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Chef Lee Sepaniac Dishes on the Sweet, Savory and Spicy of Modern Mexican Fare

Chef Lee Sepaniac Dishes on the Sweet, Savory and Spicy of Modern Mexican Fare

For Chef Lee Sepaniac, of Gourmet Food Service Group, the allure of Mexican food lies in its versatility and capacity for creativity. Whether street food or fine-dining cuisine, classic or cutting edge, it always manages to impart a sense of vitality and warmth.

“I love all of the flavors and different spices they have, and I don’t just mean peppers,” he says. “They’re using bitter chocolate and adding sweet spices like cinnamon to savory dishes, and I appreciate the playfulness of putting pretty much anything in a taco.”

For 2019, Sepaniac sees chefs in Mexican restaurants continuing to push boundaries, as a focus on fundamentals meets tantalizing new ideas for ingredients, preparation and plating.

Restaurant Inc.: What trends are you seeing in Mexican food this year?

Chef Lee Sepaniac: Chefs are recalling very traditional roots to Spanish and/or Cuban ingredients with things like white anchovies, epazote and culantro, but they’re using them in a modern presentation. I’m also seeing the fusion of Mexican with different styles of cuisine.

RI: What kinds of fusion are you seeing?

LS: All kinds, from American to Cuban to Asian. Even Peruvian. People are putting lots of different things on tacos and empanadas. I’ve even seen Korean flavors on a taco. It translates into a fun, elevated and modern take.

RI: Tell me about the Korean taco and other versions you’ve seen.

LS: It was a Korean gochujang (red chili paste) taco. A restaurant was doing it, and I tried it and it was awesome. Vegetarian tacos are gaining in popularity as well. In the Midwest, I’ve seen what’s basically a loaded baked potato in a taco. I’ve seen tater tots inside a taco—they dressed it up with hatch green chilies and a lime-cilantro crema. I’ve seen barbecue pork, and there’s even a Creole influence with things like po’ boy tacos.

RI: How are these new dishes served?

LS: They’re mostly based on street food, so they lend themselves to a small-plate setting. Restaurants are moving away from big piles of white rice, refried beans, shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes on every plate. You could do an enchilada, but serve it with a traditional grain instead of white rice and an heirloom bean done in a different preparation, or with a Spanish chorizo.

RI: Are there any new ingredients in the Mexican pantry to take a look at?

LS: The use of dried hibiscus flower is trending. It’s typically made into a sweetened tea. Other interesting items are nopales (cactus), huitlacoche, which is corn smut, different olives and regional Mexican cheeses, like Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheeses.

RI: How about those Mexican spices?

LS: It seems like every month we are on to the next hottest pepper. That’s always fun if you don’t want to taste anything for a week after! But just because the pepper is super-hot it doesn’t mean that the sauce it’s made with has to be extremely hot to feature the flavor. And a lot of these hotter peppers have an interesting and complex fruity and vegetable flavor in the background. But yeah, the super-spicy stuff is out there.

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