At the upcoming London Produce Show, one of our featured speakers will be Ian Nottage, a classically trained Chef with over 40 years experience in the foodservice and hospitality industry and a Fellow of the Craft Guild of Chefs.
He is currently Head of Food Development at Sysco Speciality Group where he works with their extensive customer base to forge meaningful links between grower, farmer, producer, manufacturer, chefs and buyers to deliver profitable, relevant and innovative menu solutions and to help develop the understanding and appreciation in the trade about how our produce arrives from field to fork.
During his time in professional kitchens Ian held positions as Executive Chef at such prestigious venues as Hampton Court Palace, Stoll Moss theaters and The London Coliseum. Ian is also involved in the wider industry and is an active member of The Craft Guild of Chefs and a regular judge at The Great Taste Awards, Quality Food Awards, World and British Cheese Awards, Hotelympia Salon Culinaire and the Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Awards.
He is also co-founder and event director of The Universal Cookery and Food Festival.
We asked PRODUCE BUSINESS Contributing Editor, Steven Loeb, to find out more. Ian talked to us about the current food trends in the UK, how to convince growers to take a chance on new crops, and the difference between what chefs and consumers look for in their produce.
Head of Food Development
Sysco Speciality Group
Q: Talk about yourself a little bit about yourself and what your company does.
A: I work for the UK Sysco speciality group, which is a collection of different companies. So, we have M&J Seafood, which is obviously a seafood and shellfish speciality company; we have FreshDirect, which is a bit like FreshPoint in the US. So, that’s the fresh produce business. We have a company called Wild Harvest, which makes real, premium ingredients for chefs, so that’s produce, but speciality produce, like blood oranges, wild garlic, forage ingredients. And we also have a lot of chef ingredients as well, things like ingredients from molecular gastronomy, different types of chocolate and couvertures, specialist oils, vinegars, truffles, that sort of thing. And we also have our own production facility called Fresh Kitchen, where we make sauces, soups, stews, pickles, mostly vegetables and things for our customers, although we offer a bespoke service; I guess you guys would call it ‘commissary.’
I’ve been with the company now for two years and I head up the food development team. Food development is talking chef to chef, so we’ll work with our customers to help them develop menu innovation, recipes, ingredients that will showcase what’s best in season, and help them to design menus. We also work with a lot of our producers and our growers and we form the link between the chef and the restaurant or the hotel or the contract caterer with the guys that grow the food for them. It’s really, really important for us to help chefs understand where produce comes from.
Q: Sysco and FreshDirect, they act as a portal for restaurants to acquire foods, including fresh produce. What role does the company play in that?
A: For want of a better description, we’re wholesalers. So, we will source the product, we will contract the product with growers and producers, and we’ll then sell that on to the end user, the chefs and the restaurants and the groups.
Q: How do growers and shippers work with the company to get new products out there and higher use of fresh produce?
A: They’ll work with our procurement team, and they’ll work with my team, and we also have a range team. So, it’s a little bit convoluted but, effectively, the range team will decide what we sell and the procurement team will source what we sell. So, it’s a two way street. Hopefully, the good growers will come to us and say, ‘hey, I’ve got sprouting cauliflower. I’ve got purple sprouts, kalettes, or a new type of sweet potato,’ whatever it might be. So, we’re quite reliant on them, but it’s also about us getting out with them to meet them, get on the farms, get in the greenhouses, and see what they’re doing so then we can act as that bridge between the grower and the chef. We’re trying to form those bonds and it really helps chefs to be more in tune with their products and their seasonality and what goes into making the product, rather than just a box of cauliflower turning up at the back door of the restaurant. They’ll understand if it’s snowing when it’s not supposed to be snowing and the products are not as good as they should be or if there’s rainstorms in Spain and they can’t get the product across. So, that’s what we try to encourage is a better understanding of where produce comes from.
Q: It’s almost like you’re working with both sides to foster innovation, in a certain sense. So, does that come from the top down or the bottom up? And by that I mean, do the chefs come up with what’s going to be new? Or do the customers decide, ‘this is what I want,’ and then that decides what should be grown?
A: It’s some and some, because, in the world of produce, you can’t just go, ‘I’d like a purple tomato, go and grow it.’ It takes years and years and years and years of research. So, we’re pretty reliant on field trials and trial varieties and stuff like that. It is tricky, because it can take 10 or 15 years or more to develop a product, so we’re pretty reliant on growers coming to us and saying, ‘look, I’ve got some amazing new tomatoes that are super sweet. It’s been 15 years in development.’ And then it’s our job to take that to the chef and say, ‘look, this is new. Can you use it? What do you think?’ And that’s always the hard bit because it’s breaking the cycle of what they already know, but they’re always up for something new. It’s always an interesting thing for me, because I’ll get chefs coming to us saying, ‘hey, what’s new?’ ‘Well, actually, nothing. It’s all been grown for thousands of years, but you just haven’t used it yet.’ Everyone is getting a bit excited about purple sweet potatoes or Okinawa yams and they’ve been around forever. The Hawaiians use it for koi and stuff like that. Because of where it’s grown, regionality and stuff, I guess it’s not so easy to get those sorts of products over here. It’s like a tomatillo; I guess in the States a box of tomatillos is a couple of dollars but over here, it’s £25, which is $40 for a box of tomatillos, because we’ve got to import it. It’s not a native product. We can grow it over here, but we can’t go in the size and scale that we’d want to use it. So, it’s always a bit tricky.
Retail plays a part as well. We only work in foodservice but, in general, the retailers get the first bite of the cherry with anything new because the grower knows he’s going to get volume. So, we can go to a big superstore like Tesco or Sainsbury’s or whatever, and they know it’s going to hit 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 shops. For us, our largest restaurant group might be 600 restaurants, and that’s really pushing it. So, the retailers will generally get their first bite at it. But, having said that, where foodservice comes in is when the product may be a little bit too niche for your average consumer, but chefs might love it.
Q: I was going to ask if the part the retailers play is that they say, ‘this is what customers want right now, this is what’s hot. This is what people want.’ But I do understand that there is a difference between what somebody is going to buy to cook with themselves and what a chef will use in their own recipes is not going to be the same. So, there has to be that balance, I would assume.
A: Yeah, that’s right. Chefs would be a bit more experimental and, I guess, when you go out to eat in a restaurant, you’re probably looking for a better experience; you’re looking for something you can’t get at home. So, yeah, we’ll all use carrots and we’ll all use cauliflower and we’ll all use broccoli, but it might be that the consumer doesn’t necessarily want to buy something they’re not sure how to process or how to use at home. They’d rather get it done professionally by a chef in a restaurant.
Q: How does working with a company like yours help the operator ensure things like food safety and sustainability and availablity?
A: We’re very, very big into sustainability and all that stuff. So, we will vet the growers and the producers and the suppliers to make sure they’re accredited, whether it be LEAF, which is Linking Environment And Farming, or British Red Tractor or Sedex, which is Supplier Ethical Data Exchange to make sure they’re not using slave labor. There are a lot of checks and balances taking place.
It’s an interesting thing: in this country, more and more and more pesticides are being taken away from growers and farmers, which is potentially a good thing. They use a lot more natural systems, but no farmer or grower really wants to grow unsustainably, because most of these guys are family businesses, and they want to pass it on to the next generation and the next generation and the next generation; a lot of growers are fourth, fifth, sixth generation farmers. So, it’s in their interest to keep the soil healthy and to make sure they grow in a sustainable way. Otherwise, they’ve got nothing to pass on. So, we talk a lot about sustainability in this country and everywhere, really, but the majority of British growers have been doing it forever. It’s just natural to them but, suddenly, it’s a big buzzword and a watchword.
Q: Do you feel like sustainability is more important now than it used to be, just because of the awareness? Now they have to answer to the consumer on social media and there’s more interaction between all the different players and their own customers.
A: There’s a lot more awareness about it. It’s always been a thing, but what we’re seeing now is more social proof being required. In the old days, we’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s sustainable,’ and they’d go, ‘oh, great, it’s sustainable.’ Now, a lot of our customers go, ‘Well, how? Why? What makes it sustainable? What are they doing that’s different?’ That’s where you have to explain the picture. ‘This is what they’re doing: they’re using regenerative farming methods, crop rotation, and managing the soil in a better way.’ So, I wouldn’t say it’s more important now; it’s always been important, but it’s probably people a lot more aware about it now. And, obviously, the next generation, Greta Thunberg, and all that stuff, they’re probably more aware than a good few years back. They’re going to be the guardians going forward. So, yeah, there’s much more awareness about it now, particularly amongst the younger guys.
Q: What are some of the current food trends that are happening right now in the UK that you’ve seen?
A: There were a few really about guests in restaurants, and I guess in retail: sustainable credentials is one that we’ve already mentioned; provenance is another, so there’s a big move for UK products now more so than ever. We still have to use imports, obviously we can’t grow lemons and oranges and pineapple in the UK, but there’s a big move towards the UK in season and the story behind whether it’s British asparagus or British top fruit, apples and pears, or British grown brassicas.
That’s also driving the next trend, which is seasonality. Because people are now looking at buying British more than ever before, they’re getting more aware of seasonality. In this country, you can get strawberries for 12 months of the year, 365 days of the year but we don’t grow them 365 days a year in the UK. Now, our season typically will be from March to October. So, it’s trying to drive a little bit of that agenda and people are getting more aware. ‘Really, should we be eating strawberries on Christmas Day?’ You can, you can get them, but they won’t taste very good, because they’ll be flown in from Egypt and there’ll be pretty hard and white shouldered and big green flags and all the other stuff. So, that’s definitely a trend.
Premiumization is another trend. It’s where people are upselling a bit. So, they’re prepared to spend more in a restaurant, but they want better quality for it. And that’s really been driven over here by the lockdowns that we’ve had through the pandemic, in that people have probably had more time at home, they’ve had more time to cook, they’ve had more time to learn about food. Suddenly they’re realizing, ‘Actually, I could make spaghetti carbonara at home for £5 but I go to a restaurant and they’re trying to charge me £15 for one bowl.’ So, now they want something a little better, a little different, a little more premium. That’s a really big trend that we’ve seen a lot of. Then also, health, vegan, plant-based is huge. It’s not huge in terms of menu takeups; it still only makes up about 3 or 5% in the UK but it’s the noisiest bit. It’s the bit that people will Instagram about, like, ‘the amazing plant burger,’ or, ‘the most amazing vegan fish,’ or whatever it might be. But that’s the bit that’s making the most noise and restaurants are having to rise to the challenge.
Q: That health trend is definitely something that I’ve seen in the last few years. I live in California, so people here are generally trying to be healthy eaters and people are definitely more conscious than they used to be about their health and about what they’re eating. I’m not sure if that’s pandemic related, but that might be part of it because over the last couple of years we’ve really had to pay attention to our own health in a way maybe we didn’t have to before. But it’s very interesting that you said that that doesn’t seem to be translating as much to restaurants. It seems like healthy eating may be more when people make it for themselves. Do they want something more decadent when they go off to a restaurant? Maybe going into a restaurant is almost like a cheat for them a little bit.
A: In general, that’s right. I mean, you don’t go to a restaurant for a salad that you can make at home, and pay a lot more money for it. There is still a move towards healthy eating and it’s going to be pushed a little bit now, because in April all of our menus in the UK are going to have to declare the calorie count on every dish and the nutritional information needs to be available, how much fat, how much salt, how much sugar. So, some restaurants get a bit nervous about that and they’re coming to us and saying, ‘what have you got that’s good and fresh and healthy and vibrant that we can chat about, rather than just a salad or just something plant-based?’ So, there is a move towards it. It’s probably more of a domestic thing than a foodservice thing, the healthy thing, but it is definitely happening. But it’s some and some: you don’t go to a dirty burger restaurant if you’re health conscious; you might go to a plant-based restaurant, or you might go to someone that’s got a good salad cart or whatever. But, yeah, it’s generally an indulgent experience.
Q: When you identify that people are being healthier, for example, or whatever trends there are, how do you help the growers and producers stay ahead of that?
A: We work, by default, with a lot of healthy food producers, because we’re working with people that grow plants, and whe’re working with people that pull fish out of the sea. Plants and fish are two of the healthiest things you can eat. It’s our job in the middle, I guess, to translate that to the end user and give them menu solutions. We’re not teaching them how to cook because they’re all good chefs anyway, but we might have access to more things than they would normally see in their day job because they’re in their kitchen, they’re focused on what they’re doing, with tunnel vision, and they rely on guys like us. We do what we call food shows, where we’ll bring the guys into our facility. We’ve got the seafood plant and the produce warehouse and then we’ll cook dishes with them. If the brief is ‘look healthy’ then it might be that there’s a lot of plant-based food on their market, there’s a lot of produce on their market, there’s a lot of simply cooked fish without heavy sauce on there. So, that’s how we help to translate it because, at that point, we’re dealing with guys that have got the raw product, so there’s not much more they can do to make it healthier. By nature, it’s healthy. So, it’s our bit to be in the middle, to go ‘if you combine this fish, which is high in omega-3s, with this beetroot, which is high in fiber and antioxidant, and this carrot, which is high in vitamin D.’ That’s the way we tend to do it.
Q: Is there a way that chefs and growers and producers should be working together to deliver that innovation to food? Are there things that they could be doing that they aren’t?
A: It’s a tricky one. I get challenged with this a lot and I’ve just helped a friend of mine write a thesis on this for a college dissertation. It’s probably fair to say a lot of growers are risk averse and I challenge them a lot with this because it’s like, ‘we want to grow this same beetroot in the same volume that we’ve grown for years because we know we can make money out of it and we know we can sell it.’ When you go to them say, ‘Okay, can you go to some baby beetroots? Can you grow some candy striped beetroot? Can you do golden beetroot?’ they’re a bit hesitant because it’s like, ‘we don’t know, because it’s still fairly new.’ So, it’s not going to be as much as you’d be growing before but take a chance. So, we do try and push our guys to do that, even if it’s setting a few fields aside to try new stuff. They want to try stuff but they are risk averse. I mean, there’s very tight margins in produce and it’s tied up in the ground for a lot of time, it’s in the ground for three months. As chefs, we always want new stuff, we want different stuff, we want exciting stuff. But, when you get to that point, a lot of guys don’t want to commit to it. They don’t want to say, I want new stuff and I’ll take 10 pallets a week off you. It’s like, ‘I want new stuff but I don’t want any risk.’ So, it is a challenge but we are always pushing our growers to try something different or tell us what’s different, because we may not know.
Q: As you said earlier, it can take but a decade to come up with a product, so that’s a big investment for something you’re not really sure people are going to want. How do they deal with that? If they’ve done something for 10 years and they come up with a product and then they show and and people go, ‘Oh, I don’t really want that.’ What if the timing doesn’t work?
A: It happens. It’s true. Baby kale is a big thing now, little baby kale leaves for salads; when they first came out, people just didn’t understand it, because it was three times the price of regular kale. and it took a long while for that to take off. But, now, it’s pretty mainstream and you see quite a lot. So, it’s about keeping the faith, that’s the thing, and being prepared to take a chance on stuff. But, as I said, even if it’s trying stuff that already exists, but growing it in the UK, that is sometimes challenging. A good example of that is a few years ago, I was working for a different produce supplier and we were constantly going to our beetroot grower saying, ‘we’re bringing all this candy striped beetroot and golden beetroot from France every week. Why don’t you grow it?’ and they went ‘Oh, no, it’s a flash in the pan. It’s a gimmick, it won’t last.’ And it went on for three years where we were still selling it, and it was like, ‘that’s money going to France, not to your farm.’ And then it was, ‘okay, fine. And they started to grow it and then it’s like, ‘actually, yeah, that was a good idea.’ It’s still a tiny proportion versus regular beetroot but they can command a premium for that because it’s slightly different.
There is a consensus that increasing produce consumption is important as a public health tool. Some look to varietal development to create more flavorful produce as a tool in this battle. Indeed this might work but it can take a long time. A full size pear tree can take six to nine years to begin yielding fruit and that might not be the variety that ultimately prevails. So to test varieties and plant and harvest from commercial scale orchards – it can take decades.
As a result, the hope of increasing produce consumption depends heavily on culinary technique. Creating dishes that use more produce and that are made appetizing by cooking methods. The foodservice/catering sector is absolutely vital because they can introduce techniques and methods, flavors and cuts, that consumers will not only enjoy at restaurants but will look to emulate at home.
The basic challenge for the produce industry when it comes to boosting consumption is that our innovations have only tended to replace existing usage. So all the sudden kale becomes hot and consumption of kale increases ten fold – but all it means is that the steak that was served with a side of spinach, now is served with a side of kale, the spinach salad now becomes a kale salad. Total sales and total consumption of produce is unchanged. Only culinary change can alter consumption patterns. Instead of a giant steak with a little vegetable on the side, you have to move people to, say, a stir fry, rich in vegetables, where a little meat is added to provide a certain flavor.
At this year’s edition of the London Produce Show and Conference we were super excited that Sysco and Fresh Direct stepped in to host a hospitality lounge on the floor and our Culinary Theatre, helping to support a culinary team working to develop appealing and delicious produce centric recipes with the goal of using them to help boost consumption.
Ian’s thought leadership, is another contribution to the industry and one for which we are grateful.
Come and engage with Ian and see the direction the culinary world can engage in to help us all move the needle on produce consumption.
You can register, at no charge for The London Produce show, right here.
And if you want to move to grab a last minute booth or sponsorship. Just let us know here.
Be part of the movement to boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables – join us at The London Produce Show and Conference!