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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FP: How do you approach development?

JC: I use personal inspiration, working alone. I work late at lot, because when I get on a project, it's hard to get me off of it because I love what I do. That's comes from not letting go of my childhood. Remember when we got that new toy for Christmas and didn't stop playing with it until the batteries wore out. I think we should all be that way and enjoy life to the fullest. I do have a strong voice with my team, so once I'm done; I turn it over to them. I want them to have the same strong voice. There are five people here at studio. We also have graphic design and PR in house, and two other people around the country -- one in our office in Los Angeles who does culinary development, and one who does beverage development in Nashville, Tenn. They have their own businesses, but we work together.

FP: What are the differences in developing retail vs. Foodservice products? 

JC: We are required to switch our hats quite often. With foodservice, the velocity of change and variety is voracious. Before Motorola used contract foodservice, I worked for them as one of their corporate chefs. It was difficult to keep the menu fresh because we were open seven days a week, three shifts a day and our personal standard was that we would not repeat a menu cycle for one month. To keep it fresh, the amount of development was astounding. When developing recipes in foodservice, the immediate customer is a trained colleague or professional cook preparing my recipes.

Retail is very different. It requires a more science-based approach and doesn't call for such variety so often. When developing a marinated chicken breast for a manufacturer, a consumer without an ounce of culinary training might be preparing it. It's the difference between working with someone who is fluent in a language versus someone who is just starting to learn the language. That's why you have to include explicit directions and pictures on packaged goods. You really have to think about how bad Murphy's Law can beat you on the head.

FP: What are the challenges of bringing a food from the kitchen to the mass market?

JC: There are differences between kitchen cooking and preparation at the plant level, and from time to time, there is not an immediate translation. Let's start with the process. In a kitchen, a chef has certain goals to achieve. Aside from food safety, you are trying to achieve some principal-based qualities in the food -- color, flavor balance, portion size, the shine and sheen, viscosity. The tools you need are at your fingertips, and have been since the beginning of cookery. Fire has the ability to caramelize, color and cook food. When you translate to the mass market, the challenges are greater to create those qualities in a food that you do as a trained chef. Until about 15 years ago, it was good enough to get some decent tasting, stable food in the freezer and not win any awards.

When trained chefs were brought into manufacturing in the mid-90s, we were able to bring in higher food quality. I'm not discrediting food safety or shelf stability; I'm speaking about the higher qualities of food like viscosity, color, and texture you find in classic cookery. How do we achieve proper caramelization in a food processing reactor, designed to bring food to a certain temperature, hold it there to stabilize it and package it? We've lost our ability to use a sauté pan to brown and sear food. Some of the challenge is the monstrosity of food processing equipment and fighting this beast of machinery to get it to calm down, relax and impart some of these finer food qualities into the food, while still doing what you must for shelf life consistency, and so on. I have the food science department at my back making sure that shelf life is there. There's that wonderful kind of ebb and flow and synergistic learning that I have with the scientists. They teach me proper stability, proper Ph and so on, and it's my job to bring what I know as a chef to them. It's a great partnership and one I'm proud to be part of.

FP: Could you describe a technical problem you've encountered? 

JC: I can think of two:

We were contacted by a really inspirational pastry company to solve an interesting ingredient problem – they came to me because of our development work with The Almond Board of California. They were developing an almond product with a very moisture rich formula and they were having trouble keeping the almond's natural pop and crunch throughout the process. We worked through the issue by simply toasting the nut meats before placing them in the batter and voila! Crunch, pop and flavor! 

One more complex challenge in regards to a variety of sauces we were developing: low-Ph sauces in the BBQ/hot sauce category. Quite often, when we work with bench top, we use raw ingredients that might have performance capabilities hidden inside the ingredient. Once you go to scale, the different forms of the ingredient might not have quite the performance left within it. For example, we worked on a few very refined hot sauces, some including wonderful almonds that have vegetal and vegetable ingredients in them. When you start with large pieces and go to a cook down process, the zest, rind, fiber and structure has bulking properties and principles that allow you to maintain the emulsion. My biggest problem has been jumping to processing stages very quickly. Manufacturers want to eliminate some stages and jump to purees almost immediately. Purees are great, but they don't possess large fibrous strains you find in a whole vegetable. And when something is pureed, it might have to go through a pasteurization stage that might remove some of its inherent capabilities. So you loose color brightness, natural viscosity and texture. It's difficult to so quickly jump using a processed ingredient in a process. My biggest challenge is to work with a manufacturer that can start with as large an ingredient as possible and go back to artisan processing, if you want to call it that. An easier route may not be what's best for the ultimate goal. So it's important to diplomatically win them over as to why we fight for this additional process even though it may be a bit more costly.

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