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What happens when all-star chefs get in bed with Big Food?

Culinary icons from Paul Kahan to Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz to Matthias Merges, Ina Pinkney to Homaro Cantu have forged unlikely relationships with brands such as Nestle, Kraft, and Lean Cuisine. The results might surprise you.

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Almost two years ago a minor food media scandal erupted when a website called Snackpicks.com, owned by Kellogg's, published a pair of recipes purportedly written by Grant Achatz. If "Chef Grant Achatz's Ham and Curry Toppers" and "Chef Grant Actatz' [sic] Sweet Potato Toppers"—snacks built on Keebler crackers—seemed beneath the talents of the creator of Black Truffle Explosion and Pheasant, Shallot, Cider, Burning Oak Leaves, matters were made even more ignoble when the site misspelled the chef's name. At first Alinea's Nick Kokonas denied the recipes came from his partner, but he and Achatz later recalled that back in 2006—just one year after Alinea opened—the chef did in fact have a relationship with the snack maker.

Amid the chatter, Kellogg's quickly pulled the recipes down; according to a contract with Achatz, the company had only a limited time to use them after 2006. "I also think they modified the recipes themselves, therefore allowing them to publish them because technically they were not mine," recalls Achatz, who says he was paid to do a demo for company executives and contributed the recipes. (He says he doesn't remember how much he was paid.)

The incident was soon forgotten, but it provided a quick peek at a seemingly unlikely intersection of the food industry: when restaurant chefs meet industrial-scale food producers. It isn't as uncommon as you might think. Achatz says he doesn't do much of this type of work these days, but he's done it a bunch of times in the past.

"When I was at Trio, and even at the beginning of Alinea, it would be really easy to go sit in a creative meeting with developers and come up with a new gum flavor and get paid $5,000," he says. "But when you look at it from a big-picture point of view, they're talking about millions and millions of dollars, or maybe even if they hit the jackpot, a billion- dollar product. And you get $5,000. Nick and I were just like, 'Well, why don't we just come up with our own gum flavor and have it produced and market it ourselves and own it?' So we don't do too many anymore, for that reason."

"When I was at Trio, and even at the beginning of Alinea, it would be really easy to go sit in a creative meeting with developers and come up with a new gum flavor and get paid $5,000." —Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, Next, and the Aviary - JENNIFER HIGGINS
  • Jennifer Higgins
  • "When I was at Trio, and even at the beginning of Alinea, it would be really easy to go sit in a creative meeting with developers and come up with a new gum flavor and get paid $5,000." —Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, Next, and the Aviary

Many Chicago chefs continue to dip their spoons into Big Food's kettle, participating in recipe development, brainstorming sessions, focus groups, and product evaluations for giant companies such as Kraft, Nestle, United Airlines, McDonald's, Taco Bell, and KFC, or trade groups like the National Pork Board or Dairy Management Inc. Tony Mantuano helped create dishes like steak tagliata for the Nutrisystem weight loss plan. Ina Pinkney developed recipes and appeared in a commercial for Quaker Oats. Rick Bayless endorsed a chicken sandwich for Burger King on national television (and donated his $300,000 fee to charity).

Often the money is good, the commitment is minimal, and the chef's contribution is never revealed outside the corporate test kitchen, with the companies carefully guarding their proprietary stake. But increasingly there's a marketing angle to it too. The company gets to tout the respected chef's creative input—not to mention his credibility or star power—as an integral component of this frozen dinner, that fast-food sandwich, or a recipe for Ham and Curry Toppers.

Take a stroll down the frozen food aisle in Jewel, where the dizzying selection of Nestle's Lean Cuisine boxes occupies prime retail real estate. There among the company's "Culinary Collection" you might select a box of roasted chicken and garden vegetables, stamped with a "Chef's Pick" logo and featuring a photo of an enticing bowl of chicken tenderloins and vermicelli in a "spicy fire-roasted tomato sauce." You might be surprised to flip it over and see the smiling face of Paul Kahan on the back.

What is Chicago's beloved champion of seasonal and sustainable cooking doing in bed with the world's largest manufacturer of frozen food? He's not braising pork belly in maple syrup.

"The reason why I said yes to it is that I feel like I learn a ton about a ton of different things," says Kahan. "It's a different approach. I learn a lot about food and the business and what consumers like, and I just find it fascinating. I mean, we make a new dish, we put it out, if people like it we're like, 'This is great'—and we hope people like it. These guys do probably millions of dollars worth of research because rolling out a product for a big company like that is a big proposition. There are focus groups and there are tastings with consumers. It's just incredible the amount of steps they go through before one new product is released."

Since 2010, Kahan has been a member of Lean Cuisine's Culinary Roundtable, a group of six prominent chefs led by Nestle's director of culinary strategy and innovation, Lucien Vendôme. Vendôme, the former executive chef of Nestle's Stouffer's Hotels, took the job in 1993 when the chain was sold off, and began a four-year educational program on the elements of cooking and taste at all levels of the corporate hierarchy. After that Nestle began bringing in consulting restaurant chefs regularly. "If you have ten chefs and each one is making one lasagna and you tasted each one," Vendôme says, "then you're gonna start seeing some key drivers that make this lasagna excellent. Once you accumulate all this knowledge, then you go back and say, 'Let's take all the best stuff we saw from the chefs and let's translate it into our factory.' We started doing that little by little."

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Eventually Nestle formalized the roundtable, taking a "holistic approach" that combines product development and marketing. The chefs get together three times a year, three days at a time, spending the first day talking about what's happening in American restaurant trends and brainstorming on a particular project the company might be working on. Next they come up with a menu, buy ingredients, and spend a whole day cooking, each chef paired with a Nestle chef technologist. "Then the third day we literally do the roundtable," says Vendôme. "We put food on the table and all of us taste each other's food, build on each other's ideas, and agree on what is the best we want to take from them." Nestle also takes the chefs on field trips to its farms and manufacturing facilities, and gives them an inside view of its operation.

Vendôme acknowledges Nestle can't put a true Kahan dish into a box. Based on the handful of Lean Cuisine dishes I choked down, they're not even close. But the goal is to incorporate key attributes of the chefs' styles—say, brightly colored roasted vegetables or light, vibrant sauces—into an affordable product that target customers will buy.

Kahan says he respects Nestle's efforts to make tastier, healthier food. "I feel like any area can be a vehicle to make people eat better," he says. "And so if I can influence the way kids eat in schools or the way housewives eat with Lean Cuisine, it's a step in the right direction for me."

Kahan is fascinated by the way this other world works. "We think differently," he says of chefs like himself. "We're in little finite controllable worlds that we create." Those who work in the mass-production food industry, on the other hand, "have tons of constraints and it's really difficult for them to think out of the box, because this has to be frozen, this has to be coming in in semi loads. So I think they look to chefs to sort of take them out of the box and see if they can translate those things into real-world concepts."

This isn't Kahan's first or last experience with Big Food. He served for two years as a spokesman for the National Pork Board, and last year he and partner Donnie Madia participated in a two-day consulting session for McDonald's (about which he's bound to secrecy). Back in the early 90s, when Kahan was sous chef at Topolobampo, a group of Taco Bell executives approached Rick Bayless and asked if he'd do some consulting work for them. Bayless wasn't interested, but Kahan was, and the boss agreed to let him represent his brand.

"I flew out to Orange County [with] two coolers full of sauces and different rices and different kinds of beans, and basically did a presentation for the Taco Bell staff on potential recipes and ingredients for them. I'm not going to say I was directly responsible for the 7-Layer Burrito," he jokes. "But it was kind of right after that that they were like, 'Whoa, look at all this stuff! We can put it all together in one thing!'"

For Kahan a large part of the incentive to take on this sort of work is the exposure he gets to large sectors of the food system that most people don't see. But it's also financial. He won't disclose how much money he makes from Nestle (it's a lot), but says he feeds a good chunk of it back into One Off Hospitality, his restaurant group encompassing Blackbird, Avec, Big Star, the Violet Hour, the Publican, Publican Quality Meats, and Nico Osteria. "I actually use a portion of it to pay a chef in the company."

"We don't have any experience in creating products like that, but what we can offer them is an education in flavor." —Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco - CHANDLER WEST
  • Chandler West
  • "We don't have any experience in creating products like that, but what we can offer them is an education in flavor." —Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco

What Kahan did for Taco Bell and what a number of restaurant chefs do for Big Food is something often referred to in the industry as ideation—brainstorming meant to get research and development people thinking more creatively. But according to some food industry consultants, it's rare that any chef's creative input leads directly to a marketable product.

"More often than not, corporations do very little with the ideas they get from chefs," says Claudia Sutherland, a Minnesota consultant who brings together companies and chefs for ideation sessions and other work. "When you've got people in a room, you've got a finance guy, you've got an ops guy, you've got a marketing guy, you've got a sales guy. And the sales guy says, 'Well, I can't sell that to my customers. They don't want that, they want A, B, and C.' Or the sales guy will say, 'I want that for my customers,' and the ops guy will say, 'Well, fine, how are you going to afford it?' or 'How are you going to manufacture it?' Everybody not working in unison with each other is the biggest problem. The second biggest problem is that they're all working on the same page but it requires new equipment or a new way of thinking, and it's very tough to turn these companies around and have them think differently about a product."

Bayless, who went on to work with Taco Bell four or five times and who's also consulted for Nestle, says you can rarely point to a chef's direct influence on a particular product. "They would say, OK, make us ten dishes that have your flavors, but are all focused on whatever they had chosen that they wanted to explore. It's not creating products with them. We don't have any experience in creating products like that, but what we can offer them is an education in flavor, in ingredients sometimes, especially for some of the big corporations where a lot of the R&D people come from a food science background. Those people don't really have a whole lot of experience with good food."

Though the corporations might not be familiar with what Bayless does, he's well versed in their methodology, having conducted in-house ideations for his own product line with his own restaurant chefs. He also points out that creating a restaurant menu is itself a form of ideation—although not the collaborative kind practiced by Big Food. "A chef is usually successful by being very singular in his or her vision," he says. "You've worked on some dishes for a few weeks, and then you get them on your menu and you're constantly refining them. It's not creativity by committee, which never works anywhere. The big corporations, they're all creativity by committee, and everybody has to be satisfied and think it's really good and all that. But by the time they're satisfied, you've not satisfied really anyone. So it's such a different process than being a chef."

Typically there's no public face to the work chefs do for Big Food, and the ideation is shrouded in secrecy. I talked to number of local chefs who've been paid well to take part in ideation sessions at Kraft Foods' headquarters in Northbrook. Rob Levitt of the Butcher & Larder has participated in a few. None of them were willing to talk about what they did because they've signed nondisclosure agreements. "They were really, really strict with shit to the point where I was turned off," says another chef, who didn't want to be named. A Kraft spokesperson turned down requests to interview Harry Crane, the corporation's executive chef, formerly of Arlington Height's Le Titi De Paris and a past instructor at Kendall College.

Food scientist Kantha Shelke thinks this sort of reticence is a mistake. "It seems like a missed opportunity," she says. "Especially today, when the distrust of processed foods is at an all-time high. Ignorance of processed foods is at an all-time high. Interest in foods and health foods is very, very high. It's palpable."

Shelke, who runs the food-science research firm Corvus Blue, says there's a fundamental disconnect between restaurant chefs, who have the ability to operate nimbly, and large manufacturers, who are less flexible as operations increase in scale. As a chemist, she sees herself as an educator to her clients (and the media) who can help both sides communicate with one another.

Ina Pinkney, Chicago's "Breakfast Queen,"  has probably done more corporate consulting—for companies including Healthy Choice, Quaker Oats, and Hillshire Farm—than any other chef in the city. The money's “just gravy,” she says. - STEPHEN HAMILTON
  • Stephen Hamilton
  • Ina Pinkney, Chicago's "Breakfast Queen," has probably done more corporate consulting—for companies including Healthy Choice, Quaker Oats, and Hillshire Farm—than any other chef in the city. The money's “just gravy,” she says.

She's worked with chefs like Ina Pinkney, who's probably done more corporate consulting—ideation, focus groups, recipe development—than any other Chicago chef. Pinkney's not leery of talking about her experiences. Chicago's "Breakfast Queen" figures that up until she closed her eponymous restaurant last New Year's Eve, she worked for at least a dozen companies, including Healthy Choice, Cargill, Quaker Oats, Land O'Lakes, and Hillshire Farm. She says she's made cereal shapes out of clay for Kellogg's, called out KFC executives for serving grilled chicken containing rendered beef fat, and created a recipe for avocado hot cocoa for a Mexican grower's association (see the recipe on the Bleader). The money's "just gravy," she says, but she figures she's made anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000 a year.

"One of the reasons why they always ask me is because I am front line with consumers," she says. "So I can watch what people are eating and how they're eating it."

The avocado cocoa came about when she and her former general manager, Seana Monahan, were asked to develop five recipes for the grower's group. "Everybody thinks of avocado as Mexican," says Monahan. So the challenge was to figure out "What kind of ethnic twists can you put on it? How can you integrate it into dessert? Can you bake with it? When we looked at it, that was one of those outside-the-box things."

The pair turned to Shelke for advice, who advised them to take advantage of the fruit's fatty texture. "I see an avocado," she says. "I think something that's fatlike, but a good fat, rich, that at the right temperature could actually be made into a sauce or into a liquid. Avocado has a lower-melting fat component that pulls out more of the very unique tones of chocolate and heightens them. The end result was almost a dessertlike, creamy taste. Sometimes taking two food ingredients that may not exist in nature together can have very surprising results."

It's not always true that chefs have no influence on the back end of product development. Mary Haderlein owns a Chicago-based food-innovation consulting firm called the Hyde Park Group. For more than a dozen years she's worked with companies such as Kraft, Kellogg's, and Starbucks, bringing them together with local restaurant chefs in the ideation stages and beyond. This year she's worked with a half-dozen local chefs, sometimes out of her 4,000-square-foot West Loop facility, sometimes on-site with her clients, and sometimes in the chefs' own restaurants.

She won't name the chefs she works with: "I think the chefs, who are very public figures in their own regard, don't want any backlash from being affiliated with one of these companies." She's keen on those with a modernist bent, because they tend to have more food science in their backgrounds. "They may bring chefs in and say, 'OK, we really want to understand where we might be able to go to help mom get this dinner on the table quickly.' And so the chefs may come up with: 'Hey, the hardest part of a dish [is] the sauces.' They're able to provide guidance on the integrity of the food, and that's really delivering on a marsala, or delivering on a bechamel, or some type of a prototype of a sauce."

Chef Matthias Merges (Yusho, Billy Sunday, A10) has been through all stages of the product development process—and the work he's done with giant food manufacturing companies actually helped revolutionize the way restaurant chefs cook. Back in the late 90s, when he was chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter's, Merges spearheaded the development of Trotter-branded in-flight meals for United Airlines, a process he describes as "crazy." At night Merges oversaw service in the restaurant, but during the day he led a small team developing recipes that could be scaled up, produced, and packaged by United's catering subcontractors. "You have to turn your mind upside down and rethink your thoughts about food and how you are able to articulate some of the nuance," he says. At the same time Merges was accountable for keeping the costs of the recipes within the very tight margins that the airline allowed for first- and business-class meals. "You get to have $11.78 for a meal for someone, and then we have to back end from that point."

"When you're young and you're a chef, you're like, 'I can't learn anything from these big companies. As a matter of fact you can, and you can learn a lot."—Chef Matthias Merges of Yusho, Billy Sunday, and A10 - RAMZI DREESSEN
  • Ramzi Dreessen
  • "When you're young and you're a chef, you're like, 'I can't learn anything from these big companies. As a matter of fact you can, and you can learn a lot."—Chef Matthias Merges of Yusho, Billy Sunday, and A10

Merges would fly to Virginia and do tastings of prototypes that a company called Cuisine Solutions created from his recipes. Then he checked on production at United caterer Gate Gourmet, flying out to the company's commissaries all over the world, doing spot checks on all the dishes, and tasting them as a passenger would before signing off.

"When you're young and you're a chef, you're like, 'I can't learn anything from these big companies,'" says Merges. "As a matter of fact you can, and you can learn a lot." For one thing, Merges, through his work with Cuisine Solutions, was introduced to the sous vide method, the technique of cooking vacuum-sealed food in low-temperature circulating water baths to ensure evenly cooked food that maintains its juiciness. At the time the method was not uncommon in European fine-dining restaurants, but virtually unknown in American ones.

Yet Cuisine Solutions had pioneered sous vide on an industrial scale, using it to manufacture precooked food that it sold to large institutions like hotels, airlines, and the military. The company had a vested interest in introducing the technique to top U.S. chefs—all the better to tout its own products if Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Charlie Trotter were using the same technique. And in Merges the company found an eager adherent.

"I remember one day when I'm cooking on the line—it's so brutal," he recalls. "It's like, 'I wish I can manipulate the temperature and control it to a point that is so much more refined than I can do with my hands.' I'm like, 'There has to be a way to get this [technology] from this million-square-foot factory into a 900-square-foot kitchen.'"

The problem was, there were no easily available or affordable immersion circulators on the market. The earliest domestic chefs using them were scaring up used lab equipment on eBay—not exactly the safest of practices if, say, your immersion circulator was once used to manufacture batteries. So Merges placed a call to Polyscience, a Niles-based manufacturer of high-precision temperature-control equipment used mostly in industrial or medical applications—the kind of gear you'd use in a lab to separate DNA or measure the viscosity of a fluid. "I said, 'Hey, did you ever think about temperature control for cooking?'" Merges recalls.

"He got through to customer service," says Polyscience's Philip Preston. "And the customer service rep said, 'I have no idea what you're talking about, but our president loves to cook.'" Preston had never heard of the sous vide method, but he was fascinated. He took one of his immersion circulators to Trotter's and Merges told him all about the technique. Within eight months Preston had formed a culinary unit in his company. "We ended up with probably about 13 of our units in just the Trotter's kitchen," he says. Today sous vide cooking is ubiquitous in fine-dining restaurants in the U.S., and Polyscience is the leading supplier of immersion circulators to restaurant kitchens.

Top Chef contestant Chris Jones, director of culinary innovation at Hampton Creek, helped launch the company's first product: the eggless Just Mayo. It's now stocked at nearly every Whole Foods. - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Top Chef contestant Chris Jones, director of culinary innovation at Hampton Creek, helped launch the company's first product: the eggless Just Mayo. It's now stocked at nearly every Whole Foods.

There's probably no chef more suited to bridging the restaurant and industrial food worlds than Moto's Homaro Cantu, who throughout his career has assiduously applied high-tech and scientific techniques to his cooking.

"We can't make real change in the food world—and I mean on a mass level—without big companies playing a role," he says. "There are too many people that rely on those companies for food and for calories—they're not going away."

Cantu also runs his own firm, Cantu Designs, offering his services in consulting and product development to companies like General Mills, Kellogg's, Quaker, and a California tech start-up called Hampton Creek Foods that's trying to develop plant-based egg substitutes. "They asked us to do something for them without eggs," says Cantu. "They give you an egg that's made from vegetables—no unhappy chickens, no pissed-off farmers, no salmonella, no H1N1, none of that. And it's got a list of ingredients that doesn't [require] heavy equipment to process, doesn't include all of the costs associated with producing chickens. I'd say it's cheaper eventually than producing chickens. The carbon footprint is less."

Cantu also contributed indirectly to Hampton Creek (which counts Bill Gates among its investors) when former Moto sous chef and Top Chef contestant Chris Jones took a job with the company as its director of culinary innovation. Hampton Creek recently launched its first product, Just Mayo, an eggless mayonnaise substitute now on the shelves in nearly every Whole Foods in the country. Jones spearheaded its development. And the product is pretty convincing.

"They were really looking for that chef that could blend science and creativity and art," says Jones. "They had all this biochemistry going on, but there wasn't a way of putting it all together." He says that on his first day he immediately got to work with the company's scientists to develop better emulsification systems by determining which gums and hydrocolloids could improve their product. "At Moto, you know these things off the top of your head."

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The company is currently developing a scrambled-egg replacement and an eggless dough that can be baked or eaten raw. Then it's on to sauces and dressings. Jones, who didn't go to college, says, "Science was the only class I ever got a good grade in."

He's excited about the work he's done at Hampton Creek, but there are challenges adjusting to the different priorities and rewards. Take shelf life. "In a restaurant you throw something out in three days," Jones says. However, "when you're producing a commercial product, people expect this product to last. It's getting your prototype—your beautiful, beautiful mayo that lasts however long in the lab—to last six to nine months on the shelf. That's where it starts to get tricky, where you have to really work with what you're putting into it and try to match the flavor of what your prototype was."

For the mayo project he says he made about 2,000 different prototypes. It's incrementally rewarding work, quite different from the instantly gratifying environment of the restaurant. "You probably learn more from failure than you do from success," he says. "If you get it right on the first try, you may not know why. If it takes you 200 tries to get there, you're going to understand everything that got you there."

But it's sometimes true that nothing can prepare a chef better for the corporate world than life on the line. Jones says if it weren't for his seven years at Moto, he wouldn't be where he is today. "The greatest thing Omar does is he doesn't train cooks," he says. "He trains chefs. So Tuesday, we'd have our 10 AM meeting. He'd force you to bring something to the table. You had to come up with something creative. And that right there teaches you to go, 'There is no box.' I learned that from working at Moto—that anything is possible, no matter how outrageous the idea."

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