Sponsored by Ventura Foods
Jim Goggin, senior vice president of the national account group for Ventura Foods, and chef Jim Doak, founder and chief creative officer of JWD consultancy, have known each other and worked together for decades. But it might be their connection through the prestigious MenuMasters Awards, which Goggin helped create and sponsor through Ventura and of which Doak has been a four-time recipient at various of his past companies. The longtime friends and colleagues sat down with Nation’s Restaurant News to reminisce in anticipation of this year’s upcoming 25th annual awards event this May, returning to its longtime home at the Drake Hotel in Chicago.
JD: I currently consult on menu innovation for big and little chains. I also do a little bit of retail food development consulting, but that’s who I am. I've known Jim for 20-plus years, starting when we did business together when I was working with several folks on his team, and created a number of products with them. And then I was honored to win MenuMasters Awards both directly and then as part of various companies that was with at the time.
JG: I’ve been at Ventura Foods for 32 years now, hanging around people like Jim and other chefs who were super creative. I have always just loved the excitement of food experiences, the gathering of people, and the joy it brings to families and friends. I think at Ventura, we have a ‘Food First’ kind of a perspective and it's all about flavor and how people meet and experiment with food. Historically, I've worked with the culinary group and the R&D teams as well… That’s kind of how we got MenuMasters started many, many moons ago.
Strange as this may sound, it was really not done from a product driven commercial perspective. We were intrigued by what was happening in the marketplace as we were learning about new flavors and ethnic trends and where that was going. We recognized that there were these unsung heroes that were in the back of the house, that were really making food exciting and our goal as an organization was to be part of that. We knew that the creative genius in these chefs and R&D players was going to be key in what was going to happen moving forward for the whole industry and that the restaurant business was going to flourish as they gained momentum in bringing new flavors to their restaurants.
And so, the whole idea was to create an environment that would recognize them. In 1997, we literally sat at the Century Plaza Hotel, and we started kicking around the idea of, how do we get this in the forefront? It’s so deserving and it’s really the essence of the industry. There were a lot of awards for CEOs and marketers, but none for the people that were really driven by the passion of food, and we wanted to recognize them.
We did not want the company to be in the forefront, we wanted the whole thing to be about creativity and experimentation, we wanted to be part of it and be recognized for supporting it. It was not about our products, but to celebrate the vision of where the industry was going and most importantly who was taking it there.
We launched our first event in ‘98. It was a tough go, and difficult to get a crowd together, but we muscled through it and from there people started to really grasp what our intent was behind the event. It was purely about the food and the people who created it, - they were center stage, not our company. I think this approach created an event that is recognized as being “all about the food"
JD: Let me echo what Jim just said. It really took into account what we were doing on the chain R&D side as chefs. There weren’t all those accolades for us, we’re the best kept secret in most corporations. There were tons of awards for restaurant chefs, the independents, through American Culinary Federation and James Beard. But we really didn’t have any acknowledgement of what we were doing, and there’s a lot of pioneers within the R&D sector that hadn’t been acknowledged yet for their contributions to what we do. It was really intriguing that everybody wanted to talk about what we're doing to make chain restaurant menus new and creative. It’s the nucleus of what created a real fraternity of people that now have a legacy. I think what’s interesting about MenuMasters is over the last 25 years the dramatic way that it’s continued to evolve and innovate itself as it helped shape this piece of the industry as a real advocate for the creative and innovative processes that most people don’t realize exist.
JG: I think that’s really well said, Jim. No one was recognizing the emergence of college and university chefs or chefs in health care and those kinds of feeders. It has been a very rewarding journey. We created this on the back of a cocktail napkin in 1997. I remember saying, “What we really ought to do is write down everything we don’t like about award ceremonies, 'cause, I’m pretty sure other people don't like those as well. And then avoid those things!” I think that’s really true. That’s the essence we really wanted to capture.
JD: I love that everybody puts their shields down at the event. Nobody is worried about giving away their trade secrets. It fosters a much greater collaborative mindset within the industry where we may compete against each other, but there’s a likelihood that we've worked for one another as well, which has always been unique. The awards piece of the whole event is very small. It’s the celebration of the food and the celebration of the winners that really encompass the whole evening of creating camaraderie. And this breaking down of barriers between different segments and different generations within the industry. It’s really focused on the food and the creativity and the innovation of the food versus a specific segment or a given type of menu or type of operation. I think the fact that it has this fluidity to it, and it continues to evolve and grow, it has a very, very long runway to continue to support this segment of our sector of our industry, it really does.
JG: That’s spot on, Jim. I think it is critical that this has nothing to do with Ventura Foods product offering, right? You don't have to be a customer. You don’t have to use our products. It is the essence of food and flavor and creativity, period. And that's why the focus is on the innovative part of it and on recognizing those that brought that to the table.
JD: The measure of innovation is really around the business aspect. You’re seeing the best of the best of that particular year, and its ability to have dramatic impact on the entire restaurant industry and the entire dining public because you're seeing products that had never been seen before or you’re seeing a new iteration of something that maybe was something from the very past. So, it’s interesting to look at the Hall of Fame and see José Andrés, who won while he was heavily involved in overseeing his Think Food group. And now we know that he's really innovating in feeding the world with World Central Kitchen. It's just an amazing testament to the power of what we do and how it’s been really acknowledged through this process of these emerging and pioneering leaders in the entire menu sector.
JG: When we talk about the people that have been part of this great event, I can’t help but think, Jim, about some of the people that we've been able to spend so much time with. I think one of the greatest honors I remember is the fact that after Paul Prudhomme won the Hall of Fame award, he never missed an event after that. He was part of the whole spirit of what we were trying to capture at the event. He was so honored that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. And he told us he felt it was a great achievement and said, “Thank you for what you do for us.” I just thought that was the greatest honor you could ever hear. Jim, I think you can attest, having been to pretty much every event since the beginning, every Hall of Fame winner has come into that event not really knowing what it was going to be about, they soon saw how true to the food the event was and talking to every chef in the room. They all thoroughly enjoyed it and they never left early. They always stayed around, and that showed us that we captured the feeling for them of being a meaningfully part of this.
JD: Jacques Pepin comes to mind. He was that way, incredibly gracious and spent a lot of time talking to people at the event. And, now you've got Thomas Keller, this is not his first Menu Master award. He won for French laundry several years ago. I think it's a wonderful award for him this year because he has continued to not only be a pioneer on the food side, but he has created an incredible cadre of people that are scattered throughout this industry that have gone through his restaurants, I think he looks to see how he can continue to help grow the future of the industry. I think it’s just a great, great tip of the hat to him.
JG: A win for us is the enjoyment and pleasure that people get out of attending the event. I try to put myself in a position to view everything we do at Menu Masters in terms of how it is perceived through the eyes of the guest. What is their experience like? How do they want to interact? How do they feel most comfortable? The networking part of it is just huge. It is a capacity house every year! It’s a nice feeling to know that people want to be there. It’s not that people have to be there. And the look on the faces of the winners, the Hall of Fame innovators, they are so proud and pleased to be there talking about and serving their product and mingling with guests, sometimes I sit back, and I watch very, very carefully and just to see what that experience is like for them. And do I see anything that could be better? And then we go back to the drawing table to keep improving that experience.
JD: What’s nice is that it’s the right people attending, the people that are all about the food and do all this work around the food and I think I think that's great. One thing that I can say from my side is that it’s very interactive, which is really important in this day of social disconnect. I think that's the wonderful thing, it helps make the NRA show feel small because it kind of creates a neighborhood where we all get together every year to celebrate each other and get a chance to toast each other. I think you haven’t lost that intimacy as it relates to being an attendee at the event.
JG: That’s really good to hear, Jim. That's the essence of the feeling we’re trying to obtain. So well said.
JD: You know it’s validated us because we used to always get dinged for having more than 10, 20, 100, 1000 locations. Everybody said you weren't serious about the food, and I think that's the nice thing where you’ve got the inclusion of the independents, like Stephanie Izard and Jimmy Bannos Jr. and Sarah Grueneberg. Those people all have serious food chops and they're getting honored by the same entity we do, which is saying that it's just as credible or just as real for me to be directing menu innovation at Applebee's as it is for Jimmy Jr. to be at The Purple Pig, or Sarah at Monteverde. It's bridged the independents and the chains more than anything ever has, as it relates to culinary. I think that's something that's especially nice about what Menu Masters is doing for the industry.
JG: Thank you Jim, that is what we were trying to achieve, so it means a lot that we are being successful! So, looking forward to seeing you in Chicago in May.
JD: I’ve really missed getting to see people in person, and I think that’s going to be wonderful. I really do. I’m really excited about that.