It’s not every day that this humble editor has lunch prepared and served to him by a corporate executive chef.
Most days it’s Brown Bag Bernie pouring over the sports page of the Chicago Sun-Times (I get the Chicago Tribune at home). Yesterday was different, however. Yours truly and Associate Editor Alyse Thompson zipped over to our close neighbor, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, to visit their new culinary center as well as have lunch.
I mean, what better way to experience the benefits of a culinary center than by tasting and savoring the flavors? At least, that’s the way I positioned it with Kelli Heinz, Bell’s director of marketing and industry affairs. Of course, Heinz, who’s known me for a few years, did a virtual wink and agreed. After all, aren’t all journalists always seeking a free meal? Must be the pay.
The five-minute drive from our Deerfield, Ill. offices to Bell’s culinary center in Northbrook proved easy and short enough. But it had been awhile since I had visited the company’s headquarters and things have and are changing.
In addition to the culinary center, there have been several additions and expansions over the years. It’s beginning to “look like a compound,” Heinz remarked. Indeed. Given our nose for news (and food), it wasn’t hard to find the “kitchen,” otherwise known as the Culinary Center, in the compound.
The 3,300-sq.-ft. area contains a reception area, conference room, a “working” kitchen, a demonstration kitchen and a crew of seven. The demonstration kitchen features equipment that can mimic many commercial manufacturing processes to better simulate customer products. Headed by Christopher Warsow, a Detroit native, the chef and food scientist integrates both skills wonderfully.
As he pointed out, there was a time when chefs and food scientists didn’t always get along. Today, it’s different. For example, Warsow has three chefs and three food scientists working with him to meet the demands from customers, which range from ingredient companies to Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) corporate chefs. There’s also a flavorist that’s just dedicated to the Culinary Center.
“Chef-driven innovation is crucial to many of our customers’ innovation pipelines,” he explains. “The Culinary Center was built to provide a forum for collaboration between the chefs and food scientists of Bell and the customer. It is also a space to drive innovation and partnership in a comfortable and meaningful manner.
“We try to recreate experiences found in restaurants here in the Culinary Center using commercial ingredients,” Warsow adds. “It’s all about coming as close as you can to the ‘gold standard’, which is the way your grandmother would prepare food in her kitchen.”
One of the experiences Warsow shared with me and Alyse involved developing some new flavors for an ice cream manufacturer. So he and several chefs “went out into Chicago” to taste a broad range of dishes. Tough work if you can get it, right?
Well, the tough part comes afterwards. As Warsow explains, whenever his crew begins a project, it’s typically a two-day event. The first day is devoted to “ideation and a plan of attack,” ingredient shopping and prep work; the second day involves cooking and recording.
And what about that ice cream manufacturer project? Although Warsow couldn’t reveal all the details regarding new product concepts, he did mention that panna cotta ice cream and several dipping sauces were worked on in the kitchen.
That discussion led me to probe Warsow and Heinz about culinary trends in general and their application to confections. Sweet heat, a trend that surfaced at Sweets & Snacks Expo, continues to gather strength, the two say.
As Heinz explains, the trend first surfaced in beverage, than into chocolate and now into sugar confections. Ever heard of Aleppo chili caramel? The spice, which is common in Middle East and Mediterranean cuisines, delivers a tangy flavor and moderate heat. Or add a little heat with a mango-pineapple combination to a gummy worm, and you have the perfect bait for adults.
Asian cuisine also continues to provide taste and textural diversification. How about miso caramel?
“We make a great miso and caramel milkshake,” says Warsow. “The crossover of flavors remains ongoing.”
It’s through the use of floral, pungent and concentrated flavors, however, that Warsow and his team address a new challenge: sugar and salt reduction.
“It’s tough to reduce sugar and salt and still maintain a gold standard,” he says. “But you can enhance sweetness through flavors.” Keep that in mind, confectioners.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot to tell you about lunch. We started off with a chicken tinga empanada sitting on jicama slaw topped with an avocado sauce. That was followed with a beef birria, Mexican rice and sliced avocados. Yum.
I quickly penciled us in for another visit. Bon appetite, everyone!