Nation’s Restaurant News celebrated culinary excellence Saturday night at its annual MenuMasters Awards gala, which featured some of the industry’s biggest names and brands.
The spirited MenuMasters party, held at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, showcased celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who was inducted into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame, as well as Scott Davis, Panera Bread Co.’s chief concept officer, who picked up the Innovator Award. In addition, five restaurant chains and a university food service operation were honored for forward-thinking menu excellence.
The MenuMasters Awards are produced by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods LLC.
“It’s about teamwork. It’s about innovation,” said Chris Keating, Nation’s Restaurant News’s associate publisher, who served as emcee at the celebration. “It’s all about the food.”
This year’s winners — Subway, Panda Express, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Old Chicago, Shari’s and UMass Dining — offered samples of their award-winning dishes at the celebration.
RELATED: Read all about this year’s winners
Panda Express won the Best New Menu Item award for its honey walnut shrimp. Andy Kao, Panda Express executive chef, oversaw the dish’s addition to the chain’s menu. It proved to be a huge hit as Panda Express expects to sell nearly 9 million pounds of shrimp at its 1,400 units in 38 states.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen won the honor of Best Limited Time Offer with its Wicked Chicken, which is sliced thinner than the brand’s traditional tenders.
“It’s humbling and gives credibility to what we do,” said Amy Alarcon, director of culinary innovation for the 1,900-unit chain.
While the chain may be known for its “Louisiana fast” cuisine, Popeyes slow-marinates the Wicked Chicken in hot sauce.
“We take our time,” she said before the ceremony began.
The Menu Trendsetter award went to the University of Massachusetts Dining, which on Saturday doled out shrimp, salmon and scallops, with a mango salad and carrot cake muffins. Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary services for UMass, called it the “Stealth Health program.”
UMass bought 25 percent of its produce from local farmers, cut sodium 30 percent, served lobster on Halloween as part of an “All Treat No Tricks” celebration and included flaxseed in its carrot cake muffins.
“College dining is not what it used to be,” Toong told the packed room at The Drake.
Old Chicago Restaurant, the 100-unit casual pizza and pasta chain, drew Best Menu Revamp honors for a streamlined menu that debuted last year. The sweeping menu changes involved removing 22 items, revising 13 and adding 17 new items.
Mike Thom, culinary/research and development director for the Louisville, Colo.-based chain, dished out plates of steak salad at the MenuMasters party. He said three calzones added in May 2010 highlighted the menu facelift.
Shari’s, a Northwestern chain of 104 units based in Beaverton, Ore., won the Best Menu/Line Extension award for celebrating Oregon’s famous fresh blackberry season by using blackberries in its whole blackberry cobbler pie, blackberry cream cheese pie, fresh blackberry lemonade and fresh blackberry pie milk shakes.
“Blackberries are a real popular seasonal fruit in Oregon,” said Kevin Bechtel, Shari’s vice president of menu development. July and August are the premier blackberry months in Oregon, he added.
The Healthful Innovations award went to Subway for its breakfast menu, which rolled out nationwide last year after 15 years of development. The Build Your Better Breakfast program allows customers to customize their breakfast sandwiches with more healthful options, such as egg whites and light wheat English muffins.
“We strive for quality. We strive for a healthy breakfast,” said Chris Martone, corporate executive chef for the 34,601-unit chain.
The Innovator award went to Davis, Panera Bread’s chief concept officer who spearheaded the prototype bakery-café model in 1996 for Saint Louis Bread Co., which became Panera Bread. Davis, 47, is a 24-year industry veteran who began as a store manager before he helped build the template for the fast-casual bakery-café. The first Panera debuted in Chicago in 1996.
“We created a model that could work in the rest of the country,” he said before the ceremony.
Davis said the combination of creating a great guest experience in its restaurants with touches like fireplaces and leather chairs while offering innovative food, like sandwiches made with fresh basil, propelled Panera to become an industry leader.
“We organized around the philosophy of putting the customer first,” he said.
As Colicchio was inducted into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame, he joked that when someone gets inducted into a Hall of Fame, they’re usually retired. However, with two small kids, Colicchio said would not be retiring any time soon.
Colicchio has a rich and long history of innovative culinary work on his resume, which included making a kitchen debut at age 17 at Evelyn’s Seafood Restaurant in his native Elizabeth, N.J.; opening Gramercy Tavern in New York City; serving as chef and owner of the Craft family of restaurants; and being the head judge of Bravo’s Top Chef.
In an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News before the ceremony, Colicchio said, “It’s a culmination of my career. These awards are like a scorecard. But it’s all about giving back to the industry.”
Indeed, after he received his Hall of Fame honor, Colicchio told the crowd that he loved working on a team toward a common cause and that, at the end, it was all about “making people happy.”
Contact Alan Snel at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @AlanSnelNRN