"I've always had a passion for food and embrace the ever-changing culinary terrain," says chef Gail Cunningham.
Responsible for concept development and implementation of culinary programs for foodservice and national account segments at Springfield, Mo.-based Noble & Associates, a pre-eminent advertising and food marketing firm, the soft-spoken Cunningham has an enthusiasm for her life's work that is contagious.
"It's an exciting time to be a chef. We have access to global foods previously not available, patrons with more sophisticated palates and a better knowledge of food, and new ethnic influences. Chefs have more opportunities than ever before to explore new techniques, new flavors and new forms that fit our mobile society," says Cunningham, who also is a member of the Research Chefs Association (RCA).
Cunningham's title -- culinary creative director/corporate development chef -- is quite a mouthful, but with more than 25 years experience in foodservice -- 12 them with Noble's Culinary Group -- she wears many hats and is charged with many duties. She heads up national account menu analysis; strategy and positioning; product placement and new menu development; concept and recipe development for foodservice and home meal replacement (HMR) programs; and new product development for foodservice and retail. She also was instrumental in the creation and maintenance of Noble's Greenhouse Market, a HMR operation that includes an on-premise cafe; grab-and-go prepared meals; chef's case-prepared food; a drive-thru menu; a catering program and holiday-bundled HMR programs.
Cunningham is a gem in the crown of Noble, which is ranked as one of the Top 100 agencies in the U.S. by Adweek and one of the Top 15 by PROMO. Noble represents many of the nation's leading companies and brands, including Basic American Foods, Campbell's, DuPont Packaging, Iams Pet Foods, Krispy Kreme, Reckitt Benckiser, Smucker's, Tyson and Uncle Ben's.
A multi-disciplinary approach
"We take a multi-disciplinary team approach to any type of product development, whether the food is a menu item on the foodservice side or a retail packaged good on the consumer side," explains Cunningham. "The key is to stay focused on the customer. That sounds so cliche, but it's imperative in product development."
Coming up with new products is always a challenge for Cunningham and her team, which describes her as very dedicated, industrious, even-tempered and smart. And she has a great sense of humor. "Staying in touch with consumer trends is the basis for all that we do," she explains. "We're constantly reviewing newspapers, business journals, epicurean magazines, teen magazines, trade journals, and Webs sites to assimilate all of the information we can about the needs and desires that drive purchase behavior among consumers. Our culinary team also regularly meets with a host of consumer and food-trend experts at Noble, including the editor of Noble's Food Channel Trendwire; the director of consumer insights; our food technologists and scientists; our team of professional chefs; and our corporate research professionals. By continually staying on top of trends, we can better formulate new products that meet a specific need."
To keep up on food trends and consumer behavior, her team also consults with a network of top culinary professionals across the U.S., and samples retail and foodservice venues in key food "hot spots" such as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and New Orleans.
Just as important are the countless hours her team spends in real-world food environments, both on the retail and foodservice side, Cunningham says. "Noble has extensive culinary facilities, including an aseptic test kitchen for nutritional testing, simulated home kitchens and a full-service restaurant facility used exclusively for test product concepts."
Since Noble is involved in nutritional testing, we asked if clients are more concerned about nutrition today and if she has changed her approach to menu development.
"For many decades, a sizeable segment of society has been concerned with nutrition in one way or another -- calories, sodium, sugar, fats and so forth," Cunningham replies. "As research on food and its link to overall health has become more reported in the past decade, clients have become more concerned with nutritional issues. As it is for the consumer, so it must be for the manufacturer. Otherwise, products lack relevance. Then again, there is another sizeable segment of society that really doesn't focus on nutrition at all. We saw this indulgent sector coming on strong four to five years ago and it remains a viable market today. Ultimately, it boils down to understanding your target audience."
The process of new product development hasn't so much changed as become more refined over the years, she observes. "We've always known it was important to understand all the issues impacting consumers as a way of understanding food trends. Our methodology has changed over the years based on what consumers need and want. We develop products that meet changing consumer needs, but the way we go about it has been a winning formula for Noble for several years."
Flavor trends fall into several categories, says Cunningham.
"Comfort flavors saw a resurgence following September 11. With turmoil over the economy and national security, they won't be going away any time soon," says Cunningham. "Comfort flavors are those that evoke positive emotional responses associated with early eating patterns. Today's comfort flavors have evolved with immigration patterns to encompass Hispanic, African and Asian ingredients. Basics include: sage, parsley, chives, salt, pepper, but also, chilies, cilantro, caraway, fennel, couscous, teriyaki and soy."
"We also see continued popularity in the favored ethnic cuisines from the past decade: Italian, Mexican and Chinese," she says. "What we've seen over the past few years is a splintering of these cuisines into Pan-Asian (lemongrass, ginger, cilantro), Nuevo Latino Hispanic (black beans, chilies, corn), and Pan Med Rim (couscous, risotto, regional pasta sauces)."
"Family-driven and value-conscious consumers have patronized the quick casual segment in droves," Cunningham points out. "Chains such as Chipotle Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, PF Chang's and TGI Fridays have proliferated nationwide. If you look at the cross-section of menus from this segment, you'll find common flavor favorites -- Buffalo, barbecue, Caesar and Cajun."
Cunningham believes that "flavor adventure" is the key to understanding future flavor trends. "As dealing with concerns over the economy and national security become routine, we'll look to simple pleasures, like food, to provide an affordable respite. Continued borrowing of ethnic flavors from countries like Thailand, Morocco, India, Korea and Vietnam will lead these adventures of the palate. We'll also see continued interest in regional South American cuisines, and as these cultures collide, foods that are increasingly hot as hell."
Consumers will also continue to seek out "exotic experiences" with food as part of this adventure, predicts Cunningham. "This will encompass such things as organic food, heirloom varieties, and ethnic ingredients in traditional dishes."
As for future ingredient trends, Cunningham says to watch for flavored tomato sauces and chile pastes, barbacoa, cilantro, carnitas, green chiles, ginger, soy, tropical fruits for salsas and sauces, savory spices in desserts, and sweet dessert spices in entrees. "Adventures of the palate will also include combinations of contrasting textures and preparation methods, with condiments being the preferred vehicle for flavors (mayonnaises, mustards and salts)."
Describing her typical day, Cunningham says Noble's mantra is to "embrace change!" since project parameters, timelines, and products invariably will on a daily basis. "My typical day starts early morning," she says. "I catch up on email, skim a couple of publications and answer phone calls before everyone gets into the Culinary Center. Then we typically have status and update meetings for all the projects going through culinary."
At any given time, Cunningham's team researches flavor profiles or consumer trends, develops written concepts for both consumer and foodservice products, and tests those products in the kitchen.
"The Culinary Center is always buzzing with activity, as one group may be presenting concepts in one of our kitchen facilities, while another may be performing nutritional evaluation in the aseptic test kitchen, and still another conducting taste tests of product prototypes in the dining room," says Cunningham. "Always so much activity and happening at a very fast pace."
Another important aspect of Cunningham's job is making food and consumer trend presentations to the account management and creative teams at Noble -- information they use when formulating marketing messages. "These same types of presentations are given to clients as we move into the formative stages of concepting a new product," she explains. "One thing we all have in common -- the chefs, food technologists and food scientists -- is that we're often here well into the evening. It's hard to stop right in the middle of prototype development or taste testing. So, we're much like a big family."
Side Bar: FP: What ingredients do you always keep in your pantry/refrigerator? GC: Big bold-flavored condiments such as Asian sweet chile sauce, wasabi paste and balsamic vinegar; wonderful cheeses such as Cambazola, Fontina and Parmigiana Reggiano; sweet red bell peppers; shallots and garlic; Arborio rice; chicken stock and lots of Gatorade (I have two teenage boys). FP: What are your favorite foods (when someone else is cooking)? GC: All things spicy including regional Mexican cuisine, Szechwan chicken, anything Thai, fresh spring rolls and homemade tamales.
FP: What ingredients do you always keep in your pantry/refrigerator?
GC: Big bold-flavored condiments such as Asian sweet chile sauce, wasabi paste and balsamic vinegar; wonderful cheeses such as Cambazola, Fontina and Parmigiana Reggiano; sweet red bell peppers; shallots and garlic; Arborio rice; chicken stock and lots of Gatorade (I have two teenage boys).
FP: What are your favorite foods (when someone else is cooking)?
GC: All things spicy including regional Mexican cuisine, Szechwan chicken, anything Thai, fresh spring rolls and homemade tamales.