Welcome to the Food For Thought Podcast, a podcast where we take you behind the headlines of the food and beverage manufacturing industry.
In this podcast episode, our host is talking to Dax Schaefer, Corporate Chef and Director of Culinary Innovation, for Asenzya. Join the fun and informative conversation about what 2021 has in store for formulation and flavor trends.
Enjoy the episode.
Erin: Dax, welcome to The Food for Thought podcast. It is so great to have you on.
Dax: Yeah. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on. I'm excited to have the conversation and talk food.
Erin: Yeah. I know, even before we recorded, we started talking about the pride that we have of the states that we're from, so we'll see if and where that might jump in or influence our episode today, or maybe it won't. You know what, actually, why don't you tell me and our audience a little more about you and what you do for Asenzya.
Dax: Oh, that's my favorite topic, actually. So, basically, I've been in food my whole life. My parents owned a restaurant when I was a kid. And I'd go to work with my mom when I was like 5 or 6 years old. I would do dishes, I would help her in the kitchen. Basically, I was in her way most of the time. But it was kind of her form of daycare. And I've never had more than two jobs my whole life that really didn't have to do anything with food. So, in those two jobs together maybe lasted six months. My real passion is just making food, following food trends, and understanding...I look at more of the food culture and really, I'm a student of it, I just love doing it.
I've gone to two culinary schools. One is in Milwaukee, it's just a regular technical school. And then the other one is CIA in Hyde Park, New York. Just an amazing school. And after leaving that one, I basically took away from it that I'm gonna be a student my whole life of food. If you ever get to a point you're like, I know everything that is about food, you probably are done and you need to leave the industry. It's ever-evolving, ever-growing area. So many challenges every day, and so many rewarding little adventures. And so, I've been in... After culinary school, I went back into the restaurant world. Did that for another 10 years or so and then I broke into manufacturing. And I've been in manufacturing for about 19 years now, started off as a product developer for a frozen pizza company. And I was their corporate chef/R&D for about 12.5 years and then I moved to Asenzya. And I've been here for the last six years.
At Asenzya, I am their corporate chef. And basically, I'm director of culinary innovation and I track transform. So Asenzya, the custom...you know, giving a little background on Asenzya so you kind of understand what my role is here and how I help them. Asenzya is a custom dry seasoning blend company. They make blends for anything from topicals used, like on a snack that you might buy at a grocery store like a chip with a seasoning on it, all the way up to the use of functional ingredients and like an instant sauce that might thicken in a product as you cook it. And we can do everything in between.
So, I could sit here for the next 20 minutes and tell you all the different capabilities that Asenzya has, but to get to the point, if it has to do with seasoning food or helping to make it more consistent, we can definitely touch it and do it. We do a fantastic job. We work with small companies all the way up to some of the largest food companies in the world. And my role here at Asenzya is kind of a value add.
So, they have me help a lot of our customers or partners develop products. And I'm traveling around the country normally in the non-COVID year. I think we've all been hit by that. But normally, I'm traveling around the country talking to our partners and studying foods with every city I go to. And then I take those learnings and I analyze them and compare them to the trends that are here and what's coming. And then my role is then to take that and then go and help our partners develop the next big thing.
Erin: Okay. You mentioned something about if anyone feels that they have learned everything there is to know about food to keep going. And I'm just gonna throw this out there to anyone listening. If anyone believes they know everything there is to know about food, they should contact me because I would love to have them on the podcast, and amass a lot of questions from all of the food scientists and all the people that I have met over my years with Food Processing, and we will just have a food trivia Smackdown. But you know what, that's not our podcast today, although food trivia Smackdown just sounds like it could have its own life and I'm kind of loving it right now. Okay.
Dax: If you have food trivia smackdown I want in. That will be fantastic.
Erin: This is a non sequitur, but I was the creator. I am the creator on the Food Processing website of our...it was Quarantine Quiz earlier this year, and then it was fast facts or food facts trivia. So, I am quite a trivia monger myself. I, in days of COVID, was the person who headed up the trivia team, the bar trivia team. I am quite the nerd when it comes to amassing random facts to pass the time and help give people a little moment of life and laughter and some education created these little five-question quizzes in the food industry. So, we may be on to something and, Dax, we'll have to have you back on to be one of the food trivia smackdown.
Dax: That will be fantastic. I'm always good for the useless food facts always.
Erin: Yes, we'll put that in the bio too as Dax Schaefer random food fact trivia and potential future host of the "Food Trivia Smackdown." Okay.
Dax: You know, Erin, one thing to touch on before we branch off into that, when I said you can never stop learning, and you can learn from anywhere and anybody. Through my travels and all of this, I have learned from little grandmothers that never went to school and just learned how to cook, and they've taught me so much about food. I mean, you can learn from anybody if you're open to it.
Erin: Oh, yeah. I think that's so key. I think a lot of times we think oh, I have to learn from this very specific expert. And no, you can learn from anywhere and even flavor profiles you never would have thought. Well, yeah, so and so's aunt or grandmother or uncle has cooked something a certain way, and just the complex flavors that have come out of it. It's so important to always be learning and always keep learning. So, to the point of your travels and your role as executive chef, you most certainly have the scoop on flavor trends. Do you care to give our listeners a little bit of forecasting intel for what's trending for 2021?
Dax: Yeah. That is one of the most interesting questions I've had in probably the last 15, 20 years. Normally with trends, you can... Trends are call trends for a reason, I mean, you can see them coming. And if you want to see what back you can see the traits coming through that were indicators that say, "Hey, this is gonna be popular coming forward." And normally, you can watch restaurants, the higher-end restaurants and the QSRs, as to what they're starting to talk about and what they're starting to use for ingredients. In 2020, with COVID coming in the way it hit, that's kind of gone out the window a little bit.
So, what I mean is putting the...or watching trends is a little bit like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. And you don't have to wait till piece 999 to figure out you're putting together a puzzle of a sailboat. Right around piece 150, you're like, "Okay, a lot of water. I see some sails in here, the sun, okay, I know I have to put together a picture of a sailboat." That's a lot like trend work, you know. And a lot of it, there's a bunch of pieces, one of them is watching restaurants, one of them is doing the data research, and then a lot of it's going out there and trying the food, right? But because of this last year, we've had to change a lot of the ways we've been doing this. So what I see coming for 2021 is not so much based on what I'm seeing happening, but more of a gut instinct.
And you look at 2020 and a lot of us are concerned about numerous things. But when we start to talk about food, we're concerned about our health, we're concerned about being healthy, we're concerned about our well-being. So, what I really see coming in 2021 is an increased focus on foods that are functional right now. And again, as a disclaimer there, all food is functional, right? Proteins are building blocks for our bodies, carbohydrates are our energy. So they're all functional, but we're gonna start looking at things that are high in certain vitamins like B, B vitamins.
And we'll say, "Okay, these foods are really good for you because it's gonna give you energy, or it's gonna give you this." And so, people are gonna start looking for functional foods to help them keep their immunity up, to help them stay a little healthy, they're gonna look for that quick return. The younger generations are gonna look for the quick return, something that's gonna help them out now. The older generations are gonna look for a little further ahead, something that may help them out with their clear thinking, or maybe cardiovascular health, that type of stuff.
So what I see in 2021 is really kind of a continued growth in that area. And then I'm also gonna see a little bit of us... Traveling has stopped. We haven't been able to get out and enjoy the way we used to. And I don't see that really, really changing too much for the next few months. And then into 2021, I think travel is still going to be limited. That's all speculation. No one knows for sure. But we miss these experiences, we kind of wanna get back to some normalcy.
So I see us wanting to travel through our food. And whether that's remembering a trip you were on and eating like, "Hey, when I went to Thailand, I had curries," now you want to eat curries, remember it? Or whether you say, "Hey, I'd love to go to Thailand. So, I wanna eat some of the foods from there kind of make me have my adventure through my meal," I see that happening even more. And that's been a huge trend already. You're gonna have to tie that with something that they feel a little bit comfortable with. It's got to be a safe exploration for a lot of people just because of everything that has happened in 2020.
Erin: Right. I know, for me, I went to Italy about 20, 25 years ago, and had my first pizza margherita. And I swear, every country, every restaurant, every place I've been to since, if they have a wood-fired pizza margherita, I am trying it because I keep trying to go back to that authentic Italian, that perfect marriage of basil, and tomato, and mozzarella. And I just... Kind of invoking that memory of what it tasted like. And that kind of pizza is three or four simple ingredients. And I get...to your point, like the travel, I can think of other places I've visited trying to recreate those flavors in my not very chef specific small apartment kitchen. And it has been interesting to see friends and families who I know have been big travelers who were like, "Okay, I loved that taste. How do I recreate it since I can't go back to...or can't for a while go somewhere?"
Dax: What you just described to me, Erin, is what I call food memories, right? So, sometimes we eat something and it's like, it brings us back to being a kid with like our mom used to make this special type of chili, or you eating that margherita pizza that you had when you were in Naples or Rome. It's like it takes you back to that you're traveling through your food. That's a great example of what I think is gonna start happening again this year, people will look to connect with their travels, with their past through their food even more than they have previously. I think that that could expand beyond where you have been to where you want to go as well.
Erin: I like that. I really like, yeah, where you had been to where you wanna go. On that, from your vantage point, even though we've kind of been...to paraphrase the song that became popular this year, bored in the house, bored in the house bored, from your vantage point, what flavors have really stood out to you these days, at least from what you're seeing and what you're hearing this year?
Dax: So you're talking 2020, correct? So, I mean, my job, like I said, is I track trends, watch trends, and I'm always looking for the new thing, always trying to pop up in and explore that and make sure I'm like five years ahead of what's coming for most people. I'm trying things you haven't heard of yet, right?
What's happened in 2020 makes complete another sense is we've gone back to comfort foods. So, the exact opposite of what I'm normally going out there to do is happening, people are kind of resorting back to feeling good, maybe eating things that are high in calories, but things that they remember and they can control a little bit. So that's why you saw this huge spike in frozen pizzas or pizza places, and burgers, and home cooking, and next fast food. You saw this big spike in that and they got less adventurous in 2020, for a good reason, right?
So, new flavors that I've seen or the flavors I saw in 2020 are really the basic ones like mac and cheese, pizza, burgers, that type of stuff. What I see happening is probably what we call safe exploration. So, those foods that we're very comfortable with are there and we went to for a reason. Now when we start to branch out in 2021 with still some uncertainty, we're gonna probably look to take those ones that we feel very comfortable with and add a flavor twist on to them. Maybe a burger might become authentic Mexican. So, they might throw an ingredient in with the meat and get that flavor profile. So you get a burger with pickled onions, habanero crema, and cilantro. And so, they'll take something that you fully understand and twist it and tie it into something that maybe makes you feel a bit more comfortable to try it.
Erin: Right. Well, I will say, of all the comfort foods that a lot of people dug into, I would imagine the state of Illinois and the Dairy Council probably appreciates all the cheese that people have found comforting.
Dax: All the cheese and beer.
Erin: Yeah, all the cheese and beer, yeah. Just throw that little bit of Wisconsin love which is hard for me as an lllionoian to do but I digress. So, you talked about the comfort foods, and we talked about 2020 and COVID and the experiences. Where do you draw your inspiration from the flavor profiles that you help craft?
Dax: That is a fantastic question. So, you heard me talk a little earlier like it's a giant jigsaw puzzle to me and you're putting the pieces together. And you may talk to some people in the industry and they'll say, "Oh, I'll go to Technomics, I get my information here. I go to Mintel." And a lot of times inside of our industry, the manufacturing industry, when people come and talk about trends, they will show what I call eye charts, they'll just constantly show data, after data, after data, after data from the same source. So, I don't wanna use the word struggle because that's not the right word, but I strive to make sure I'm pulling information from multiple sources.
Because if I...let's say, I do use Mintel. So let's say I just use Mintel to go and show some company that carnitas are gonna be huge, right? Well, Mintel might be missing the mark because they're only watching certain restaurants. So, I feel like I have to look at multiple sources. I'm constantly tracking social media. I've got a few sources on social media that I look for and see what words are trending, what hashtags are popping up. I do scour the internet for Google Trends and see what people are looking and what they're searching for. And if there is interest or spiked interest in a certain area, I'm constantly going...in a normal year, I'm constantly going to conventions and seeing what people are talking about what they're showing, and seeing are a lot of people showing functional foods or a lot of people showing fat replacements. Or what are people talking about because that's gonna promote the next trend for retail or even for food service.
And then I'm kind of reading periodical, so there's my industry periodicals which get a little bit more in-depth and can be quite frankly, at times a little bit dry. And then you have the consumer ones like the Food Network magazines or Bon Appétit," the Saveurs, and those are what our consumers are reading and kind of getting their interest piqued with. And then finally...I combine all of that, but finally, I take what I'm finding from the data, the internet, the social media, and the magazines, and the conventions, and I go put it into practice when I go travel the country, and I'll eat street food in every city I go to. Sometimes I'll go to a city and I will literally eat at 12 restaurants in a single day.
And that seems kind of crazy, but I'm going to each restaurant, I've picked each restaurant for a specific purpose, I'll go then I'll order one or two dishes, I'll have a few bites. Usually, I'll have everything packaged up and I'll, like, give it to somebody who's on the street afterwards, I'm not leaving the food. But it's my way of actually seeing how it's put into practice. And I don't...and I hate to say this, but I'm not trying to knock the chains, they really serve a purpose in this country. But I avoid chains all costs when I'm traveling. Because in order for me to learn what's really happening out there, I need to see what's happening at the little places, right, the little mom and pop places that showcase the originality of an area or of a city.
So, I get my inspiration from going out and combining all of these together. But specifically, it's kind of...where I think our strong point is, is then actually putting our feet on the ground and trying this at street level, and say, okay, all this data is saying that sambal is an incredibly popular hot sauce. And we're seeing it here, here, and here. But they're not calling it out. So, we're able to kind of tie things together for people and give them a street-level perspective of what's happening.
Now, this last year has been challenging with it, I'm not able to go out. A lot of the restaurants have been shuttered or reduced to curbside, travel is non-existent. Even for me, I used to travel like 30% to 40% of the time for work. And now basically, I've kind of transferred a little bit of that to social media. So I'm watching... People are talking about watching what people are making, and kind of learning to shift my attention that way. I still have the data. I still have the magazines and everything. But I've lost that integral part of how people are really using that in the street level. So, kind of a little bit more of the shift I said to social media for this year. And hopefully, in 2021 or 2022, we'll have a new normal. And we'll probably get back a little bit to travel, it just won't be as much. And I'll be able to incorporate that street-level trends again. Did I answer that for you? Did I do an okay job?
Erin: You did. You made me want to go out with a food expert to a street food vendor and just... It's one thing when you're like the layperson who reports on the food industry, it's another thing when you're hearing someone describe. You're like, "Oh, you're one of the people that I'd love to go out to the..." When you go to street food you're like, "You're one of those people who knows how to order," it's like going out with a food critic.
Dax: It's kind of funny because people ask me what's your favorite restaurant when you go to this city? And I might name like a local fast-food chain in Portland or a food cart. Actually, my favorite place to go in Portland was this little tiny food cart called Artigiano. And it is tiny and it does only Italian food. And they have like six or eight tables. They sit you down and it's table service. And you don't get to order off the menu. You get to pick how much you want to spend. So I'll $35 and they just keep bringing you a little dishes until they think you're done. And it was amazing, right? And that's not for a normal person to say, "Hey, my favorite place to eat in this city is a food truck."
Erin: Yeah. I hear you. Talking to you today has made me realize how much of a memory invoker I am with some of my favorite food experiences because as you're talking about that, I'm thinking that the first time I went to Oahu and I when had gone back since, one of my favorite places to eat was just like a shrimp truck on the North Shore. It was right after I had just surfed the North, the little bit of a pipe. So I use surf very loosely because I fell down but hey, I surfed the pipeline on the North Shore.
Dax: You got off on the board.
Erin: I got to check it off. But then having a shrimp out of a truck to me that was the best food that I had on all of Oahu and just yeah, our conversations make me realize how much of my memory focused and food experience.
Dax: I think a lot of people are food-focused or have food-focused memories. If you ate a shrimp that remind you of that today, you almost feel like you're back there, right? It gives you that euphoria for like briefly maybe 5, 10 minutes, but it makes you feel awesome again, your memories of where you were? Food is really powerful. It truly is. I mean, it's an honor just to work in this industry and be able to feed people, and help them remember, and grow, and explore the world through my eye. I mean, I can't tell you how fortunate I feel to be doing this sometimes.
Erin: Right. Makes me think before it gets really cold here in the Midwest, I might need to find a friend to throw some water on me while I eat shrimp. Maybe I can recreate that before winter officially hits the Midwest. We've talked a lot, but not really about COVID. I think every podcast episode I have recorded since we started, I have talked to each interviewee about COVID and its impact. So, I'm gonna have a little bit of COVID conversation here. What is the top concern you're hearing from processors right now as it relates to COVID-19?
Dax: It's funny you say that that you've talked to everybody about COVID in your past few podcasts, and it's just a reality. Right now, it's real in their life. And I think we all wanna kind of get past it and go back to a new norm or get to a new norm and feel a little bit better about it move on. That said, what we've been experiencing with COVID-19 in, like, inside of Asenzya's walls here, what we're seeing is a lot of companies are asking us to help them focus on cost reduction strategies. They're using this time, because really, a lot of retailers aren't launching new products at this point. They had products ready to go but they didn't get launched because of COVID. So, now they have...I don't want to say downtime, but they have found time, right?
Normally, when you work in R&D, you're busy, you never get to those tasks that have teeth like cost reduction, and they're not as sexy, but you never quite get to them because you're always working on what's next. So, a lot of people have kind of turned their attention to how can we take what we've already done, either improve it or improve it by making it taste the same and keeping the costs steady? Because as COVID comes out, a lot of costs and things are gonna go up. I mean, it's the way the world...costs of building materials are going up, cost of ingredients are gonna go up. So, how can people kind of get ahead of that and help sustain that so it's not so impactful to the consumers? We work a lot with our partners to help reduce costs for them or to help keep them steady. We do that through using different ingredients or using...we have an ingredient called SuperCaps, I think I mentioned to you we have functional ingredients.
And then another area we saw a lot of people asking about and talking about with COVID is the virtual growth. So maybe it wasn't necessarily to flavor profiles, but I used to travel all over the country and it wasn't just to try food, a lot of it was to go and talk to our partners, our customers about, hey, what's coming up, what you should be paying attention to. And we didn't stop that. We didn't stop talking to them. We just stopped traveling. So, a lot of what we've done here is gone remote. Hope that answers your question.
Erin: All right. Oh, it definitely did. All the talking about food has made me hungry now.
Dax: What are you gonna have for lunch? You're gonna get some shrimp?
Erin: I don't know. You know I don't know but I can. I have a busy afternoon and I don't know that there's any street food around me right now. Well, not easily available. So, I'm in quite the conundrum at the moment. So yeah, and it's been so great to talk to you and to steal a little bit of this time, not only to learn about the trends and speak to the comfort food and how COVID has impacted everything.
I think we know in a lot of ways that like the supply chain has been disrupted, and the labor force has been disrupted with COVID and so many other things, but even just the traveling or lack thereof, and almost the domino effect of not being able to travel as much, and what that may...the impact that it may have, and how it may affect trends for the foreseeable future.
And I really appreciate it too, when you're talking about using social media that's something I admit I've been doing, I've been reporting for and been on the Food Processing team for 12 years. And I branded myself, I'm the Digital Doyenne. So I'm all things digital for food processing, and I use social media all the time. That's how I track the trends of things going on. And it's refreshing to hear that more often, especially with COVID, how much social media is being used to find those trends, to see those trends, in some places reach out to consumers, to find out what consumers are hungry for, not just food, but flavors and ideas. So it's really refreshing.
So, Dax, thank you so much, Dax, for sitting down with me. Is there anything you want to plug or promote before we sign off today?
Dax: Well, first of all, Erin, thank you so much for taking the time and thank your audience for spending time with us. I know that it means a lot to be able to communicate what we do and talk to people about it and love doing it. And I guess if you ask me if I want to plug anything, obviously, I work at Asenzya and we would be happy to help you out with anything. You can get my expertise on the trend forefront. But first and foremost, they are an unbelievable company. I've been working in manufacturing for 20 years, and they are truly a world-class company. They take care of their employees. And they are so focused on making sure that they take care of their partners that they're a great company to work for, and an even better company to work with.
Erin: Thank you so much, Dax, for joining me today. And thank you, everyone, for listening to our conversation and to our podcast episodes. Thanks for listening.
Dax: Take care. You have a great day.