The National Provisioner: What are your duties as corporate chef?

Chef Michael Zeller: I have a lot of duties (laughs). I develop recipes for retail and foodservice. Within foodservice, I work with all our major accounts creating new ideation. And I love it. I have been doing this for 10 years. I do a lot with ideation, trends, [and] keeping people up to date on that. I also watch trends that are on the rise and that may impact the industry over the next year or two. I will help create a bench-top idea, and then we give it to the R&D team.

NP: How are recipes developed at Johnsonville?

Zeller: There are a couple different things. If it’s retail, we take a look at what it is: if it’s an event or holiday. If it’s foodservice, we look at where it’s going to be used, if local vegetables can be used, what types of products they already have, and all sorts of different things.

NP: What motivates the drive for new recipes? Is it part of an overall plan or does inspiration strike? Is there input and ideas from both inside and outside the company?

Zeller: For both foodservice and retail, it’s all about flavor. There’s a lot of information out there that we look at to create a recipe. It’s about trends, flavors, textures and demographics — that’s the information we use to build recipes. There’s input from the foodservice and retail managers. People love to try new products, but the recipes need to taste great and that’s where I come in. A lot of people think sausage just goes into a bun. That’s not true, as it is a great ingredient as “the hero” of any dish. [The recipe] also needs to be quick, easy and look good on a plate. But what it really needs to have is flavor, because then the consumers will come back to have it again.

NP: What are the influences on you and the company as you develop new recipes?

Zeller: I look at trends and data. I also talk with my spice companies. They have to know what the trend is, because they need to know what to grow. I’m looking everywhere: magazines, the Web, when I’m going out to eat. For example, this summer one of our Italian lines asked me to put together new recipes. So I was walking around at a farmers’ market; I found fresh basil, fresh garlic, and cherry and grape tomatoes. A day or so later, I was in the store and saw some fresh mozzarella balls. I purchased some fresh pasta, sautéed it with tomatoes and freshItalian sausage. Then I created a compound butter with the fresh garlic and basil, chilled it into a tube and sliced medallions of butter and topped the pasta. That created a fresh, full-flavored dish that looked great, smelled great and tastes great. It also follows some of the new trends. You want to use ingredients like peppers and onions. … That’s what people have around their homes and restaurants, and that’s what I try to incorporate into the recipes, still adding flair with certain types of vegetables or sauces.

NP: How are suppliers involved? Do they work with you on the ingredients for recipes, both with the protein and flavoring?

Zeller: One of our spice suppliers, one of our long-term suppliers, is Wixon. I lean on them a lot for flavors and trends that they’re seeing. The thing with Wixon is, they understand it’s all about flavor. They help create the next new amazing flavor. It takes a whole team: ours and theirs. They have to understand our business and what we’re looking for, and they do.

NP: How do you select a recipe out of the ones you develop?

Zeller: Some of it comes in what the brand manager wants, and they’re getting that from data. I ask the brand manager, ‘what is our target customer, where is it going?’ And then when we get done with that, we’ll take all the flavors and ideas, and create a new recipe. At that point, it is sent to the in-house tasting panels. They’re very picky, and their trained palates are amazing. So we take all that information and create a new recipe. From there, the recipe goes to Anne, my go-to person who checks everything over again. At this point, we send it to our creative department to be photographed, giving us a recipe with great flavor and eye appeal. It’s an easy-to-follow recipe with a gorgeous photo to back it up. I’m the corporate executive chef, but there are lots of people who work to make me look good. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to stand up front and say, ‘It’s my recipe.’ If it wasn’t for the amazing people in the plant and in the office, I wouldn’t be able to create great recipes.

NP: How does creating entrees differ between retail prepared foods, foodservice products and the recipes included with raw products?

Zeller: When creating entrees for the retail side, the fewer ingredients we use, the easier it is for our customers to recreate the recipe. I try to make recipes quick, easy and full of flavor. When we’re building entrees for foodservice, we try to look at things like, ‘how are they going to reheat the product?’ A traditional linked fresh bratwurst usually takes 20 minutes to heat. For foodservice, we have a great Heat & Serve product that’s pre-cooked and has grill marks. You can take it straight from the freezer, put in the microwave and have it ready in one minute. But the big thing with both of them at the end of the day is, they need to have great flavor and they need to be versatile. We need to be versatile when we’re going into a major chain. We can’t go into accounts anymore and say, ‘Here’s our sausage.’ We need to be creative, full of flavor and versatile. To get a new product into a customer, I have to be able to show them how to prepare it, work with it, and how versatile it is.

NP: How involved are corporate chefs in development in general?

Zeller: We’re involved a lot in development in general. We need the other side; we can’t collaborate without them. We help bring to the table the flavor and style, what people like to eat when they eat. We try to create a recipe to have great flavor, ease of preparation and profitability. Again, it’s all about flavor. We develop the ideas, the concept, where it’s going to go and how it could be marketed. Then it goes on to R&D. We all try to produce great products, from quality, fresh cuts of meat to fresh herbs and spices. We have to look at the overall picture. And we have to look at ways to show people how to go outside the box. It’s not just me doing that, it’s our members, marketing and sales chefs panels. It really has become a great thing and is always changing.

NP: How do you see your role as different from corporate chefs at restaurants and suppliers? What are some areas of common ground?

Zeller: Supplier/manufacturer chefs like me, we have to understand our product, but we also have to understand our customers’ products: their capabilities, how it’s going to be used, how it’s going to be reheated, how is it going to be handled. And I need to have a lot of knowledge about the customer: how they prepare food, what types of equipment they have, how can we give them and their customers the best flavor possible, and how will their customers like it. We have to make sure of all that from the time it leaves the door. The foodservice side has their chefs. They’ll have input too. They need to know their operation and look at it very close. I don’t want to downplay any chef’s position. The person that works in the restaurant knows their operations, but may not know all the possibilities of our product. It’s my job to communicate the versatility of the product and how it can be used in their operations. People want versatility. They want to serve a brat in whole link, they want to slice and dice it. They want to know how to use it everywhere.

NP: How does the changing market environment affect what recipes are used and developed, especially in ones such as the current recession?

Zeller: Flavor, value and versatility. Be it in a restaurant, be it in the store. Getting people to come back and buy your product because it has great flavor and recipe ideas is what it’s all about.