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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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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