RCA 2016: A culinary approach to clean label

by Donna Berry
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When Chef Keith Schroeder decided to make artisan ice cream his business school final project, he had no idea that less than five years later, Whole Foods Market would be lending him $50,000 to purchase a filler so that the natural foods retailer could sell pints of what is now known as High Road Craft Ice Cream in the Greater Atlanta area.

Mr. Schroeder shared this history of his company with attendees of the Research Chefs Association’s 2016 Annual Conference & Culinology Expo in Denver, which runs March 8 to 11. He cautioned entrepreneurs that “You do not have a brand until the marketplace tells you that you have a brand.”

The Research Chefs Association’s 2016 Annual Conference & Culinology Expo in Denver runs March 8 to 11.

“You use cash to build capacity, not the brand,” he said. Marketing dollars go wasted unless you have something to sell. And you have to believe in what you sell.

For Mr. Schroeder, the focus always has been great flavor and luscious texture using premium ingredients.

Chef Keith Schroeder, founder of High Road Craft Ice Cream

“Think about the customer and honor the customer,” he said. “People plus choices equals your reputation. With this approach, you don’t have to worry about the brand, it emerges.”

High Road Craft Ice Cream started in Atlanta as a group of chefs who made ice cream for other chefs to serve in restaurants, hotels and resorts. Soon after the company was formed in 2010, friends asked if they could buy ice cream, he explained, “So we opened our factory to the public on Saturdays. The lines grew and so did our fan base.”

“Our motto was and still is ‘put spoons in mouth,’” he said. One taste and you are hooked.

High Road continues to be passionate about making ice cream for food enthusiasts. The company pasteurizes its own dairy and purchases regionally sourced ingredients. That’s what clean label means to this ice cream entrepreneur.

Clean label is all about making sure that the customer — have it be the consumer, the restaurant operator or the retailer — does not object to the food, have it be the ingredients, how they are sourced or the story behind the product. It’s transparency, full disclosure.

Chef Greg Grisanti, director of R.&D. for Frisch’s Big Boy

This morning, Chef Greg Grisanti, director of R.&D. for Frisch’s Big Boy, Cincinnati, and Chef Mitch Riavez, Stratas Foods L.L.C., Cordova, Tenn., discussed how they worked together to make Frisch’s Big Boy menus trans-fat free by eliminating partially hydrogenated oils (phos).

“I outlined a three-prong approach to eliminating phos from the menu,” Mr. Grisanti said. “Because we hand make more than 80% of the foods offered on our menu, we had to do the reformulating. It was not like we could simply order ‘trans-free breaded chicken nuggets’ from our vendor. We also bake all our desserts from scratch. The onus of changing the recipe was on me.”

The first prong were the low-hanging fruits, the fried foods.

“It was fairly easy to replace the frying oil, and in some instances make minor adjustments to breadings and batters,” he said. “Next came our pies, which we knew would be somewhat challenging, but not as difficult as our cakes.”

Mr. Grisanti reverted back to the restaurant chain’s original pie crust recipe that used lard.

“When we made the switch, we even described the lard-leavened crust on our menus as a return to the old-fashioned way of making pie crust,” he said. “After all, everything retro is new again. The lard crust is actually flakier and more delicious. Consumers responded favorably.”

Frisch's Big Boy has eliminated phos from all its pies.

It’s all about transparency and full disclosure.  

We are now in the process of converting the final menu items, one item at a time,” he said. “From the start we worked very closely with Stratas, as Mitch and his team have the expertise for a smooth and flawless transition. They spend days with us in the lab and in the production facility, trying different fats and oils with other ingredient and manufacturing modifications. It’s not easy, but I know it’s going faster with their assistance.”

Mr. Grisanti emphasized that it’s perfectly acceptable for culinary professionals to tap into the knowledge of their suppliers.

“They are the experts in manufacturing,” he said.

Eliminating phos is on top of mind when it comes to clean label formulating. Replacing artificial colors with colors sourced from Mother Nature is high on the list of many culinary professions, as is eliminating ingredients recognized as artificial or man-made, such as binders, sweeteners and preservatives.

Chef John Csukor of Kor Food Innovation

At R.C.A., Chef John Csukor of Kor Food Innovation, Ashland, Va., showed culinary professionals how a simple fruit such as dried figs can assist with cleaning up food labels. Mr. Csukor, representing the California Fig Advisory Board, demonstrated how fig ingredients may be used to remove chemical-sounding ingredients from chocolate cookies and smoothies, as well as simplify the ingredient statement.

“Food and beverage formulators are constantly searching for versatile ingredients that taste great, add nutritional value and appeal to a variety of consumers,” Mr. Csukor said. “It’s no surprise that dried fig ingredients are making their way into packaged foods and onto restaurant menus. Loaded with fiber, calcium, potassium, iron and antioxidants, this ancient fruit complements the trend toward better-for-you, clean eating. Figs are also low on the glycemic index, making them a healthy and diabetic-friendly way to add a touch of sweetness to your products.”

Simple fruits such as dried figs can assist with cleaning up food labels.

Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the California Fig Advisory Board, Fresno, Calif., explained how fig juice concentrate naturally colors foods in varying shades of brown, depending on fig variety or blend of fig varieties.

“This viscous extract can also be used as a sweetener, replacing liquid sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup or molasses in beverages and baked goods,” she said. “In the latter, it functions as a humectant, slowing the staling process. Fig paste binds ingredients together, while fig powder blended with flour into batters and doughs assists with moisture retention during baking, slowing staling and extending shelflife.”

And finally, another culinary angle to clean label is sustainably sourced ingredients. That’s what you get with some alternative plant proteins such as those derived from legumes, pulses and insects. During the opening reception, local restaurants sampled some of their more unique menu items. Denver-based Linger developed a savory snack made with fried and salted crickets, curried popcorn and mixed nuts.

Linger developed a savory snack made with fried and salted crickets, curried popcorn and mixed nuts.

The crickets come from Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, Denver, which raises edible insects for resale to other innovative businesses for use in natural food products.

“We currently focus on crickets and mealworms, with opportunities for expansion,” said Wendy Lu McGill, chief executive officer. She explained how the ranch, which is actually an urban warehouse, produces insects by using feed sourced from high-quality food waste. The operation focuses on animal welfare and environmental impact. Communicating this sustainable approach to farming is yet another approach to clean label formulating.

Walter Zuromski, president and culinary director of Lincoln, R.I.-based Chef Services Group, Inc., summed up the culinary clean label movement: "Live consciously and eat deliciously. It's about feeling good, which has a clear focus on delivering flavor.”

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