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In a World... Without Eggs

As the vice president of strategy for a $1 billion food service company, it's my job to anticipate any developing scenarios that might affect our business, such as unprecedented egg shortages that would unfold in short order. But what happened next surprised me.
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[Imagine movie-trailer, deep baritone:] "In a world where 48 million chickens have been destroyed..."

It sounds like the teaser for a science-fiction or horror movie, but it also happens to be the opening line of a recent all-staff newsletter I sent out about the impact of avian influenza (commonly known as 'bird flu').

Luckily, as summer blockbusters have reminded us week in and week out, every massive box office success worth its salt comes with a hero who saves the day. In this 'movie,' however -- let's call it A World Without Eggs -- we have not just one, but many, heroes who have helped save the day.

As the vice president of strategy for a $1 billion food service company, it's my job to anticipate any developing scenarios that might affect our business. So, when I became aware of the predictions that unprecedented egg shortages and price increases would unfold in short order (which they did), I simply responded, "We'll have to tell the chefs to think of alternatives to eggs," kind of like Captain Picard says "Make it so." (Did I just liken myself to Patrick Stewart? Yes. Yes, I did.)

Of course, I knew that was easier said than done.

But what happened next surprised me. Knowing that eggs are a crucial ingredient in baking, I turned to my colleague Jim Dodge, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of ovens (and an old friend of the ultimate culinary superhero, Julia Child). This Jedi Master quickly gave me a list of scrumptious-sounding desserts that required absolutely zero eggs, from almond Florentines to chocolate truffles and fruit-filled puff-pastry tarts. YUM.

So far, our previously uncharted course through a galaxy without eggs saw no sign of threats from the dessert Death Star. But what in the universe would we do about breakfast? We serve more than a million breakfasts a week, and I feared widespread uprisings, from Tatooine to Naboo if we had to cut eggs from our morning menus.

So, like Daniel LaRusso seeking out Asian traditions to fight the bad guys in The Karate Kid, our chefs began looking for ways to wax off eggs from their shopping lists. How? By menuing traditional ethnic cuisines that don't include eggs. I turned to my colleagues (Mr. & Mrs. Miyagis, all of them), for guidance. The award-winning chef and cookbook author Raghavan Iyer, who partners with us for culinary trainings, pointed out that in India people start their days with dishes such as savory cream of wheat with vegetables, steamed rice-lentil cakes and crepes, and chickpea flour crepes with chilis and onion, or besan cheela. Other chefs are serving jook, a savory Chinese rice porridge. Michael Cleary, our executive chef at St. John's College, also uses the gluten-free chickpea flour in the Mediterranean omelet-like dishes socca and farinata.

Learning a lesson from George Clooney's attempt to play Batman (have I taken the movie analogy too far?), my heroes do warn about the peril in replacing a known star of the show. The keys to winning over your audience? Go heavy into regional authenticity and offering exciting sides, whether cilantro-coconut chutney or tzatziki.

Many chefs pointed out that by replacing scrambled eggs and omelets -- with savory stratas, casseroles, quiche, and tarts -- we could reduce our egg usage by 60 to 70 percent, because eggs are only 30 to 40 percent of the liquid ingredients in the custard base. Plus, these dishes are also a great way to utilize leftover vegetables and meat, and reduce food cost. Just as everyone watches box office returns (sorry, can't resist one more movie reference), our chefs do track their financial performance.

Please don't mistake my levity for callousness: Avian flu is a terrible thing -- the loss of so many birds' lives is a tragedy. But, as the theme song from long-ago summer blockbuster The Jewel of the Nile reminds us, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." I think our efforts to make our way in A World Without Eggs would make Billy Ocean proud.

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