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: Please describe a product you liked but it failed terribly and one that was a huge success.

JC: Many years ago, in the wake of opening our first Starbucks in Paris, I was heading up savory and hot food development. One of the things we came back from Paris with was the desire to create a true Pain Perdu, a French toast that is very moist and custardy, almost like bread pudding locked in a slice of bread.  Street vendors in Paris go to the back door of bakeries at night and ask for old bread, and then turn it into this wonderful food.

The Starbucks leadership thought this would be something that could turn into a great street food here in the U.S. We were able to emulate a high-speed line with a belt drill; we found the right kind of bread -- very eggy and sweet. It was manufactured, rather than a true brioche. The bread had to go through a very slow emersion process, not a quick dip like American French toast. We had to slow the line down about 10 times to get the soak and pick up of the batter we wanted. We finally achieved what we wanted – custardy, rich, sweet, thick French toast. In test markets we launched, consumers just didn't get it. French toast in the U.S. is a napkin tucked around your neck, a big plate in French toast in front of you, covered with preserves and cream at the IHOP. It's not dashboard dining, street food, or something quick and easy.

On the other hand, Starbucks has had great success with breakfast sandwiches, after we figured out how not to end up with broken eggs all over the place, during scale up. I know they have had several iterations after I left the project, but they are wildly successful.  Some of the most successful were Low-fat Turkey Bacon and Florentine, fresh baby spinach, egg and cheese. They were made with high quality ingredients – peppered bacon, and Cabot white cheddar cheese. 

FP: What flavors, ingredients, and cuisines do you predict will be popular and influence menu development?

JC: I think we've come a long way as product developers, with opulent resources at our fingertips. We have to get more creative, and can't ignore the fact that our society reads labels. Many conversations are ongoing about terms like sodium reduction, fewer preservatives, where food comes from, and “artisan” processing. There is demand for natural ingredients like potato starch, and almond butter – which lasts so much longer and is loaded with antioxidants. As a nut ingredient, almonds are incredibly versatile; the texture, flavor, and consistency of any product can be changed altered by simply using a different almond form. No matter what form, however, almonds consistently impact the nutrition of a product without added vitamins. So the trend here is using holistically loaded ingredients to create a healthy product.

We've even developed a crossover tabule with crushed toasted almonds. It has added protein levels, better shelf life and the texture won't change over time. It's wonderful to know what's on your plate, and we are all about incorporating the right change, at the right time, for a better food product.

Dominant flavors that will continue to drive what we do: Global BBQ, Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin. We're looking at these traditional flavors in a contemporary way. Our international partners have a strong mutual affinity. Whether we are Thai, Indonesian, or American, we all have a strong sense of tradition. In Asia, they take an American BBQ concept and make it their own. And because of the economical function of international sauces – which allow the use of less expensive protein such as tofu – international sauces are very important opportunity in a difficult economy.

FP: Why are almonds your nut of choice?
JC: As a foodservice ingredient, almonds can stand alone or act as a chameleon-like bridge for flavors in any given dish. You can always recognize the taste of a toasted almond – but it's never as overpowering or underwhelming as some other nuts can be. Almonds also span international menus, and their functionality allows them to rise above or meld with other flavors.

FP: Where do you look for ideas for new menu/food items?

JC: International travel and foods that bring people comfort. Comfort food is where people spend most of their time day-to-day. Breakfast is an important meal; I think sausages on menus will become more prevalent – sausages are comfort food for all nationalities, they are economical to produce, flavorful and contain the protein consumers have begun looking for to start the day. You can also add interesting ingredients and flavors to sausage to make them interesting (think almonds!) – so the variations are endless. 

What a great job I have. I play with my food and make a living doing so…it's a great place to be.

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