Disciplined Creativity

Dec. 16, 2004
Picasso copied Rembrandt before he became Picasso.
"Discipline forces an awareness of
how flavors and textures interact,"
says Chef Lucien Vendome, as the
crafting of this croquette will attest.
Lucien Vendome is the senior executive chef at Kraft Food Ingredients, a Memphis-based unit of Kraft Foods. Chef Vendome directs the creation of innovative culinary applications and identifying emerging taste trends. It comes as no surprise that this intensely creative man is highly disciplined.“I’ve worked in hotels and restaurants where, if the dish was not evenly sauced, it was thrown out,” says Chef Vendome, who received his culinary training at the prestigious Ecole Hotelier Paris under the stewardship of some of the leading chefs in France. Before joining Kraft Food Ingredients in 1997, he spent 20 years with Nestlé directing culinary teams at 42 hotels and resorts and creating innovative concepts and on-trend menus for more than 150 restaurants. “I believe in disciplined cooking and I stress this to young chefs,” says Vendome.“By discipline I mean attentiveness to how many ingredients go into a sauce, how much sauce dresses a piece of meat, and how the complete dish is assembled. Discipline forces an awareness of how flavors and textures interact and devotion to perfection insists that there exists harmony within the dish before it is presented to the customer.”According to Chef Vendome, when creating harmonic flavor combinations, less is better. “The fewer the ingredients, the easier it is for the taster to distinguish and appreciate each flavor,” explains Vendome.Cooking with VendomeVendome pleads guilty to being intense in the kitchen. He brings this focus to Kraft Food Ingredients. “The projects come in fast and furious, each one dramatically different from the next, but all demanding the same thing: complete attention to the customer’s expectations. At KFIC, we believe in using an assembly of varied resources. For any one project, there may be a food scientist, a cheese specialist, a logistical expert and a culinarian working together to satisfy customer needs. It is similar to the brigade system in the professional kitchen: everyone is working within his or her specialty to create a single, beautiful dish. As long as we all share the same dedication, discipline and respect for each other’s roles, our projects meet with great success.”
A creation worthy of Picasso: This multi-layered brownie turns the old standard on its head.
Just as he believes in the classical system of running a kitchen, Chef Vendome puts his faith in a classical cooking foundation. “Only when you have mastered the classics can you then be creative,” he explains. “Picasso copied Rembrandt before he became Picasso. A true jazz artist knows a standard up and down before he turns it musically inside out, making it his own.”This dedication to the classics follows the chef into the corporate world. “In a corporation, taste is but one element, one component.” Vendome explains there are also operations, profit and other considerations. The classically trained chef learns from day one that taste is paramount and should never be compromised. The corporate chef must appreciate the other concerns of manufacturing, but must also be willing to be, sometimes, the lone champion of taste. “To be any less would be a disservice to the company by whom he or she is employed,” he says.Culinary solutionsBecause of consumer demand, food processors are becoming ever more focused on nutrition. Says Vendome: “We all want good nutritional value. Nutrition receives a lot of press, but bottom line, when you put it on the shelf, does it sell? At Kraft Food Ingredients we try to solve customers’ nutritional challenges through technological solutions, but culinary ones can assist as well.”“The key,” Vendome says, “is to create a sauce, marinade, rub, etc. that is multidimensional, so that you are not relying on fat, sugar and salt which are important parts of cooking but nutritionally problematic [from a consumer’s point of view].”Working in concert with technology, the culinarian brings hands-on experience to become part of the solution. “Missing a fatty or meaty mouth feel? Chefs know that, for instance, portobello mushrooms have that meaty consistency that can satisfy the craving for meat and create a similar mouthfeel.” Chefs know how to redirect a need for salt by using spices such as cumin and dried chilies and they know how that a caramelized note will bring out natural sweetness without adding more sugar.”American ingenuityWhile devoted to his classical upbringing, Chef Vendome admires the chefs of American-style Bistro cuisine, which highlights American favorites. “It is amazing what American chefs can do with the traditional meatloaf. They go beyond the wonderful variations of meats and seasonings and start playing with the very shape of it. After all, who says that a meatloaf has to be a loaf at all? Why can’t it be flat or shaped like a pie?”Vendome notes, “There is more emotion in their cooking because they are not as much challenging Escoffier as they are recreating food that mothers gave to them when they were growing up. One has to wonder what will happen to this kind of American cuisine now that so little cooking is done on a regular basis inside the home.”“Perhaps the savior of cuisine in the U.S. is the celebrity chef,” muses Vendome. “Julia Child was a wonderful inspiration and it is because of the effect she had on television viewing such things as the Food Network exist. What people see on TV and read in magazines keep them informed beyond their own culinary experiences. It educates and impassions them and keeps the demand for new flavors and good food alive in this country. It make it even more important for the chef, when he or she cooking at the stove or sitting in a boardroom, to be disciplined and devoted to his or her craft.”Chef Vendome insists that, to know food well, you have to eat at the source. “If you want to eat great Japanese food, go to Japan,” he explains. As chefs in the U.S. strive to make their recipes for ethnic cuisines like Italian and French more functional and personal, they get further and further away from a dish’s origin. If you don’t go to the actually country, what you are tasting is a replica of a replica of a replica. Want gnocchi? Go to Bologna for the gold standard and then see if you can match it. I think the best investment our industry can make in its people is to expose them to the real thing.”TrendsAccording to Vendome, the challenge in the game of trends is to take a flavor that used to be unique in fine dining and make products that are mainstream. “We take a global approach to ingredients at Kraft Food Ingredients. Ginger has made its way from an ingredient sampled in cuisines from the Asian continent to the candy shelves of the local supermarket. If Kraft -- one of the world’s largest food companies -- introduces an Altoids product with ginger, we know that it is now a mainstream ingredient.”Sharing the flavor trend spotlight with ginger right now are citrus and honey. “Especially honey roast,” says Vendome. “In fact, anything roasted is big in America. Another big ingredient is caramel. Americans love it.”
Off the Top of His Toque

FC: What is your personal formula — vision, if you like — on food and lifestyle?

LV: I believe in striving for excellence. I’m not comfortable with the status quo. I drive my team here absolutely out of their minds crazy because I always want to do something different. You must keep changing roles so you don’t get stale. I credit Kraft Food Ingredients for fostering risk-taking. If you slap my hand every time I fail, I’m going to think twice about being innovative. Give me a pat on the back and I’ll keep trying. I’ll keep taking risks, exploring new ideas, and being innovative.

FC: How do people respond when they find out that you are a chef?

LV: People always say, “I love to cook.” But, as a professional, I am not in love with the food I create. If I was, I couldn’t bear for anyone to critique it or want to change it. Instead, if I am good at my profession, I am good at guessing what pleases you. I’m not offended if you don’t like it; I just prepare something else for you. Professionals need to be passionate, but not emotionally attached to food, especially in a corporate environment. Companies know the market, what sells and what doesn’t. You have to be able to navigate these rules but still be creative.

FC: If you couldn’t be a chef, what would you do for a living?

LV: I’d be a caravan driver—a great adventurer. That’s what my father did. He drove two hundred camels from the Sahara to coast of Africa. He also imported beeswax and honey.

FC: What ingredients do you always keep in your refrigerator?

LV: I keep a variety of cheeses and wine, and that’s about it. I don’t cook at home because I am used to cooking in a professional kitchen. Now, at work, it’s a veritable supermarket. I want to be able to whip up whatever a customer wants on the spot. If you can dream it up, my culinary team can make it. After all, if you profess innovation, you have to be able to back it up with real product.

FC: What are some of your favorite foods when others are cooking for you?

LV: Good authentic Italian foods like gnocchi or pasta that is truly al dente. I also like French regional cuisine from Bordeaux and desserts from Brittany and Alsace. I also like Thai cuisine and sushi when a great chef prepares it. I travel often, so I eat very well.

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