Hail to the Chef

Leading food & beverage companies employ great chefs to infuse retail products with innovation and creativity.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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As the benchmark rises for foods that consumers find enticing and pleasing to the senses, food and beverage companies have increasingly brought professional chefs on board for inspiration. They work in partnership with R&D in the product development process to make delectable foods with superior taste, texture and appearance.

Chefs bridge the gap between "gold standard" made-from-scratch meals and the food scientist's more technical approach to formulating. The results are products that meet customer expectations for authentic and delicious taste, yet are within the parameters of a cost-efficient mass-manufacturing process, which makes them safe and affordable.

There's no doubt creating new products or reformulating existing ones requires the contribution of many individuals with a broad range of skills. Product development teams typically include food scientists, nutritionists, marketers, management, purchasing, plant operations people and those with packaging expertise. But often the most fascinating – and increasingly the most influential – work is done in research centers and elaborate kitchens where a research chef leads a project to develop the healthiest, best tasting products possible.

What entices great chefs to work for food & beverage companies? It's a match made in heaven. Banker's hours, no working on holidays, access to state-of-the-art, gleaming test kitchens and, even more important, their creativity impacts millions of consumers every day rather than a few restaurant habitues.

Chefs are always at the forefront, so we asked them how their culinary skills impact new products and what trends they foresee. So join us in tipping our toques to them for sharing their expertise and perspective. Click on a chef below to learn more about him. 

Thomas Griffiths
Jonathan Shockey
Lucien Vendome
Mario Valdovinos

 

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Campbell's 'souper' chef

Thomas Griffiths
 Chef Thomas Griffiths, CMC, CHE

Chef Thomas Griffiths, CMC, CHE, one of only 70 certified master chefs in the world, joined Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., in 2010 as senior executive chef. He also is director of Campbell's Culinary Institute, the company's global organization of chefs who provide the inspirational culinary voice for Campbell and use their expertise to create recipes for new products, develop menu concepts for foodservice operators and generate other product innovations.

He has more than 20 years of culinary experience, including his most recent stint as associate dean of global and advanced cuisines at the Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Campbell plans to launch 50 new products in its next fiscal year, among them Campbell's Gourmet Bisques, a line of aseptically packaged soups pouches, plus a line of Skillet Sauces.

"I have a different role than you might anticipate," says Griffiths, who has been featured on NBC's Today Show, Good Morning America and the Sarah Moulton show. "I manage, coach and work with 20 chefs globally, who are involved with day-to-day product development. Since I travel often and check trends throughout the world, I have the opportunity to influence product development.

"For a chef, it always comes back to flavor. Ultimately, our goal is to prepare delicious food, but good nutrition is always on my mind. There was a time when food was good for you, but not necessarily delicious. Today, there are many talented chefs who can make foods that are good for you and, by the way, delicious."

Besides nutrition, Griffiths says authenticity is important to him. "The world is shrinking; people nowadays eat globally, so using appropriate ingredients is key," he says emphatically. "Consumers are very interested in the new ethnic ingredients that are finding their way into dishes they love so much. These are non-traditional ingredients that the chefs and I are inspired to work with.

"We have teams that study trends and know what consumers are looking for, but as chefs, we love innovation and have the opportunity to develop from the 'blue sky' or blank canvas. I've been with Campbell for two years, developing relationships with talented chefs in Australia, Germany and Belgium, sharing recipes, formulas and ingredients with them, and it is very fulfilling. Campbell's has always had great chefs, but investing in professional development is really the key to making our chefs more knowledgeable and capable of producing the best products."

How does he work with and influence his team? "Developing the culinary expertise of great chefs is one of my chief roles, and I can say we are developing one the most highly credentialed culinary teams in the country," he says. "I work very diligently at building relationships. Everybody realizes that chefs can be slightly temperamental, artistic types. We have great admiration and respect for each other and our work, so building these relationships is a big piece of it.

"We have a very collaborative approach, as compared to many restaurants, where the head chef is really a dictator, and the only response expected from the staff is 'yes, chef.' The chef's questions are simply rhetorical; he or she doesn't really want to hear a reply. Not so at Campbell's. It's a very different atmosphere. I have the best job in the world," he says enthusiastically.

Before he joined Campbell Soup, Griffiths was a chef at the United Nations (executive pastry chef), Le Delices de la Côte Basque, Regine's and the iconic Le Cirque/ He earned medals competing at the American Culinary Federation's International Culinary Olympics.

"When I became associate dean at CIA the last two years I was there, I managed the chefs who taught the advanced culinary curriculum, but I missed the daily interaction with our students. When I learned about this position, I went to the supermarket to look at Campbell's products and was amazed. We have three kids and, although our pantry was filled with Campbell's products, I had never really paid attention to the incredible variety of products the company offers."

Early on at Campbell, he was part of project using different colored tomatoes. "We had orange tomatoes grown on our farms in Sacramento," he says. "They have lots of vitamin C and are delicious, so we decided to make an orange-colored tomato soup. Our chefs and scientists worked with chimichurri, pesto, pepper, roasted garlic, sage and rosemary. I love to serve this soup with an adult version of a grilled cheese sandwich (asiago cheese, fried onions and pesto). We serve the orange tomato soup in a see-through fluted glass with the grilled cheese on top. It's delicious, adult-like comfort food, but evokes wonderful childhood memories."

Griffith loves to challenge his chefs. "We recently had some guests in and the chefs wanted to make rabbit; they always want to do chef stuff," he kids. "I suggested sandwiches instead. Being fairly new on the job, I thought we should practice making sandwiches. Even though they were upset with me, they made a turkey club using great apple smoked bacon and homemade roasted turkey. One chef said that when he was little, his mom made tomato jam when she served Chicken Noodle Soup, so he made peanut butter and jelly (using tomato jam as the jelly) and served it with Chicken Noodle Soup. It didn't make much sense to me as a food critic, but it was great; they were perfect together," he says.

"I'm a chef who relishes sustainability, seasonality and authenticity, and nourishing the world is what I want my legacy to be," Griffith explains. "It's great if a chef makes a really delicious bowl of homemade soup, but if a chef and scientist make it together, it can be better, and a master packager will put it in the right container. Now, I look at everything.

"We are more and more involved with meal solutions that are convenient, fresher, vibrant and beautiful with bold flavors and colors. They all have their purpose, and we always strive to make them better and more delicious. We want consumers to cook with and experiment with our soups. In the old days, I'd use onions and garlic and fresh herbs, but today there are so many other choices. One of my favorites is taking cream of celery soup, roasting butternut squash and pureeing it into the soup. It's an unbelievably delicious soup and so convenient. These are the things I think about all the time -- convenient and delicious solutions for chefs and consumers."

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ConAgra's recipe for growth

Jonathan Shockey
Chef Jonothan Shockey

Chef Jonothan Shockey is manager of culinary services at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb. "I manage a group of classically trained chefs, who have backgrounds in food science, process engineering and nutrition. They also have cultural and ethnic training in Latin, Southeast Asian and Mediterranean cuisines," responds Shockey, who was classically trained at the Institute of Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, and who has been with ConAgra for eight years.

"Our mission is to use trending cuisines and ingredients paired with consumer behavior to develop a robust innovation pipeline," he explains. "Our success is directly related to our experiences and our ability to bridge the gap between culinary technique and product development. We are on the forefront of imagination and work with all facets of the organization to bring these ideas to life."

Shockey, who is involved with new product development for brands such Marie Callender's, Healthy Choice, and Rosarita, uses his passion for Latin cuisine to develop on-trend flavors. "We are fortunate to have a group of culinary professionals who are passionate about food, cultures and cooking," he says about his team. "The challenge is to channel all that creativity and enthusiasm into focused platform innovation. By focusing on strategic business goals, we can drive innovation throughout the organization and allow our chefs to work on the very boundaries of their own creativity."

What cuisines are the most influential, we asked. "Latin cuisine is probably the most important cuisine right now, since the Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.," he replies. "Next to Latin, Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asian cuisines are trending strongly, far beyond the foodie and fine dining realms. Parts of what make these cuisines popular are the spices and fresh flavors that make the experience of eating these cuisines more exciting.

"Health and wellness are, and will continue to be, high priorities for our organization and particularly for our culinary team," he emphasizes. "We have a tremendous amount pride in creating meals that meet our consumers' expectations while exercising nutritional responsibility. We are always looking for the next ingredient, process or packaging platform that will deliver nutritious, great-tasting food."

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Nestle's passion in every dish

Lucien Vendome
Lucien Vendome

"Our role is to inspire, explore and create," says Chef Lucien Vendome, culinary innovation director at Nestlé. "Our company has dedicated a group of very talented chefs to this mission.

"There are many people -- coming from a variety of disciplines and functional responsibilities--involved when we create products," explains Vendome, who is rooted in French haute cuisine. "Each one of us specializes in what we do best. But most importantly, we work together as a team, and in doing so, we leverage those varied competencies to create better results.

"Most of my career has been spent here with Nestlé, where culinary expertise is present from idea generation all the way through concept refinement. Colleagues in other organizations tell me that culinary expertise is used primarily as a 'selling tool' or to validate a concept. So our approach is a bit different. The culinary innovation team is an integral part of the process — from 'blue sky' ideas to scale-up," he explains.

"In some respects, we serve as an 'agent of change' as we track all new trends that emerge and evaluate if, how and why they inspire us. Nestlé people love food, enjoy exploring cuisines, food traditions, new recipes, unusual ingredients — and the culinary center here serves as the central meeting place where we can share all that we learn.

"Throughout the whole process, we have many different panels we conduct for specific reasons; each one has to deliver a unique contribution," he says. "For example, during the 'inspire' phase, how you evaluate a product differs from a panel during which Test Kitchen Status is achieved."

After the inspire stage, the team goes into the explore stage. "It's about pushing the envelope and exploring what is possible," says Vendome passionately. "I might take the whole team of marketers, chefs and technologists to Los Angeles. We eat at all the restaurants known for the cuisine we are investigating, meet with chefs, discuss the menu in detail. We like to know which items on the menu inspire 'patron passion' -- you know, those items that become such favorites that chefs cannot change them without provoking the ire of their customers! We carry that inspiration back to the Culinary Center and then begin sifting through the possibilities.

"Would something similar work in the Stouffer's range? If not there, could it work within another brand? How could we take the essential inspiration and craft it into a dish that meets our Lean Cuisine standards? As we do this, each member of the team begins to focus on what he or she needs to deliver at the next stage.

"How do I make this wonderful recipe yet manage my cost of ingredients? Does it demand a different form of packaging? Is there something here that I can feature in my next marketing campaign? All of these puzzle pieces come together holistically and often in compressed time periods. The intensity makes its own energy."

It requires an enormous amount of energy and dedication to create in this staged way, but the answers do reveal themselves if you do the work in the right sequence. "On Monday, you have no idea whatsoever, except you want to go in the direction of blue. By Friday you have great ideas on the table that deliver on blue," says Vendome.

In November 2011, Nestle introduced its first Lean Cuisine Culinary Roundtable (see them working in the Nestlé Culinary Center by visiting www.LeanCuisine.com). Joining Vendome are Pam Anderson, author of the recent "Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals," plus five top American chefs who are working together to find the inspiration for a next generation of products.

Explains Vendome: "Each one brings something new and different to the table. Chef Lior Lev Sercarz trained and cooked in France, and is now the 'spice master'; he's helping us all understand how different spice combinations can completely transform classic recipes. Chef Elizabeth Karmel is the nuanced and creative BBQ queen; her recipes are unique because there is no sauce, just the wonderful taste of the meat. Chef Paul Kahan is the iconic "farm to table" chef from Chicago that we so admire; no one is better with pork. Chef Brad Farmerie is now in New York City after working around the world but remains a global chef, a visionary practitioner of world cuisine. And from Miami, Chef Michelle Bernstein brings to us colorful Nuevo Latino cuisine with Asian and French influences.

"When you have a group of chefs like this come together to work on creating the perfect new version of pot roast for Stouffer's, panini for Lean Cuisine, different pasta and sauce combinations for Buitoni or new ideas for Nestlé Toll House, they [bring] different perspectives," says Vendome. "In doing so, they inspire us and help us enhance the culinary excellence we bring to our brands. And the roundtable also is learning what it takes to develop a concept to commercialization by working with our Nestlé experts. In this project, there's rich learning for all of us."

Nestlé is committed to culinary art, according to Vendome. "We don't just talk the talk, we live it every day," he says. "We all think culinary; it's a state of mind. And it is why we have so much energy, resources and talent to bring that passion. I like to say, 'If you pay attention, you will taste some passion in every dish we make.' Behind every one of our dishes, there is a chef who strives to make the best dish [he] can, there is great technology to keep it consistent and there is a marketer who is trying to meet the needs and solve the problems of the consumer."

Talking about specific trends, Vendome notes that two new Lean Cuisine dishes -- Chile Lime Chicken and Chicken Makhani -- were both inspired by the Culinary Roundtable chefs and beautifully highlight the trend of making authentic accessible to the mainstream. "Regional American foods are re-emerging, part of the retro trend, and Americans are also discovering Spanish-style small meals," he says. "Our job is to" translate trends into products with value that consumers will recognize and buy.

"Food has become a form of entertainment in this country and people are interested in what's new, what's 'in fashion.' That's what we communicate in our newest advertising from Lean Cuisine, which highlights the fusion of food and fashion. We call it 'culinary chic.'

"While the focus always has been on making quality meals, we recognize the consumer continues to evolve and so have we," he says. "In 1993, I was the only chef at Nestlé Prepared Foods. Now there are seven Nestlé Culinary Centers around the world, a wonderful demonstration of Nestlé's commitment to culinary excellence."

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An Animal Protein In Every Pot

Mario Valdovinos
 Mario Valdovinos

With a heavy reliance on foodservice customers, much of the culinary R&D at Tyson Foods not only revolves around but directly involves chefs from other companies. "There are several embedded chefs from our [customers] who work with me on teams. These research chefs know everything there is to know about their products, systems, processes and applications, so we collaborate on new products and ideas," says Chef Mario Valdovinos, director of culinary services in Tyson R&D. "Our system is unique in that I'm the only research chef that's on the Tyson Foods payroll."

His obsession with creating edible art began after graduation from the University of California, so he headed to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy, followed by jobs on a cruise ship, bistro and hotel kitchen. Then came Mallard's Food Products, Modesto, Calif., and Culinary Foods in Chicago, now both Tyson companies. In his present role, he combines culinary mastery with a knowledge of food technology. In fact, he is the author of "Chef Formulation and Integration: Ensuring that Great Food and Food Science Work Together" (CRC Press, 2009).

"I never create things I think are cool just for the sake of being cool," he says. "We look at insights from consumer research and develop ideas with the main goal of creating commercially viable products that will be a great business item for our customer and a great menu item for the consumer."

But how does the chef work with and influence his team? "I'm the director of the group, so it's important for me to have good relationships with all of the chefs who work with our suppliers and develop credibility with them," he explains. "We are partners, really working toward a mutual goal, so as long as we keep the end goal in mind and consult on flavor and form, we're able to partner and bring a product to market."

To keep his taste buds and creativity stimulated, Valdovinos scrutinizes global trends. "As in most segments, there are lots of trends that come and go," he says. "Currently, we are tracking dozens of consumer and foodservice trends that seem to be more sustainable than fads. There are some trends in global cuisine we are paying close attention to as they gain traction. Of course, nutritional value is important to consumers. It's a given that people want high-quality food that meets their nutritional requirements.

"Take meat, a product that has been around for thousands of years. Transforming it into something amazing is a continuous journey," he reflects. "Chef-driven cuisine influences the menu, with 'worldly' sandwiches like tortas, banh mi's, cubanos or paninis. The flavors that drive the ingredients surrounding that fare are very notable because consumers like variety and next-generation offerings. Our research shows consumers are very interested in ethnic street foods, big and bold seasoned marinated meats, spicy and high-impact flavors and products we can offer that expand palates." And, he adds, "easy cooking techniques."

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