Food, a part of life's celebration: A conversation with Chef John Csukor, Jr.

Chef John Csukor, Jr., who develops products in foodservice and retail, talks about processes, product development and trends in this one-on-one with our news and trends editor.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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During IFT, one of the booths I most look forward to visiting is the Modesto, Calif.-based Almond Board of California. It's always a delight to sample the innovative almond prototypes created by Chef John Csukor, Jr., CEO and president of Ashland, Va.-based KOR Food Innovation (www.korfoodinnovation.com).

I recently had an opportunity to speak to Chef Csukor when he wasn't cooking up a storm. Since he develops products in foodservice and retail, our conversation was about processes, product development and trends.

FP: Where did you learn to cook, and how would you describe your cooking style?

JC: I learned to cook from familial experiences, the Marine Corp., and then Johnson & Wales University. A first generation American, I'm Hungarian and Chilean. Both my parents came from the old country, so our table was always filled with amazing foods. Between the two nationalities, we had lots of celebrations around the table, rich flavors from Europe and South America, and that started me thinking of food as more than just sustaining oneself, rather, it is part of life's celebration.

My mother always had a wonderful herb and vegetable garden. When I was a child, I would be out in the garden with her and when she chopped a leaf, she encouraged me to taste it, saying, ‘Try this rosemary.' We prepared food together, which was how she kept me busy as a little guy, and when it was cooked, she'd ask if I tasted the rosemary in the dish. She was, and still is, very influential to me. Culinary school was even more expensive than it is now, so I joined the military to get culinary experience. I chose the Marine Corp. -- the most difficult boot camp of them all—because they had the best looking uniforms. At 17-years-old, you really care about the way you look, and I really wanted to wear those dress blues. I was very fortunate to be stationed near Johnson & Wales University, and that's where I got my culinary degree.

That, and my work experience in fine dining, chains, and then food science, landed me in a space where I've been heavily influenced by the flavors of the Mediterranean and Asia. I don't know how I got Mediterranean and Asian out of Hungarian and Chilean, but that's where I am. I can still reach into my roots because there are some indigenous ingredient crossovers. They are both healthy cuisines. My wife and I cook about 95 percent of our meals at home, and enjoy eating with our young sons. If we start with healthy ingredients, we end up with healthy meals.

FP: How would you describe your approach to menu and product development?

JC: It falls into three buckets – cast the net wide, reel it in, and refine it to the goal. Regardless of the ultimate target, we cast the net wide and consider all options. That means we usually deliver above and beyond with what we call our first stage gate, or the idea session. I want to permit people whose minds don't always play in the area of creativity to do just that. Rather than beginning with a blank canvas which can be daunting, we gather as many ideas as possible and to create our foundation for ideation. Then we reel it all in by refining, cutting, combining ideas. If you like ideas 1 and 10, we may combine them and then refine them working through channel leads toward our ultimate goal.
 
The idea stage is very personal. I send everyone on my team away to gather their thoughts. Then we reconvene and collaborate. Finally, we present collective ideas to our business partners. Besides our own experience in product development, we might use great publications (like this one), and ideas gathered in our international travel with clients in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. We use our heritage, personal and cultural influences and then our collaborative team synergy. We are also very selective on the types of ingredients we choose.  For example a simple ingredient (such as the almond) transcends our work with hidden complexities and abilities. We all have a competitive spirit, but in this industry we want to see most of our competitors succeed. At the end of the day, when I'm being evaluated, if I'm good at what I do, it sharpens my competitor's sword, and their great ideas in turn, sharpen mine. That's a great thing.

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