“I’ve worked in Michelin starred kitchens doing 20 hours a day, seven days a week,” says IFF development chef Chet Willcock. “It’s absolutely brutal. You’re under constant pressure.”
The relentless hours of the restaurant kitchen are just one reason why chefs switch from restaurant kitchens to development kitchens. Willcock began working as a development chef in 2014, following a career working everywhere from gastropubs to three Michelin starred restaurants. He says commercial kitchens test the limits of anyone physically, but working as a development chef is demanding in other ways.
“There is a constant pressure to be ahead of the curve, all the time,” he says. “In the early days you could essentially mimic a meat product and the consumer would think ‘Wow, we’ve never seen anything like this before, this is amazing!’ Now the plant based sector is very saturated and shoppers are wanting more from a product and that puts more pressure and stress on the development process.”
This pressure is countered in two ways, namely innovation and teamwork. Previous IFF sessions at Tastes of Better have been expertly delivered, with tasting menu courses eaten by guests while they listened to how those courses were developed.
IFF’s next Tastes of Better starts in eight weeks, at Royal Ascot, and places are still available. This time around IFF’s theme is ‘Race Around the World’, with dishes inspired by South Korea, Vietnam, Argentina, Puerto Rico and more. Many will show off the versatility of SUPRO® TEX, IFF’s latest textured protein. If you’d like to attend the event, click here.
“When I started using it, as with any textured protein, I’d look at it, analyse it, and understand how it behaves first before I try anything with it,” Willcock says about SUPRO® TEX, which IFF has described as a “paradigm shift” in the quality of textured proteins.
“I want to know what key processes it best lends itself to, like frying, braising, steaming or boiling. Then I can start to narrow down the flavour profiles that are best going to suit it, like Asian or European. Then we focus on the textural side of the protein. Instead of just dropping it in to a sauce, I want to find out what happens if I vac-pac it and sous-vide it? Then what happens if I braise it first, then vac-pac, it, then sous-vide it. Maybe that’s even better?
“Then maybe we would try something else, because a lot of it is curiosity, just to see what it might do. But there’s no point in me coming up with weird and wonderful flavour combinations or cooking techniques when it’s not going to lend itself to the manufacturing process. So that’s quite a large hurdle that we need to cross, and there’s a fine line between development and disaster.”
Willcock works with IFF’s culinary, marketing and technical teams, absorbing their collective insights into the development process. But it’s not just about how it tastes, looks, or performs. The product has to be suitable for mass manufacture first. And it has to pass the stringent legal and regulatory requirements associated with food & beverages.
And then finally, in perhaps the biggest test of all, it has to please the tastes of the masses.
To hit the “sweet spot” he has “quite a bit of interaction with Eden Derrick (a fellow IFF development chef) over Teams, and at customer events like Food Matters Live” (both men will be in the kitchen at Tastes of Better in October).
From a day to day perspective his main interactions are with the “culinary design team, which designs and develops products to go into savoury products, from seasonings, marinades and pastes.”
He also spends time with the IFF marketeers to “understand what’s trending and what will be trending in the future. I’ll take that away and analyse various different points of information like social media, blogs, supermarket shelves, food service or restaurants, and come up with a list of flavour profiles. Then we’ll understand if we can actually translate those into the products that we sell, because it might not always be possible.”
And he works “very closely with the technical teams. It’s a very, very important part of the development process. When I first joined it was the middle of lockdown, so I wasn’t actually doing the role that I was employed for, instead I was in the labs, designing and developing some of these products as well. So I got first-hand experience of the technical side of things.”
Of course there are several stages of tasting as the product develops. But he says of “paramount importance” is the commercial viability of the product.
“The account managers and the commercial team make sure that the products we’re developing are with the best interests of the consumer in mind, and they trust us to hit the necessary commercial targets as well.”
Ultimately we work as a team to produce something that looks good, tastes good, will sell well, and is commercially viable. Those are the four things that are of paramount importance when you first start developing a product.”
Willcock says he’s ten years into working in development after “taking the leap” from a commercial kitchen. “There are times where I look back and I do miss getting my ass kicked every now and then. I do miss that. I have a friend of mine, he’s got a couple of gastropubs, and I go and help him out from time to time. It’s good to have a way to get in there and feel the pressure and the adrenaline rush of service. It’s nice. And it’s also nice to think that I don’t have to go back there the next day and do it all over again.”
Instead, Chet will be with IFF cooking up a storm at Tastes of Better. The menu includes tempura plant-based bulgogi with fermented Korean greens, Gochujang mayo and Wakame seaweed, an Argentinian chimichurri roji empanada, with fried green tomatoes, mango and red pepper relish, and golden crispy vegan chicken skin, and much more.
To attend Tastes of Better in Ascot and taste for yourself, click here for everything you need to know.