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

Jan. 31, 2012
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.
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 ( 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?
Six Things to Know about John Csukor, Jr.
What is your personal formula, vision on food and lifestyle?
Quality, over quantity.

Could you describe your typical day?
I've been in industry for 28 years, and run my own business for three, so I wear a lot of hats. My day starts with coffee with my wife Mary Ann, and chasing my two sons – 8-year –old John III, and 5-year-old Joshua around the house; initial bonding time is very important. I'm a family guy, so it is difficult being disconnected from them by my work. I spend 10 to 12 hours a day in my office, a 4,000 sq. ft. studio that looks like a restaurant and has a test kitchen. I try to get home before my sons go to bed for some quality time.

What ingredients do you always keep in your refrigerator?
Lots of fresh veggies, sauces – a strong repertoire of Asian sauces, roasted pepper and hummus. I think you should be enticed when you open the refrigerator. We have four different types of milk. I'm addicted to almond milk, my little one likes soymilk, my oldest loves whole milk, and my wife prefers 1 percent milk. There is always whole cream and butter. Used in moderation, everything tastes better with those ingredients.

If you couldn't be a chef, what would you do for a living?
I'm a gear head. I like to tinker with small moving parts, so cars fascinate me. I'd be a European auto test driver.

What would your last meal be?
Chilean empanadas, with a spicy beef mixture, Al Horno (from the oven).

What are some of your favorite foods (when others are cooking for you)?
I'm a huge fan of Thai cuisine. Chef Robert Danhi and I are friends, and I love being in his home and kitchen. He shares his knowledge of Asian cuisine with you so gently. Anything he prepares is wonderful.  Identically with my close friend, Chef Joseph Scarnaty – his Italian cuisine could satisfy my last craving as well!

What do you do in your spare time?
My wife is an English professor, and home schools our boys. We love to do anything family-oriented, have a wonderful garden in Virginia, and cook together.
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. 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.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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