ST. HELENA, Calif. — The chicken thighs, smoked for two hours, then soaked in buttermilk spiked with Crystal hot sauce and dredged in flour, turned a perfect golden brown, full of the promise of succulence and crunch, under the stern watch of Chef H. Alexander Talbot.
But not one, alas, went into a salivating mouth as soon as it left the bubbling rice bran oil. Rather, it was rushed under a glass udder bristling with slender filaments and tended by technicians, who would soon analyze it at a PepsiCo lab in Illinois for the magic that gave it such flavor and crispiness.
Other creations, destined for the same lab, went into Styrofoam containers bedded on dry ice, part of a continuing effort to find new ways to improve the nutritional quality of the giant food companys products without losing recognizable flavors.
The challenge facing us and other big food companies today is not easy: to have a great-tasting product without as much salt, fat and sugar, said Greg Yep, senior vice president for long-term research and development at PepsiCo. Chefs have ways of tricking the taste buds that we can use in our products.
Prodded by consumers, regulators and politicians, major food companies like PepsiCo are under extraordinary pressure to make healthier foods. Kellogg has cut as much as 30 percent of the sugar in childrens cereals like Apple Jacks and Froot Loops, removed salt from others, and increased fiber. Taco Bell last month announced a new Power Protein menu that will include items with less fat and calories, and other companies are rushing to get their products in shape.
Were not only thinking about making great-tasting foods but about the nutrition guidelines we need to deliver on, said Greg Creed, chief executive of Taco Bell, referring to the companys pledge to bring one-third of the meal options in its restaurants into compliance with the federal dietary guidelines by 2020. This is a huge change in mind-set.
While snack sales like those in PepsiCos Frito Lay division are still increasing and show no signs of slowing, it and some of the countrys other major companies have worked to reduce the amount of sugar, fat and salt in products aimed at children. The efforts are part of a voluntary system that they hope will keep regulators and lawmakers at bay as well as address growing consumer knowledge of what is in food.
Yep, in his white lab coat, and PepsiCos executive research chef, Stephen Kalil, in a white chefs coat, argue about which one of them has the best job in the world.
They are on the teams responsible for carrying out the plans of PepsiCo Chief Executive Indra K. Nooyi, which are controversial on Wall Street, to improve the healthiness of the PepsiCo portfolio. She has long insisted this is critical to the $65 billion companys long-term survival.
Fooling the palate
The workshop was an effort to capture some of the same kind of information used to build the regional flavors through the work of eight chefs who worked in the Viking test kitchen of the Culinary Institute of Americas western outpost. The chefs included Talbot; Jeanette Chen, a food blogger and consultant; and Paul Viggiano, a chef who serves on the culinary council at Baldor Specialty Foods, a major distributor.
Chen prepared a silken cream of cauliflower soup using chestnuts in place of the cream. It totally fooled the mouth into believing the soup contained a dairy product of some sort.
Viggiano used parsnips to reduce the amount of butter and cream in a lemon vodka Alfredo sauce. The recipe eliminated the butter usually found in Alfredo sauce and deployed a small amount of half-and-half in lieu of cream. Tossed with eggy pappardelle noodles, the sauce coated the mouth and tongue.
Im really curious about the parsnips, said Ted Russin, director of the consulting business at the Culinary Institute, who interviewed the chefs while they were cooking in an effort to record descriptions of their techniques, catch them adding and subtracting ingredients intuitively and understand the rationale behind the use of different flavors and ingredients. Fresh flavors dont stay around too long, so Im interested in how hell use them to replace cream.
In fact, Viggiano threw in a little brewers yeast to round out the texture of his sauce. Mystery solved.
The presence of salt
Salt was definitely the ingredient that the chefs missed the most.
I would be lying if I told you that not using salt will make a dish better than if I used salt, said Beau MacMillan, executive chef at Elements, the restaurant at the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Yep hovered around his station, breathing in the aromas that drifted from a pot on the stove where MacMillan was reducing vegetables and seaweed to make hijiki lime broth to accompany his creation.
Hes boiling this down to intensify the flavor, and the kelp will provide saltiness without salt, Yep said. These are techniques we can use, too.
He also noted that several chefs were smoking to impart saltiness without actual salt. At another station, for instance, Kristopher Plummer, better known as Chef Plum from his appearances on ABCs The Taste and the Food Network, was smoking avocados in a big metal bowl, using a smoke gun and plastic wrap.
Its a real challenge not to use salt, fats and sugar, said Plummer, who operates pop-up restaurants in Newtown, Conn. But thats what makes this so interesting.
Yep was more interested in the smoking.
What about smoking potatoes before cooking? he wondered aloud. Or maybe smoking a dried potato product instead of putting salt in the flavoring?
You could smoke the water you cook the potatoes in, suggested Talbot, who together with his wife, Aki Kamozawa, writes the Ideas in Food blog and books, as well as doing consulting work.
He also suggested using fermented ingredients, which he said helped carry aromas.
By the end of the day, Kalil was already weighing what PepsiCo might use instead of dried porcini, which Viggiano had deployed to impart what he described as a long, rich flavor, since the ingredient was most likely too costly to use commercially.
For his part, Yep was already letting PepsiCos headquarters know his thoughts about how fermentation, anchovies, smoking, seaweed and other techniques and ingredients might be used to improve products.
Im sure, he said, that someone is already at work smoking a potato.