Kerry Americas Chef Prefers Fresh Ingredients and Simplicity

After 25 years in the food industry, Danny Bruns, corporate chef for the seasonings division of Kerry Americas, has no patience for labor-intensive recipes or confusion cuisine.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Danny Bruns, CRC, CCC and corporate chef for the past six years at the seasonings division of Beloit, Wis.-based Kerry Americas, prefers using fresh ingredients and simplicity in both preparation and flavoring.

Bruns, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1982, attributes his career to an accidental but fortuitous experience. "My first job at 16 was washing dishes in a restaurant," he says. "My mom cooked every night, but I really didn't have an interest in food, other than eating it. When I enrolled at CIA, I didn't know what a roux was," laughs Bruns, who is quick with both wit and cooking style. "In and out of the skillet" is his motto. "I'm not a crock pot kind of guy," he states.

After graduation, Bruns donned his toque at the Cincinnati Hilton's Gourmet Room, Jeff Ruby's Waterfront Restaurant in Covington, Ky., and the award-winning Aspen, Colo., bistro, Cache Cache. He earned his corporate stripes with a B.S in hospitality management from Florida International University in Miami, a stint as the first corporate chef at Arby's Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and work in the R&D department at Emmpak Foods (now Cargill), Milwaukee.

An active member and Certified Research Chef of the Research Chefs Association, Atlanta, and Certified Chef de Cuisine by the American Culinary Federation, Bruns brings a wealth of culinary expertise to Kerry's new product development team. "I spend a good deal of my time working on meat, poultry and snack business, then the rest in foodservice," he says.

"Suppliers spend thousands of dollars on R&D, so predicting major trends is crucial," Bruns emphasizes. Adding healthier foods, immigration and the incorporation of authentic ingredients into products are important long-term, he notes. "Those trends are more relevant than whether bay leaf is popular," he explains. "If my parents start talking about a food trend, I know it's mainstream. Plus you can watch the Food Network and we all have instant access to the Internet, which propels trends in faster cycles."

Creating Wow

"According to our ongoing trend studies, people seek exotic flavors," says Bruns. "This ties in with the increasing demand for foreign fruits and vegetables found in upscale markets. Exotic Asian flavors have been in demand for some time, but now it's sub-region tastes, be it Vietnamese fish sauce or galango (also called galangal) from Southeast Asia. We're all delving deeper into these flavors; its not just wasabi or cilantro anymore."

Bruns is convinced the real trend is not particular components but bold ingredients incorporated into foods that "shout out" how flavorful they are. "Bold flavors include varieties of chili peppers, strong herbs such as rosemary or lemongrass, hot mustards and cinnamon as a warm spice, which gives you slight heat and sweetness," he says. He describes such flavors as having "Wow! factor."

"There's so much buzz to wade through, but the trend is high flavor -- little tastes or little bites of flavor, say a cheesecake with a slight garnish or sauce on the side, which blows away familiar memories and gives a whole new taste experience."

Looking into his crystal ball for the cuisines that will influence menu development, Bruns doesn't hesitate: "Asian and Indian," he says. "Even here in Brookfield, Wis., there are two Indian bistros. We're all somewhat familiar with the ingredients in Indian food, but what's different is the preparation, appearance or twist on taste.

"Many influences move something from a fad, the latest buzz or crowd-mover, to a trend," says Bruns. "We have more Asians, Indians and Hispanics living in the U.S. than we did in 1996, so immigration is a key influence." Hispanic influence in restaurants and the retail market is mainstream, continues Bruns, who points to influences from Cuba and South America — including Brazil, with the success in the U.S of the Fogo de Chao chain. "Hispanic influences will continue to grow; people are incorporating indigenous products into authentic dishes. Even McDonald's in Miami serves Cuban sandwiches. Chef Douglas Rodriguez (of Ola, Miami and New York, and Alma de Cuba, Philadelphia) created interest in authentic Cuban food (sometimes called Nuevo Latino)."

Where does Bruns look for new ideas? "I look to trade magazines and other media," he says. "If I turn around three times in a day and see three references to a trend, I want to find out what's causing that focus. I watch what other chefs are doing — they're the first level of product introduction into high-end restaurants. Those flavors then reach casual and QSR (quick-serve restaurants). I gather and sift through information, then see what's feasible for us to incorporate into a serving method or a style.

"That's what we demonstrated at the Institute of Food Technologists show. We served a traditional type product in a hand-held or user-friendly way that can be adapted for mainstream users."

Chefs whom Bruns recognizes as pioneers include Bradley Ogden (of Bradley Ogden, Las Vegas), who presents local and regional organic foods, and Douglas Rodriguez. "I liken a great chef to a great coach, who can work with either great or mediocre players and get a perfect result. A truly innovative great chef can work with a button mushroom or truffle, pork butt or pork tenderloin and make it into an unbelievable finished product. You don't have to have the most expensive ingredients; you can use simple ingredients and create a Wow! factor of little surprises."

A Balance Of Culinary And Science

Bruns credits Kerry food scientists for where he is today. "They furthered my career more than I could have envisioned by exposing me to different markets and industries," he says.

Operations in the industrial kitchen are the same as those in a restaurant, Bruns states. "When you cook you use recipes, and you layer ingredients when you formulate. It may be dry spices in a bowl or ingredients in a pan, but the process is pretty much the same.

"Building flavors has been a natural progression for me — and also an enjoyable one. The Kerry teams taught me a great deal about formulation, blends and percentages. They look at function and formula and I see creative flavor; it's a great balance of science and culinary," he affirms.

"I'm less stressed in a corporate environment," Bruns continues. "I learned in the trenches for 10 years - the whole realm of operations, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I appreciate this atmosphere, which provides me with a well-rounded, balanced life. It's more conducive to creativity. You can manage deadlines, plan and still have time to be creative and find solutions.

"This career is so rewarding," he enthuses, "because it gives me the ability to create and cook as much as I want. I develop products and see them through to the market and I get the benefit of working with a team that elevates me to new levels. I'm so thankful to be in the food business because it's so relevant." Wow!

Zeroing in on New Products

Menu development is always a challenge. Danny Bruns begins by focusing on the origin, history and current progress of foods or regions that pertain to the product.

"Initially, I work alone experimenting with flavors or blends," he explains. "Then I gather as many people as I can to bounce ideas and concepts off of. With ingredient R&D and manufacturing scattered across five continents, I can talk with Kerry people from around the globe. Their experiences help me build a bigger picture and help bring the concepts to reality."

Once he zeros in on the concept, Bruns brings in three or four experts who understand functionality and physical reactions. "They have a lot of impact on the product," he explains. "Typically, we do the initial think-tank work and then work with customers to finalize the product until they are satisfied."

Although a dynamo in the kitchen, Bruns says he has a rather mellow style when relating to his team members. "I learned early on egos don't go far in building teams," he says. "Our teams vary. I might assemble individuals from the sauce group, food service or other groups to work on a project. On our corporate side of the world, each person is part of a greater purpose and picture."

Bruns says customers are increasingly more concerned about nutrition, and nutrition is always on his mind in product development. "We try to satisfy our customers' demands for healthier products by reducing fat or sodium where possible," says Bruns. "They want clean labels — no MSG, no chemicals — and they prefer herbs and spices explained on the label. Trans-fatty acids are in the spotlight, but our approach is a cautious and steady one: We don't bandwagon low-carb or low-salt, and some of our customers are not as concerned about carbs or fat. Our approach is to meet customer needs."

Top Of His Toque

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

DB: Dinner was served at the table every night when I was growing up. The emphasis at home today is where and when we graze — the total opposite of the traditional meal. I do my cooking and experimenting at work. The exception is when we entertain; my apron comes out and the kitchen gets destroyed. Although a great cook, my wife Heidi doesn't enjoy cooking. My family spends a lot of time talking or hanging around - snacking and noshing. We're always on the go. Sometimes we take our Schoodle dog Kiwi for a drive-thru picnic. My daughter, 5-year-old Gabrielle, loves to grab something and eat it on her swing set. My son, 7-year-old Cole, sits on the floor eating his bagel. We graze on healthy foods like yogurt, leftover grilled chicken on a salad or bagels. The idea is to spend time together, however unconventionally.

FC: Describe your typical day.

DB: Basically, the only thing typical is the first 30 minutes when I check e-mails and voice mails. I might work on a project involving bench and lab time, gold-standard work, delivering a presentation, procuring ingredients and products from other Kerry units. It's a constantly evolving and changing workload. By nature, I get easily bored, but never at work.

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

DB: Condiments. I have Asian sauces, hot sauces, mustards of all kinds, vinegars, peppers... and I put them on everything. If my wife makes her great pork chops, I'll put three drops of each sauce on the plate to dip into. I'm fascinated with different combinations. "Let's play around" is my motto.

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

DB: If I could transfer right in without the long hard road who it takes, I'd probably be an actor. I did community theater and loved the preparation, buildup and performance. This business is basically the same. I've worked in restaurants with open kitchens, and it was such a rush to be on stage every night. You're in the midst of the theatre with the flames, grill, noises and pans. I tip my hat to the chefs who can do that every night.

FC: What are some favorite foods others cook for you?

DB: My wife's herb-broiled, thick-cut pork chops are awesome. When I go back home to Cincinnati, my mom makes homemade meatballs and sauce. And you can't beat a good Wisconsin brat off the grill, with sauerkraut and mustard.

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