Q&A: Reynolds executive development chef provides insights on plant-based movement

June 19 , 2019

From the pages of the PerishablePundit.com

Just as no man is an island, success in the foodservice end of the business depends powerfully on the operators interacting with their distributors.

Produce shippers are particularly poor at selling to foodservice. They are used to retail, where items are just put out for sale, not foodservice, where the hardest part of the sale is helping a restaurant see that it actually should have dishes that include one’s produce item on the menu.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out how Reynolds‘ Executive Development Chef, Diane Camp, thought about issues such as this before her appearance at the 2019 London Produce Show Foodservice Forum on the Power of Plants panel discussion with Sarah Wassermann, Head of Development and Head of the Central Kitchen, Mildreds; Aggie Morrell, Head of Food, POD; and Bill Collison, Founder, Bills:

Q: The growing desire to eat more plants continues unabated in the UK, as veganism, vegetarianism, and plant-based eating tick the boxes for consumers concerned with their health and the environment. You bring an extensive background and multi-faceted expertise to the table. Could you talk about your burgeoning role as Reynolds’ Executive Development Chef, the scope of your work, and broad, diverse customer base? [Restaurants and pubs, QSR, hotels, event catering, heath care, education, workplace catering, travel and leisure.]

A: Reynolds is a wholesaler of fruits and veg, which makes my title a little bit tricky in the sense that I am a development chef, but I interact with other development chefs for restaurants and food bars and hotels around the country.

We’re focusing in a big way on trends. I’m new to this role. I’ve worked with Reynolds for seven years, but I’ve only been promoted with this position in the past six months, so I am trying to change a few things. One of things is giving more insight into trends development to our customers.

Q: I want to dive into some of those insights, but also how you approach those trends in food development to create menu solutions for your different customers. Do you adapt or simplify dish complexities and recipe ingredients, for example, to meet the varying needs of some of the larger chains and QSRs, compared to smaller restaurants, versus corporate work environments, etc.

A: We do have quite a broad base of customers. We predominantly serve a lot of High Street brands, for example, Wasabi, and Pizza Express, and Peach Pubs, Carluccio’s, Gaucho. … Restaurant-wise, a lot of the chains, like Zizzi and Coco di Mama, and I’m engaged with the development chefs. At some of the smaller restaurants, particularly, I’ve been actively involved in helping them to develop menu ideas.

Q: How important is that expertise to your customers, and to the Reynolds’ business model? How do you connect the trends to the food establishment’s operations, and the desires its diners to help provide innovative menu solutions, while accommodating varying logistics and cost/pricing issues?

A: Because of the kind of unique situation we’ve got at the company, we don’t always see the end results. We’re blue sky-thinkers. For example, we look at this interesting produce item, a fruit or veg, and what trends go hand in hand with that. So, what we try to put together is a portfolio of what we think the next big trends are going to be, and obviously with that we recommend products that we would sell to them. I’m in the really early stages of developing this in my new role.

Q: Could you elaborate? What are the next big trends your customers need to heed to stay relevant and to gain an edge in a competitive foodservice landscape?

A: I think menu development is very important, and innovation is vital, especially in our current time. There are a lot of plant-based trends and vegan growth, which is very exciting to be a part of.

Q: Could you walk us through the development process, from when you come up with a novel idea, or want to incorporate a tasty new variety or unique item, to turning it into a reality on a menu? After all, the foodservice industry is dealing with the inherent characteristics of fresh produce, issues of perishability, fluctuating consistency and availability …

A: That is a good question. I think with regards to fresh produce, we are quite lucky with what our customers take. They generally do take slightly more consistent products. I guess that’s where the challenge comes in. How do you make a tomato become exciting? That’s where we’re working with our other suppliers that sometimes help us with non-perishable items. For example, we have a company we work with that creates sauces and relishes, and they just brought out a whole vegan range.

So, one of the dishes I created for a customer was using English asparagus and this vegan béarnaise, which is almost a classic, hollandaise and asparagus, but my use of selling it as a vegan dish suddenly makes it interesting and trend-right again.

Q: So, this is more a re-marketing or repositioning of a familiar flavor profile that’s used with both vegetables, and meats. … Are you also looking to replicate flavors, tastes and textures of meats and turning to the fresh produce world to create plant-based alternatives?

A: One of the trends I’m hoping to explore is the old favorites being reinvented with a plant-based twist. Instead of serving a rib eye steak with onion rings, we made a celeriac steak, slow cooked it for 6 hours and then pan fried it and served it with an onion puree. That’s a good classic, which we’ve just interpreted.

We’ve recently done a recipe card for a vegan taco, so instead of using pulled pork, we used pulled mushrooms. We also have a mushroom ceviche, and Korean BBQ vegan buns.

Vegan jerky can be made from a whole host of different fruit and vegetables, ideally using a dehydrator.

Q: Your reinvented dishes inspire new thinking on where the fresh produce industry can take this plant-based movement! There’s mounting discussion, at least in the U.S., of missed opportunities for the produce industry and the need to jump more forcefully into this scene to capitalize on plant-based trends, which are adeptly being ratcheted up in packaged and processed foods.

A: Agreed. We’re almost at this stage now where we default to a soy bean or a chick pea. We almost neglect what could be a true plant-based choice, which would be your fruit or veg. I think that will be a driving force from the produce side, to make it more of a feature, rather than use these defaults. I’m in total agreement.

It has not really been a big discussion here in the UK, but it is looming. I do think it’s something that will spring up. The hot topic at the moment in the UK is the whole single use plastic and packaging, given the media attention lately, and on television, through Netflix, the Blue Planet. And people being made more aware of environmental issues. I think that is a hotter topic getting the attention here.

Q: But issues of sustainability and the environment can overlap with plant-based trends. … Do you think that’s integrated into plant-based diets or is the shift primarily due to other reasons, such as health and nutrition?

A: I think it’s integrated in and actually I think that flexitarainism, which leads into plant-based, will be, for me, the biggest mover rather than vegan food. People almost default to vegan food because they know that means no meat, no dairy. But I think flexitarian is a bigger trend, because if you look at all the plant-based hype that’s been going on in regards to a burger that looks like a burger that bleeds like a burger but it’s all plant-based, this probably isn’t going to appeal to a vegan, but it definitely will appeal to a flexitarian, who’s doing a sort of sustainability path or maybe for health reasons.

Q: Where do you see the greatest growth opportunities? Do you forecast certain fruits or vegetables skyrocketing in popularity, i.e., avocados are hot, or is it more about the repositioning of produce items, enlivening their uses in recipes and menus to meet the trends? How do these trends ebb and flow with specific products versus looking at the big picture?

A: I think avocados are still a hot topic, but I think jackfruit has grown in popularity. A few years ago no one even knew what a jackfruit was, and now you see it everywhere. Even to the point where some of our chain restaurants like Pizza Express, which has over 300 restaurants, are putting jackfruit on their menu. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a chayote or a chow. That’s apparently become quite a newcomer to the party.

Q: When Pizza Express adds a vegan pulled jackfruit pizza and plant-based carrot cake to its menu, is this because consumers are asking for it, or because it creates a differentiated offering, and education and marketing that comes with it?

A: I think it’s a few things. Restaurants have realized if they don’t have that offering, then they will lose people coming to their restaurants. A lot of people who choose to be flexaterians of vegans dictate to their social group where to eat. So, if restaurants aren’t catering to everyone in the party, instead of losing one customer they probably lose that group of people; that restaurant doesn’t offer a good plant-based menu for me, so let’s go and eat somewhere else.

Q: That’s an interesting point, that restaurants could lose traditional meat and potato customers if they don’t expand their menus to accommodate their flexitarian and vegan friends and family. You’re so innovative and have won many awards for your creative dishes. Some of your recipes are very fancy. Going back to a discussion we had earlier, are there limits to the type of foodservice operation that can take them on, the level of chef training and skill needed, etc.

A: A lot of our recipes are the blue sky thinking, kind of attracting the chefs to have a look at what we can offer. Sometimes with regards to presentations, I need to do the research on what customer I’m presenting to, and that’s what makes it interesting.

I must have the flexibility to go one day and create an amazing 5-star dish, and another day I need to cook and prepare a menu where the kitchen staff are only allowed a little paring knife. I guess I do a bit of both really. I quite enjoy that flexibility of being able to change between different restaurant styles and cooking styles.

Q: It sets you up for fun challenge.

A: Absolutely. What I quite like is this whole vegan trend has exploded, which has really given us an opportunity to go mad with exploring. I guess that’s what’s quite nice about my position. … We can have a little bit of fun, and do the blue sky thinking, hey, what about making this egg mayonnaise, but instead of using egg, use tofu, and it’s whether the customer chooses to take that further. But the fact that we get to come up with these creative and innovative ideas is what keeps my job exciting.

Q: With that example where you replace egg with tofu, is there any fresh produce you throw in there!

A: Well, yes, that’s a good point. We did a vegan-style afternoon tea, with a menu including red pepper, basil and red onion marmalade quiches, using our vegan egg mayonnaise and cress, so that’s a touch of produce!

On the savory side, we also did a sweet chilli wrap with citrus spiced salad, hummus, avocado, pickled beetroot, and micro basil. And Garden pots with hummus, black quinoa, and a selection of raw vegetables and pea shoots. Then on the sweet side, we did a vegan chocolate mousse with raspberries, and fruit kebabs with dragon fruit, pineapple in lime and melon. We made our meringues with apple fiber and chickpea brine. A pina colada dessert was prepared with char grilled pineapple, coconut Chantilly cream, popcorn, yuzu pearls, and caramel sauce.

Q: How creative. That takes traditional English tea time to a new level!

A: My presentations are to other development chefs. And they won’t take onboard exactly what I present. A good example would be where I presented to one of the chain restaurants. I created a white chocolate and asparagus tart, basically where you infuse the milk with the asparagus. The chain’s development chefs turned it into a panna cotta, using the same method, taking the ideas and incorporating them to make it their own.

Q: I’m not sure in your role and in your collaborative process of food development how involved you get on the supply side. I was reading about how Reynolds works to bring its customers closer to the growers and producers.

A: Yes, that’s more on the procurement side, which is not something I take care of.

Q: So, when you’re creating these recipes, do you need to know what’s available, or you’re coming up with the macro concepts in a team effort to execute them. For instance, would you channel specific items based on “what’s in season” (or at least perceived that way by consumers in our fluid global trade environment), and build recipes around that …

A: It’s a little of both. Seasonal menus are an interesting topic, understanding of seasonality is completely shifting. For example, you can get strawberries all year-round. We live in a global village. It’s about where you best source it when it’s in season from that particular country. So, the whole dynamics of seasonality is changing. Yes, I do take that into consideration, and I am quite lucky because our work is where our main warehouse is. If I ever get stuck for inspiration, I just walk downstairs and see what’s available.

Q: That’s so cool, and very efficient.

A: It really is cool. And just getting advice when I’m there. That’s where our procurement team plays a vital role as well. They’ve got the ears to the growers. One of my procurement team came to me to let me know that sweet potatoes are going to be really expensive in the next few months because of all the flooding that happened in America, so to just make your customers aware of that. I think it’s important to have that routine relationship with procurement. Sweet potatoes might be available now, but if I’m presenting to a customer looking to put it on their menu for the next six months, we can give them that insight, which is very valuable information for our customers.

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