Take two young inventors, add a sprinkling of top chefs, throw in one or two food conglomerates, a handful of supermarkets and then stir. Leave for a brief time and you end up with something palatable for the mass food market.
At least that is the hope of former Unilever employees Dave Allan and Matt Kingdon, founding partners of the development agency ?What If!. Its clients have included Bass Brewers, Heinz and United
Biscuits, but now the duo has created Chefnet – a network of some of Britain’s top chefs – to bring the taste and style of top restaurant cuisine into our homes through supermarkets and the big food companies.
The idea is to promote innovation and breed new ideas in an area which has grown sterile and predictable. Chefnet aims to bring its members’ passion for food to the bigger, more inflexible food companies, where some departmental chefs may understand all the production processes very well, but do not have the necessary spark to create unusual new recipes or predict the latest food fashion trend.
It is this passion for food which drives men such as Dean Peck, head chef at Green’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, to regularly work an 18-hour day. It is his imaginative skills, which he must use to dream up, for example, two to three new soups a day, that Chefnet wants to tap for a wider market.
The list of chefs includes the likes of Anthony Worrall Thompson, a regular on the BBC’s Ready Steady Cook show, Christoph Brooke, owner of Christoph’s Restaurant, Matthew Harris, head chef at Bibendum and Mark Hix, head chef at the Ivy and Le Caprice.
Chefs have long supplemented their income by acting as consultants, but Chefnet is the UK’s first structured organisation offering food companies access on a short-term basis to cooking experts with specialities ranging from pastry, seafood and Pacific Rim cuisine. It is effectively a crack team of chefs offering an SAS-style rescue service to food manufacturers with the resources to cook up and experiment in the ?What If! kitchen.
“We want to bring flair and creativity, which is sometimes difficult to get in client companies day in, day out,” says Allan.
In the past few years, Britain has seen an explosion of interest in food and in cooking. Chefs are the new rock and roll stars, with more than 200 hours of TV cookery shows last year, over 400 new books published dedicated to food and more than 3,000 new food innovations brought from across Europe.
Consumers are getting fussier, more demanding and more knowledgeable about food. They are travelling more, and there is a new willingness to experiment – as long as the food is convenient to prepare. New restaurants are springing up, and more exotic foods are becom-ing an everyday part of our eating habits.
But there is still a time delay between the trends of the top eating houses and what is available on shop shelves and in freezer cabinets. It is the retailers who are proving to be the most nimble at bridging the gap between the most imaginative restaurant fare and everyday supermarket food.
Allan says: “The supermarkets have been very quick. What they have, which is really fabulous, is the ability to experiment. They can try something out in one store, see if it works and then use it nationally.”
Retailers can call on the best suppliers, who put in a lot of their own money, to develop work for them. They can test something for just a couple of weeks, and if it doesn’t sell, they can simply turn to the supplier and refuse to stock it. With perhaps just a small packaging cost to cover, the whole process is relatively low risk. The retailers – with Marks & Spencer at the pinnacle – have also shown considerable creativity in responding to their shoppers’ growing interest in new tastes and trends.
Since ?What If! launched four years ago, it has hired culinary experts to work on various projects with encouraging results, prompting its launch of Chefnet. Run by ex-advertising agency planner Yvonne McClean and London restaurateur Greg Wixted, the company has spent several months putting together its list of chefs, cookery writers and a panel of competent cooking mothers and single women for food projects.
Wixted, former restaurant manager at Montana and about to open The Bar in Fleet Street, says: “There has not been enough attention to taste. There is a perception that big manufacturers are lagging behind.”
According to Chefnet research, food and drink product developers find problems with creating not just a new food recipe to make a new brand variant, but a whole new food concept to build additional streams of income.
If the manufacturer can claim this concept as its own, and offer a high standard of taste and quality with a strong set of branded values, it will be on to a winner. Allen cites Procter & Gamble’s Pringles, Birds Eye’s Fish Cuisine and the Italian sauces Ragu and Dolmio, made by Unilever and Mars respectively, as successful examples.
Chefnet aims to keep the process on a practical footing, and will use actual cooking and consumer res-earch on taste early on in a project.
McClean says: “We want to allow ideas to be floated at a much earlier stage. Some manufacturers are perfecting ideas and putting them through their lines without enough thought for whether there is a real consumer desire or need.”
But even if an idea researches well, there is still the problem of translating it from a handful of consumers to the mass market.
Henrietta Morrison, new category development controller for United Biscuits, says: “The main difference is scale. This is not cooking for 20, it is cooking in tonnes. There is also the consideration of shelf life. In a restaurant, the dish is prepared and goes straight to the table. We have to think about how the consumer can pick it up and take it home.”
Morrison worked with a Chefnet-style company in San Francisco. “You can define your brief to get people with specific expertise. In San Francisco, these were people leading their field. They might have been a really good Italian Momma type, a cookery writer or even a lady who ran her own village bakery. It offered short-term access to experts with craft as well as chef skills, which was very exciting.”
Allan accepts that there is a challenge in matching the culture of the best restaurant kitchens to that of the big food corporations, and says the clarity of the client brief will be crucial for both sides.
But he says: “To have really great ideas you have got to collide different points of view. It is inspirational seeing both sides get together. We want consumers to love what they eat, and the companies to be rewarded as people come back to their products again and again.”