Sponsored by Ventura Foods
As we count down to the 2022 MenuMasters Awards, Nation’s Restaurant News was excited to have an opportunity to bring together two extraordinary culinary professionals to discuss the program, and their own approaches to the type of menu innovation that drives the awards.
Chef Paul Fiorentino, the vice president of culinary, operator support services for Ventura Foods, brought over 35 years of experience to the table for this conversation. Classically trained at Johnson and Wales University, Fiorentino started his career slinging hash at an upscale diner, eventually working his way up to chef de cuisine at a 4-star French restaurant before pursuing an MBA and shifting his career to research & development for national brands such as Carvel Ice Cream Bakery and Ore Ida before joining the team at Ventura.
He was joined by chef Paul Fabre, senior vice president of culinary and innovation for Subway. Fabre trained in restaurant management in Belgium before continuing his education at the vaunted CIA Greystone campus. Fabre joined the team at Subway after long stints with companies such as Papa Johns, BJ’s Restaurants Inc., Trader Vic’s Inc, and Bloomin’ Brands Inc.
Both chefs bring a unique passion for culinary innovation to their work, and it was a pleasure to hear them talk about their vision for their companies and the industry, through the lens of the prestigious MenuMasters Awards.
Fabre: When you see the Menu Masters award, it’s a great acknowledgement of the industry. It really acknowledges what happens in a lot of foodservice sectors that awards like James Beard do not. What have you seen in this arena in the last few years and what do you think is next?
Fiorentino: That’s a tough question. I mean, when you look at some of the people who have gone through the MenuMasters program, that have been awarded, you’ve got Jacques Pepin, José Andrés, and this year, Thomas Keller. And then all those other innovative chefs who have come through. And how do you top that now? But what we’re seeing in the industry is that everything is new. The industry tends to be cyclical in reviving some of the old, but now you’re seeing so much new. There’s so much exposure to food and every little detail in every aspect of food, from street food to white tablecloths, and in every component of it, you don’t know who’s going to be the new innovator, because every chef right now seems to be!
Fabre: Thomas Keller this year, he’s an icon, and not only for the quality, but also the focus on perfection... When I first got married, I was lucky to get a reservation at The French Laundry the day before my birthday. It’s one of those restaurants where I think if you look back at customer service and food, they actually marry together beautifully.
Fiorentino: The dedication to perfection, you don’t see that anywhere else that the way they deliver. We always talk about how inspiring it is. Which begs the broader question — where do you and your team get your inspiration from?
Fabre: It’s from anywhere. You go on Instagram and just see what people are posting and see what people are eating. We do a lot of research as well. The great thing is really the globalization of flavors. Our team really spends a lot of time being curious. I'm a big believer in talking about food, talking about flavors, what you see and then just trying different avenues to explore.
Fiorentino: Food is the one thing everyone in the world has in common, and it’s such a cultural experience. And like you said, there’s so much exposure to it now. I mean, you get anything from TikTok to YouTube to you name it! There is some great work on these different avenues, and you really get to see the consumer and what they’re after now.
Fabre: I think while there is so much accessibility, there’s also a lot more hyper focus. People homing in on the details of craft and flavor I think is something that I think you'll see a lot more of. I think a lot of brands will focus on what makes them special, and then execute with excellence on that.
Fiorentino: I agree, one of the things that excites me about the future of the industry is that there are so many more adventurous eaters now. The innovation in trying new things is very exciting. I mean it wasn’t too long ago where something like calamari was exotic to people. And now the exotic has become the norm. What do you think about that?
Fabre: I agree. You know, it’s flavor. From my perspective, flavors are just a lot more accessible now and so they will just show up more. You see the push toward the spicier flavors, pungent notes. I think consumers are not settling anymore for ‘just OK’.It needs to be craveable and needs to taste good, and it needs to deliver on what the expectations are.One thing that I've noticed is that there is a lot more discussion around texture. For a long time, crispy was the only texture being talked about. I think we’re going to see a lot more of the chewy textures and different textural contrasts, it is very important from a food perspective, and I think that’s where a lot of consumers are going to get their experiences broadened.
Fiorentino: Of course, people are also looking more for that authentic experience, but they still like it to be comfortable to them. Yet they’re still willing to go down that road and try new things, and if it tastes good it wins, period, no matter what. As long as it tastes good, it’s a winner.
Fabre: For Subway we do a lot around the familiarity, something that consumers know and then ask ourselves how do you add different notes of flavor, or ingredients that drive this craveability? You make these little nuanced changes that just drive a little bit more uniqueness but delivers on flavor.
Fiorentino: I don’t want you to give up too many secrets, but I bet you guys have some ideas for the future in terms of getting some of these flavor profiles and these textures out in your concepts.
Fabre: We have great momentum with the “big refresh,” so we’re just going to continue that momentum with signature builds. We’re adding some of these flavors, chiles and smokey notes.
Fiorentino: Recently, there have been so many challenges to deliver on products in your new concepts just because of the supply chain, the pandemic, all of these other things. What are some of the challenges you see in the future for innovation and bringing to life some of these new ideas?
Fabre: I think the speed of innovation is important. I think that is one of the challenges, how do you keep up with the speed of innovation on our end.
Fiorentino: I was reading an article. It said that during the pandemic, 10 years of innovation happened in 18 months. That is certainly something I’m sure from a competitive perspective that was complicated. You’ve got to stay on top of getting what’s on trend, and what’s hot out to your consumer as quickly as you can, and especially for someone the size and the scale of Subway, how do you move quickly? I mean that’s a big ship you’re trying to turn.
Fabre: Sometimes I think as a chef you just have to be curious. It’s really important to be very curious in order to challenge the status quo or the norm. You have to trust your instincts. In my opinion it helps the innovation pipeline. When I talk to the team, we develop with the guest in mind. That vision is our North Star, and it helps the development cycle a lot.
Fiorentino: I think you and I are on the same page regarding driving the menu with flavor and innovation and new products. How does how does value play into that for you guys in the future?
Fabre: It’s an important part of our brand. We always want to provide good value for our guests. I think what we’ve been successful at is looking at the 11 items on our menu that make a big impact throughout the whole menu. So, we can deliver that value to our consumers with our core proposition and update our menu as well.
Fiorentino: Again, it goes all back to tasting good.
Fabre: I agree. I also think product development is about our team sitting at a table and looking at product and discussing it. I don’t believe in product development on paper. You know what I mean? It’s really about the human element, having a group of professional individuals sitting around asking key questions, what if we do this? Why did we try that? That collaboration is where you eventually find the big ideas. That little spark is the beauty of the job.
The MenuMasters program was founded by both Nation’s Restaurant News and Ventura Foods in 1997, with the inaugural event held in May of 1998.
The Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters Awards, sponsored by Ventura Foods, is a highly respected competition honoring menu R&D leaders for their personal achievements and contributions to the foodservice industry.
MenuMasters Spotlight is a monthly communication that with stories that tap into the most creative minds in menu innovation and how their passion for food drives their success in business and life.