Chefs' inspiration: Personal experience drives the process, but other factors enter the mix

Nov. 21, 2017 | by Elliot Maras
Chefs' inspiration: Personal experience drives the process, but other factors enter the mix

Image courtesy of iStock

Today's chefs have access to more information than ever thanks to the Internet. When it comes to finding inspiration for new ways to entice customers, however, chefs still rely first and foremost on their own experiences, according to a trio of chefs during October's Fast Casual Executive Summit at the Nashville Omni.

They revealed that the quest for inspiration is ongoing, but the chefs' ideas — no matter where they come from — must always be balanced against the needs of the organizations they serve.

At left, moderator Jason Herron and chefs Brad Kent and William Eudy listen to Pat Peterson make a point about having balanced organizational input on menu development.

Organizational balance needed

Pat Peterson, executive chef at Beefsteak, a vegetable-centric fast casual restaurant, recounted an experience in which this balance wasn't achieved. The restaurant wanted to introduce fresh ingredients, but in this particular instance, marketing drove the menu and sidestepped culinary input. Hence, Peterson observed that the guests were not enjoying the food, despite having an amazing chef on staff. Beefsteak's parent company, Think Food Group, features executive chef Jose Andres, who is known for avant-garde cuisine in his restaurants and a food truck.

"True innovation requires guest feedback," Peterson said. If the innovation only gets operations feedback, the menu item will be operationally driven.

What was missing in the above example was providing a "depth of flavor," something that Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream has accomplished with its kaleidoscope of flavors. 

William Eudy, corporate executive chef at McAlister's Deli, referred to it as creating "craveable flavors."

What inspires?

Inspiration comes from a variety of places, and Peterson and Eudy said they get inspiration from daily living.

"Inspiration comes from your entire living experience," Eudy said.

"I'm very disciplined to spend time on R&D every day," Peterson said. 

As simple as these ideas sound, the process of taking an idea to a menu item is anything but, especially for large organizations.

Menu development can be complex

Brad Kent, executive chef at Blaze Pizza, said he has to convince company management to try new menu ideas, which can take a few weeks.

Eudy said his new ideas have to be screened and tested, which is a multi-step process. He said 12 ideas a month get screened by 2,000 guests. New ideas are also presented to focus groups. The entire process usually takes 18 months.

Peterson said the process takes less time for a smaller organization. He talks to customers daily for feedback on menu ideas. In coming up with new ideas, he considers his customer profiles and his budget.

Out of 100 new ideas, only five will be monetized, Peterson said.

What motivates a chef?

Asked what they love most about working in the fast casual segment, Kent said he likes providing nutrition to hundreds of thousands of people a week.

"You get to feed so many people good fresh, wholesome food," agreed Eudy.

Asked what advice they have for executives at their company, Eudy said executives need to be open with their culinary team and must listen to guests.

How executives can help

Restaurant executives must play their parts to help foster menu innovation.

One way to do that, Peterson said, was to create a collaborative environment. Chefs, for their part, have to expect that their ideas will have to be reviewed by the purchasing, operations and training departments, since all are partners.

During the question and answer session, one audience member asked what a restaurant should do if they can't afford a professional chef. Eudy pointed out that many foodservice distributors and vendors have staff chefs, so brands should rely on them to help them create new menu items.

Peterson said foodservice distributor chefs will conceptualize menu items, but it is up to the individual restaurant to know how to make it commercially viable.

He also suggested that foodservice establishments work with consultants on menu innovation. 

The session demonstrated there is no single path to successful menu development, but a successful menu is always a collaborative effort.

Registration is now open for the 2018 Fast Casual Executive Summit in Seattle. 

Cover photo: iStock


Topics: Food & Beverage



Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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