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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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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