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From Ideation to Realization:From Ideation to Realization:

February 1, 2000

7 Min Read
From Ideation to Realization:

From Ideation to Realization:
Stewing It Over
February 2000 -- Culinary Connection

By: Greg J. Grisanti, CFSP

  Soups and stews are the customizable comfort foods of the world. Steamy and filling, part of their appeal lies in their composition - they incorporate many components (vegetables, starches, meats), making them a prime candidate for meal-in-a-bowl preparations, a booming concept in the retail and foodservice sectors.  I work for a restaurant chain that carries a full menu of sandwiches, salads and an array of rotational soups that draw a hungry, and slightly upscale, lunchtime crowd. In an effort to build our menu and increase dinner day-part traffic, I approached the R&D team with the idea of serving something even heartier than soup in our bread bowl - something that would serve as a more robust entree-type meal, and provide a quality hot offering in an operation whose meal focus is on sandwiches and salads. Thus was born the idea of developing a stew.In the beginning  How do medium to large restaurants chains develop, test and sell soups and stews? As with the development of any product, it starts with an idea, and an ideation session to discuss the many different topics and factors. What are the current culinary trends? What are consumers looking for from your particular restaurant? Does the project fit in with your company's overall concept and identity? Are there any special equipment needs for the new menu item? These questions must be answered before you can have a clear picture of what your product should be.  To begin the stew project, I first researched and identified several classic recipes that fit into the general category of a hearty meal-in-a-bowl. At this early stage, all ideas were good ones. First to come to mind was a really hearty beef stew, then chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie, jambalaya and chili.  Next came a call to the chef/owner of the soup-manufacturing company that supplies our restaurants. We discussed various American recipes, as well as regional and ethnic dishes from around the world. As I described exactly what I wanted to see in each sample we discussed, it became evident to her what I was looking for. Our restaurant's vision for menu items is to impart a modern spin on traditional, well-loved foods - mom's cooking with an upscale twist. To this end, she created samples based on my recommendations, all of which had to adhere to stringent quality standards. This meant using only the highest-quality meats and vegetables (and plenty of them), without preservatives, to create substantial stews with the right viscosity, a hefty particulate presence and a striking, authentic flavor profile in the base.Development steps  Every step of this process involved additional teams of people to move the idea to reality. The project began as a one-man idea, but as it progressed, manufacturing, purchasing, marketing, operations, training and executive groups all needed to get involved. Of course, they didn't all weigh in at the same time; this was a progression that took a great deal of coordination. The key to this type of project is teamwork and open lines of communication between departments.  After creating the initial stew ideas came the task of tasting, analyzing and culling the list to a manageable number of workable ideas. Depending on the project, a research chef needs a list of 30 to 50 potential menu items during the ideation session to get a dozen that will actually be produced and tasted. This list is then cut further to include only four or five that are workable, to finally get one or two that actually make it on to the menu. This portion of the process tends to be the longest in terms of time; however, the most challenging part of the process is still to come.  After a month of tasting and gathering opinions through focus groups and other resources, we were ready to work on the ideas that made it to this stage. The items that made the cut were a beef-and-three-bean chili and a grilled-sirloin stew. The chili, served in a bread bowl rimmed with white-corn tortilla chips and garnished with asiago cheese and cilantro chopped fresh in the restaurant, has a different appeal than the homestyle, old-fashioned stew, which is intentionally served plain and simple.  It's worth noting that some of my initial product ideas got nixed early on. Chicken and dumplings, for example, would have created a menu item with too much starch when combined with a bread bowl. The chicken pot pie concept, while potentially a great bowl-filler with mass appeal, proved too involved to even make it to a bench sample. My vision required baking off biscuit tops to fulfill the classic pot-pie profile, which wasn't feasible for this particular project. We all, when developing products, must work within a system. This simple fact also took the jambalaya out of the running. Our supplier couldn't provide us with a dark enough roux to create an authentic Creole jambalaya, and andouille sausage and tasso ham were just too expensive to use. While these obstacles could conceivably have been "overcome" by using less-costly or less-authentic ingredients, my determination to stay true to a culinary perspective wouldn't let me settle for something that was just "good enough."Larger-than-life cooking  Coming up with the ideas, although time-consuming, is easy compared to the technicalities of creating a recipe that will appeal to and satisfy hungry customers. Moving from a 20-gallon R&D test batch to a 650-gallon production run means thinking about certain things in advance. For example, how is the product conveyed? How is it packaged? What sort of mixing is involved? Will the product change as it is pumped through tubes and packed? Are there any ingredients that can be sheared and cut smaller as they travel throughout the cooking process? This all needs to be accounted and planned for before production to ensure a product that looks and tastes like the original bench-top gold-standard test product.  In the case of our beef stew, several issues - which the soup supplier and I worked together to solve - arose during scale-up from the gold standard to the RTU refrigerated soup ultimately required by the restaurant. For instance, during the production process, I found we needed to specify a much larger cut of sirloin than anticipated so that it would make it through all of the mechanical processes and still maintain the original finished-product size specification, which was a 3/4-in. by 3/4-in. dice. Because we used only high-quality sirloin, a very tender variety of meat, the processing conditions demanded that larger pieces be incorporated pre-processing. The same was true for the carrots. My original specifications called for both whole baby carrots and large carrot pieces in the finished product, but I decided to use only whole baby carrots for this recipe because I knew that some of them would be cut naturally though the cooking and packing process.  During this stew-creation process, I also learned the value of utilizing food-technology advances, such as highly specific natural flavors. The beef stew needed a grilled note, but it would have been economically impossible to actually chargrill the quantities of meat required to develop this flavor profile. I turned to a research chef colleague at a flavor manufacturing company and told him what I wanted to achieve with the stew. He sent me various samples of natural beef, grill and other flavors, and I in turn worked with our soup manufacturer to select and incorporate the right ones. This collaboration enabled me to create and deliver the beef stew, as well as the chili, with the desired profiles for the project.  A research chef must recognize what consumers want from the restaurant. Simply put, we must be consumers of our own products. However, we often get caught up in projects and deadlines and fail to visit our own units to eat what we've created. The payoff of all the development, cooperation and hard work - hearing consumer feedback and seeing the sales impact the product has on the system as a whole - comes after the menu item is introduced. With a strong understanding of your customer and goals, the path from ideation to realization can be a smooth ride.  Greg Grisanti, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, SC, is currently the corporate executive chef, R&D, for a restaurant chain in the midwest where he oversees the creation and development of new menu items. His previous experience includes developing HMR and QSR concepts, consulting for various chain restaurants and schools, and work as an executive chef and kitchen manager in a number of restaurants ranging from quick service to fine dining. He is a Certified Food Service Professional and a founding board member of the Research Chefs Association.
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