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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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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