The (culinary) road less traveled

A career in business consulting and management may be an unorthodox route to a culinary career, but it worked for Harry Crane, executive chef & culinary manager of Kraft Foodservice.

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By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

It's not often that a career in business consulting and management leads one to a passionate calling for the culinary world, but that's what happened to Harry Crane, executive chef & culinary manager, Kraft Foodservice, Northfield, Ill.

Crane’s dual expertise in management and culinary arts made him the perfect candidate for his position. After spending time as a head chef, he joined Kraft Foodservice to support the company’s foodservice efforts. He leads a three-member team of full-time chefs, who also tap into external consultants as needed.

"As head chefs go, I'm fairly tolerant and easygoing," says Crane. "My basic management theory is that everyone wants to do and tries to do a good job. As a manager, my job is to give people the tools and direction they need and let them do their job without too much interference."
Top of his toque

Chef Harry Crane took the long way around to culinary arts, with side trips on teaching and management consulting tracks.

FC: What is your personal formula, vision on food and lifestyle?

HC: I might fit into the flexitarian category. When I'm working or trying a new restaurant, I eat foods containing quite a bit of fat. At home, I try to eat a low-fat, vegetarian diet -- with lots of vegetables, fruits and fish -- my attempt at a balanced diet. My wife Andrea is a good cook. Her specialty is stir frys and vegetarian pasta dishes, but she complains that I monopolize the kitchen.

FC: What's your specialty?

HC: Asian, Thai, Chinese or French Provencal. I also enjoy making Mediterranean recipes that use olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes.

FC: What ingredients do you always keep in your refrigerator?

HC: A1 Sauce, Grey Poupon, Thai fish sauce, Black Bean Sauce, Oyster Sauce, imported olives, eggs and Catalina dressing. It's great on a salad and as an ingredient for a good Asian dressing or marinade. My wife loves Cherry Jell-O, so we always have a supply along with Cool Whip; that's dessert most nights.

FC: What are some of your favorite foods (when others are cooking for you)?

HC: When we go out, I like to eat something I don’t cook -- Japanese, for example. I don't have the time or equipment at home to make it. I also like to try ethnic foods -- Greek, authentic Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern.

FC: If you couldn’t be a chef, what would you do for a living?

HC: I started out to be a college professor, so I would probably be a teacher. It's rewarding to help people open their minds and expand their horizons. I still teach weekend classes for consumers at Kendall. And I get to teach in my job -- living both dreams, so to speak.

Kraft to the core: “My wife loves Cherry Jell-O. Along with Cool Whip, that’s dessert most nights.”

 


Crane's group is focused on the company’s foodservice customers, primarily restaurants, hotels, university cafeterias and business and industry outlets. While they work in conjunction with their peers in the Kraft Food Ingredients and Research and Development divisions, their work is quite separate.

"We integrate products," he explains. "For instance, while my Ingredients colleagues may use an A1 or Grey Poupon flavor or a cheese powder for a customer, we use the actual product that we sell into our foodservice accounts.” The group is also separate from Kraft’s R&D Division. “The chef there comes up with the next type of new pizza,” says Crane, “while we work with outside customers to customize DiGiorno Rising Crust Pizza for their establishments."

Chef Crane took the road less traveled to follow his dream for cuisine. With plans of teaching upper mind, he attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Northwestern University School of Management in Chicago. He went into management consulting and along with his wife, Andrea, built a thriving consulting practice. But his culinary yearnings led him astray, so to speak, to Paris to study at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, followed by his return to the U.S. to continue his education at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. and Kendall College in Evanston, Ill.

Putting his global training to good use, Crane returned to the Midwest to don his chef's toque at the famed French restaurant Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights, Ill., where he earned accolades from the country's most discerning restaurant critics. He also embarked on a teaching career at The School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, where he still shares his expertise.

Today, Crane interacts with Kraft brand managers to integrate their products into foodservice applications, while he develops recipes for customers and provides top-notch culinary advice. He says his culinary style and philosophy are partly due to the mentoring he received by French Master chef Pierre Pollin.

"He taught me to use the highest-quality seasonal ingredients, apply the appropriate method and technique and serve the foods in a simple, uncomplicated manner," Crane says. "His theory was to just do what is required to bring out the natural flavors in ingredients."

Simple but delicious is still his mantra. "We most often work with products that are commercialized," explains Crane. "That includes almost anything we sell in the foodservice channel, which covers much of our retail portfolio. We're a leading coffee company, so we've worked on matching desserts with coffee flavors and developed unique seasonal drinks. Louis Rich Turkey, which is naturally lower in fat, is an excellent ingredient in sandwiches. Most recently, our focus is salads. Many customers want salads with certain characteristics -- low-fat, low-carb or seasonal -- so we incorporate our flavor enhancing products, like A.I. or Grey Poupon, or Kraft BBQ Sauce. Customers interested in health and wellness have asked us to develop many desserts this year. A great solution is to incorporate our Crystal Light Soft Drink Mix or our sugar-free Jell-O Gelatin to add great fruit flavors without added fat or calories."

Crane recently came across some '50s cookbooks and was amused to find that he is developing similar Jell-O recipes -- albeit more contemporary -- today. "Some customers, especially in the business and industry (B&I) segment, want to include healthy snacks and to–go items using fruit. I've been working with Jell-O, and people love those recipes. There is no typical day for Crane, whose work revolves around four areas. “We work with customers and their challenges and requests,” he explains. “Our team also works hand in hand with Kraft Foodservice brand managers to incorporate their products in recipes that are on-trend and appropriate for a variety of foodservice formats. We collaborate closely with our new product developers and help manage some of the market research for our division, as Kraft has an excellent reputation for providing updated trend information and proprietary research to our customers."

He might spend time at a customer location with other corporate chefs to head a workshop, or spend the entire day in the Kraft Kitchens. "Recently, we hosted all the Kraft summer MBA interns," says Crane. "We bring them together each year for an Iron Chef competition. Put into groups and coached by our chefs, the students have to come up with foodservice ideas, a marketing plan and are then judged by a panel.

Teaming up is the way to go

Developing new products is a team effort. "The Kraft category or brand manager responsible for Philadelphia brand cream cheese asks us to develop recipes that focus on the attributes of Philly as an ingredient, rather than a bagel spread,” says Crane. “We collaborate on what needs to be done. One of our team might work on that project. Then, we all get back together to look at the outcome."

Crane's team also develops ideas for customers. "A national chain restaurant might be working on a promotion for seasonal salads," says Crane. "To start, we work as a group, and then someone takes the lead to develop concepts. We all get back together and work on the recipes. We look at their ingredient line, the way they plate food, and their individual needs."

Recipe development for the Kraft Foodservice website (www.kraftfoodservice.com), available to any restaurant customer, is another high priority job for the team. "Having access to a broad range of flavors and cuisines makes it possible for us to post some 1,000 recipes and update the site quarterly," says Crane, adding that it includes "recipes appropriate for any foodservice establishment, from a fine dining restaurant, to a fast-casual establishment, to the corner hot dog stand."

Developing 1,000 recipes is no simple task, so where do those ideas come from, we asked. "I'm a great reader," replies Crane. "I look at the trades (including Food Creation) consumer and overseas magazines to keep up. If you went to culinary school back in '60s and learned to prepare a good filet, a good Béarnaise sauce and a nice potato, you were set. Now, we hear, 'what else have you got?' Our chefs evaluate restaurants, particularly those we've spotted as on-trend or unusual, and write reviews for our sales force -- it's our internal Zagat.”

Crane enjoys traveling to experience different cuisines. “My wife and I visited China, France and South America among others,” he says. “I tell my students that while they’re young and don't have kids with braces, they should take any opportunity to travel. There's nothing better than seeing a cuisine where it's served. You can get Thai in the U.S., but there's nothing like eating it in Thailand."

Low-carb frenzy or fad

"Many people have been counting carbs, but it's only gotten a lot of media attention recently," observes Crane. "I don’t think it’s going away. Remember the low-fat craze a few years ago, when the food industry came out with low-fat and fat-free products? Carb counting is similar. Demand from consumers will continue, but probably at a slower pace so there is certainly an opportunity for companies to develop low-carb products. Kraft introduced a line of CarbWell salad dressings this year. We’re also developing a line of new products with Dr. Agatston of the South Beach Diet. But many of our products already work for cutting carbs -- sugar-free gelatin, bacon, and cheese. Every year, hundreds of products come out and many go by the wayside. At Kraft, developing really good products that meet a need is why we are in business."

It may seem that Crane took the road less traveled to arrive at his goal, but he's in the right place at the right time doing what he most enjoys. "I use everything I’ve ever learned," he says. "I cook, run a business, write and research. I love this job."

Waxing and waning trends

Each year, Kraft compiles a Foodcast Trend Report, supported by a national ingredients study, for major customers. “We list about 250 items, from wasabi to Hunan cuisine,” explains Crane. “We ask a national panel of consumers if they are familiar with each item, have they used it in the past six months, and do they plan to use it in the next six months. In our last report, we compared the results with those of the previous two years, to determine which items jumped the most in intent to use.”

Some 90 percent of respondents will always use American cheese, but grilled and roasted vegetables experienced the sharpest rise, observes Crane. "Consumers want bold flavors and vegetables are low in carbs, fresh and healthful," he says. "We don't sell grilled and roasted vegetables, but we do sell salad dressings and other flavor enhancers. Wrap sandwiches also jumped, as did organic products. They weren't at the top of more than 50 percent of respondents' lists, but the percent increase was very high. All of us look at secondary anecdotal data, but this is hard data that we can track over time to see how ingredients are waxing and waning."

One of the biggest changes, according to Crane, is interest in good-for-me products. "In past years, consumers said they were interested, but we didn’t see as much intent to try them,” emphasizes Crane. “That's a major shift in consumers' attitudes about their eating habits; they are taking action. We recently spoke with a group of chefs and asked them to identify items as healthful or not. One chef said in the past, if he had an item on the menu and wanted to get rid of it, he identified it as healthful and it didn’t sell. Clearly that is changing!”

Fat, not carbs, was the major concern for most respondents; they want to eat less of it. "The consuming public is not monolithic," Crane emphasizes. "The more choices that people have, the more they will try. People are much more willing to try new foods than they were even 10 years ago. It's great for chefs and food companies."

"National menu development in foodservice will still be influenced by the big three cuisines -- Italian, Chinese and Mexican," acknowledges Crane. "Our research confirmed that. It's notable that some items like Chinese egg rolls had a much higher intent to try than an Asian egg roll. Chinese still has more of a recognition factor among consumers.

"Southwestern, Greek and Japanese had the most momentum and growth since the last survey," he continues. Although not the most popular, they showed the highest increase in intent to try. I think we'll see many Greek items going forward because of the Olympics. On national chain menus, expect to see -- say an Olympic salad. You can talk to that."

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