Slideshow: Five questions for Campbell's master chef

by Monica Watrous
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CAMDEN, NJ — On any given Friday morning, the culinary team at The Campbell Soup Co. gather and eat. During one recent meeting, the chefs tasted a wicked Thai-style chicken and rice soup and a barbecue chili.

“One of our chefs became so interested in barbecue that he became a barbecue master judge, and we now have a smoker in our kitchen, so we make our own hot dogs and charcuterie and burnt ends,” Thomas Griffiths, master chef and vice president of culinary at Campbell, told Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY. 

Thomas Griffiths, Campbell Soup
Thomas Griffiths, master chef and vice president of culinary at the Campbell Soup Co.

Guiding product development at the Camden-based company is an annual report of culinary trends compiled by Campbell’s global network of chefs, bakers and culinary professionals. The Culinary TrendScape report highlights 10 trends in various stages of development, from stage one representing discovery to stage six representing expansion beyond mainstream use. In between are stage two (introduction), stage three (adoption), stage four (mainstream) and stage five (established).

“We use it internally as an educational and inspirational tool,” Griffiths said. “We think it’s a competitive advantage we have in the marketplace. I manage a really diverse team of chefs. We definitely study the trends from other companies, and they’re great, but we wanted to personalize it as well so the trends we’re studying and researching, we own, we know, we understand, and they can use in the food we make.”

Cooking with fire, authentic Thai cuisine and French-inspired dishes and pastries were identified in the latest report as trends in the early stages of development. Stage-three trends include ice cream with bold flavors, traditional fats like beef tallow or lard, and center-of-the-plate vegetables, such as beet tartare and zucchini noodles. Moving into the mainstream and beyond are Asian noodle soups, gourmet hot dogs, minimally processed foods with simple ingredients, and creative uses for caramel.

In an interview, Griffiths shared his thoughts on the latest trends and explained how Campbell leverages the report in product development.

How is Campbell leveraging the Culinary TrendScape report in new product development?

Thomas Griffiths: When we study the TrendScape, we follow the trends for years and years and years. We don’t think something in the first stage will be something we’ll commercialize right away. …We’ll see what people are selling before we actually put that into our food.

Peppers would be a great example. We focused on chili peppers last year, and we’re really excited about it because chili peppers are global. I was so excited to see Popeyes putting ghost peppers on their menu and habanero sauce on the Burger King menu.

At what stage in a trend’s development does Campbell develop products based on the trend?

Griffiths: Generally when things are in stage three or four, that’s when we will consider putting it into our actual portfolio. (But) we’re always sharing stage one and stage two with our marketing team and our chefs and are familiarizing ourselves with it.

For instance, none of our team really had any expertise in Thai cuisine, and that’s a big trend for us this year. I’ve gone to Thailand to learn more about the fruits and juices and vegetables and the spices and curries and sharing that with our chefs. I’ll bring an expert chef to come in and cook with us and teach us about it. So, that’s at the beginning stages as well, but we have some Thai foods in our portfolio already because it’s becoming popular so quickly.

Stage one, we generally are not going to commercialize, but we’ll certainly be learning about them and tasting them and sharing them with our R&D and marketing teams.

This year’s report highlights “inspired ice cream” as a trend. How would Campbell use something like that in its portfolio?

Griffiths: I have an enterprise role, so I’m also responsible for Pepperidge Farm and Arnott’s and baked goods globally. For the caramel and ice cream trends, those are obviously things I wouldn’t be using in soups, but I’d be working with my chef in Australia who does Tim Tams. That could easily be a Tim Tam flavor, or for Pepperidge Farm it can be in a cookie.

How long does it take to develop a new product at Campbell?

Griffiths: At Pepperidge Farm or Bolthouse or Plum Organic, probably a year. For our soups, probably a little longer. If we cook with something like celery root or a poblano pepper, there may just not be enough grown yet. We have to grow them. We make so much soup.

Can you give an example of how you might incorporate this year’s trends in developing a new product for Campbell’s portfolio?

Griffiths: I took a cooking class in Bangkok (Thailand) last year… and I learned about palm sugar. I went to a coconut plantation and saw how they pick coconuts and cooked it down like we cook down maple syrup and make palm sugar…

I seared some fresh pineapple really well so it had caramelized the sweetness of the pineapple, and I took the palm sugar and sprinkled it on, and each of our R&D team tasted the fire-roasted fresh pineapple with microplaned palm sugar. This is an authentic Thai flavor, and I got to play with fire.

That’s what we love to learn about and share. Imagine if we came out with a burnt-pineapple palm sugar Milano cookie or something. That would be the inspiration to start with, and we see if our consumers like it.

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