nutrient-rich pastures. Those flavors come through in the milk, and result in even more delicious cheese. To celebrate the start of summer, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board shares tips on how to build the perfect summertime cheeseboard.WMMB_SM2015-SUMMER_CheeseBoard.jpg

Step 1:
Skip rich, more intensely flavored cheeses like aged cheddar, blue and brie in favor of lighter options. Wisconsin Swiss is a nutty cheese that pairs well with fruit, savory meats and fruity wines like a bright, floral Riesling.

Step 2:
Aim for a variety of textures and flavors by including a mix of fresh, soft and hard cheeses. Wisconsin colby-monterey jack is a great option because its flavor and texture goes well with almost any charcuterie or accompaniment from prosciutto-wrapped green beans to fresh raspberries.

Step 3:
Expect the unexpected. Wisconsin ricotta is often overlooked on cheese boards because it isn’t in the traditional table cheese form of a wedge or block. But, its creamy, buttery flavor is an excellent option for simple summer pairings. You can spread ricotta on crostini and top with fresh herbs, pesto or fruit slices for a burst of seasonal flavor.

Visit for more ways to cook, menu and pair Wisconsin cheese.

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Join Sara Hill, manager of cheese education and training for Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board at Cook. Craft. Create. ACF National Convention & Show on Monday, July 10 for a Wisconsin Cheddar and Kentucky Bourbon tasting. She’ll share several different types of delectable Wisconsin Cheddar—from apple-smoked to cave-aged and triple-play—and pair them up with a range of Bourbons, including straight Bourbon, small batch, ultra-aged, and a “drink local” favorite as well!

ACF members who complete the Cheesecyclopedia training program can earn 2 CEHs. For more inspiration and tips for creating the perfect spring cheese board visit Wisconsin Cheese Foodservice.


Ingredient of the Month: American Lamb

Leg on wood
This month’s ingredient of the month is sponsored by the American Lamb Board. Read the article and then take the quiz to earn one Continuing Education Hour. Earn additional Continuing Education Hours by studying the Curriculamb Culinary Education Program.

Lamb is the meat that comes from sheep that are less than a year old. It is made up of bundles of muscle fibers held together by collagen and silverskin. Collagen is a soft, white connective tissue that breaks into gelatin when heated. Silverskin is a tough, rubbery, silver-white connective tissue that does not break down and should be trimmed before cooking. Lamb is a primary protein in many countries throughout the world, especially in regions of North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe. American lamb is a popular menu item thanks to the larger cut sizes, its distinctive flavor profile, freshness and tenderness.

American sheep are reared on a high-quality natural forage diet. Depending on quality, American lambs are marketed directly from the range or pasture while others are grain-finished for a short period of time before being processed. The most common breeds of sheep in the U.S. are Dorset, Hampshire, Rambouillet and Suffolk, known for their large sizes. The leading sheep producing states in the U.S. are Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.



American lamb is naturally nutrient rich. It is an excellent source of high-quality protein. On average, a 3-ounce serving of lamb has 175 calories and meets almost half of an average adult’s daily reference value for protein. Lamb is an excellent source of vitamin B12, niacin, zinc and selenium. It is a good source of iron and riboflavin.

Compared to other meats, lamb contains less fat marbling throughout the meat. With much of the fat limited to outside edges (the fat cap), it is easily trimmed if desired. Forty percent of the fat in lean lamb is monounsaturated fat, the same kind found in olive oil. A 3-ounce serving of lamb delivers approximately 100 mg of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid. A 3-ounce serving of lamb provides nearly five times the amount of alpha linolenic acid compared to a 3-ounce serving of beef.

Values provided by the American Lamb Board, referencing the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17 (2008)

Cuts of Meat

The four primal cuts, or major sections, of American lamb are:

  • Shoulder, which includes the first four rib bones of each side and the arm and neck bones.
  • Rack, which consist of eight rib bones located between the shoulder and the loin of the lamb.
  • Loin, which is the cut between the rack and leg that includes the 13th rib, the loin eye muscle, the center section of the tenderloin, the loin strip and some flank meat.
  • Leg, which contains the last portion of the backbone, hip bone, aitchbone, round bone, hindshank and tail bone and includes part of the sirloin, the top round and the bottom round.


Popular fabricated or ready-to-cook cuts are:

  • Shoulder chops, also called blade and arm chops, require a shorter amount of cooking time than other cuts, making them an economical and flavorful choice for quick and easy meals.
  • Loin chops, sometimes called T-bone chops, are lean, tender and flavorful and are one of the most readily available cuts at the grocery store and butcher shop.
  • Lamb shanks are lean and flavorful, and practically melt off the bone when they are slow cooked.
  • Lamb leg is the leanest lamb cut and can be prepared with or without the bone. The bone adds both flavor and richness to the meat.
  • Ground lamb is mellow and mildly flavored, making it the perfect substitute for ground beef in many recipes. It contains lean meat and trimmings from the leg, loin, rib, shoulder, flank, neck, breast or shank.

Culinary Uses

  • Fresh lamb should be stored in the refrigerator at 32°F to 38° Freeze at 0°F or below.
  • Tougher cuts of meat from working muscles, such as the shoulder and leg, have more connective tissue and are less tender. They should be prepared using moist-heat cooking methods, such as braising or stewing.
  • More tender cuts of meat, such as rack or loin, should be prepared using dry-heat cooking methods such as roasting or grilling.
  • Lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F for medium-rare, 160°F for medium, and 170°F for well done. Ground lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.
  • Remember, the lamb will continue to cook slightly upon standing, so remove it from the heat source at a somewhat lower temperature than you prefer.
  • To help with moisture retention and tenderness, let lamb stand for 5 to 15 minutes before slicing.
  • A boneless leg is a favorite of many chefs because it can be stuffed with a range of ingredients or simply roasted and sliced.
  • Tying a lamb roast helps to maintain a consistent shape and cook evenly.
  • Some top flavors that complement the flavor of American lamb are mustard, rosemary, lemon, garlic, mint and harissa.

Interesting Facts

 There are more than six million sheep in the U.S. and more than 80,000 sheep farms and ranches that are mostly family-owned and operated.

  • Meat from a sheep less than one year of age is called lamb. Meat from an older animal is referred to as mutton.
  • No artificial growth hormones are used in lamb production in the United States.
  • Many cities, municipalities, forests and even vineyards use sheep for land management purposes, including weed control, crop clean up and to prevent forest fires.
  • Shepherds often use guard animals, such as dogs, llamas and donkeys, to help protect their flocks.

About the American Lamb Board

The American Lamb Board is an industry-funded research and promotions commodity board that represents all sectors of the American Lamb industry including producers, feeders, seed stock producers and processors. The Board, appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, is focused on increasing demand by promoting the freshness, flavor, nutritional benefits and culinary versatility of American Lamb. The work on the American Lamb Board is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Board’s programs are supported and implemented by the staff in Denver, Colorado.

Check out “Curriculamb,” a FREE comprehensive culinary education resource on American lamb and has been ACF-approved for 4.5 continuing education hours.

Seasons of Wisconsin Cheese: Winter

Winter calls for comfort foods like rich cheeses that pair well with seasonal accompaniments and an after dinner nightcap. To mark the first day of winter, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board wants to help you build the perfect winter cheeseboard.

Step 1:
Start with a 5-year-aged Wisconsin cheddar. Not only is this cheese complementary to most accompaniments, it also goes great alongside a glass of warming scotch or brandy.

Step 2:
Add a hard cheese like Wisconsin Parmesan, for its granular texture and salty taste. Pair it with cranberry-orange compote, fresh pomegranate seeds or grapes to balance the saltiness with sweet flavors.


Step: 3
Creamy, soft-ripened cheese, like Wisconsin brie is also a great winter selection because it’s buttery and earthy with a touch of sweetness. Brie is also great for pairing with savory items like salami or with sweet items like sugared cranberries.

Step 4:
Round out your winter cheese sections with a semi-hard variety, such as Wisconsin edam. Nutty and buttery in taste, edam is mild enough for all palates. Pair it with a more flavorful accompaniment, like a panforte made with dried fruits, nuts and spices.

For more inspiration visit Wisconsin Cheese Foodservice.

Want to learn more about cheese pairings? The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board will be at ChefConnect: Chicago and ChefConnect: NYC to do a tasting with Wisconsin Cheddar and Kentucky bourbon.

Register now to reserve your spot!