Editor’s note: “Fresh” is certainly a buzzword for consumers. Or, turn on the TV and there’s chef Lorena Garcia cutting up fresh ingredients for Taco Bell’s Cantina Bell line. Yet, what does “fresh” mean to corporate executive chefs? Prepared Foodsasks two members of the Research Chefs Association (RCA): Kit Kiefer, RCA president and corporate executive chef and director of culinary services, The Schwan Food Company; and Joseph Ascoli, corporate executive chef for Kettle Cuisine, a refrigerated soups processor.


Prepared Foods: How does the average consumer think of “fresh” in regard to prepared foods?


Kit Kiefer: We know most consumers believe that fresh is the ultimate measure of quality. And, I would agree that fresh is wonderful when we’re talking vegetables. But, fresh isn’t as important with products such as fish, other proteins, pizzas, etc.

For instance, if I’m not on the boat harvesting the tuna as soon as it’s caught, I’d much prefer a piece of fish that has been blast-frozen on the boat, preferably no more than 15 minutes out of the water. Today’s freezing technology has advanced to the degree that “fresh frozen” is, in most cases, better than fresh that is not immediately consumed.


Joseph Ascoli: I think fresh means a few things. Display and packaging drive a lot of perception around freshness. Bulk-service foods generally are viewed as [appearing the] “freshest.” Next come products with packaging that looks like it was completed at store level. Truly pre-packaged containers are probably next. Then, anything shelf- stable is usually considered least fresh.

Consumers generally describe fresh in terms of hot or refrigerated products; short shelflife or perishable products; made-from-scratch products; minimally processed products; and higher-quality foods.


PF: Looking back five or 10 years, how have perceptions changed?


Kiefer: The consumer perception of fresh has grown in importance during the past decade. But, I don’t necessarily think everyone understands today’s technology. Nutrients are preserved in the freezing process; the integrity of products is maintained; and, in many cases, a frozen product performs better than a fresh product that may have a couple of days in the market. Consumers are beginning to understand this, with information that’s being presented to them.

Ascoli: Ten years ago, I would have described the availability of “fresh, prepared food” as very limited. In most places, there was some value-added produce, rotisserie chickens, deli salads and a limited set of other prepared items.


PF: How has your own opinion or experience changed? Why?


Kiefer: Years ago, I was convinced I would always cook bones for stock, never use a frozen soup or base, hand-make all doughs, etc. Now, I recognize that with the advanced methods in freezing food, we can capture the same level of integrity with our products, and guarantee consistency and ease of use.

Many times, a frozen food product becomes a canvas for an operator. For example, I used a frozen corn chowder to create a Shrimp Charleston recipe that was named “Dish of the Week” in Nation’s Restaurant News. I simply added diced peppers and finished it with sherry and cream. The Villa Prima pizza, an innovative product from Schwan’s Food Service, is another great example. It was created as a canvas, so the operator can finish with fresh ingredients and toppings, on-site, to their specifications.


Ascoli: Fresh has evolved in two very different directions over the years. There has been huge growth in the quantity and breadth of fresh offerings. Retailers have really embraced the idea that the best way for them to set themselves apart from each other—and also to compete against fast-casual and quick-service restaurants—is with a strong and unique fresh, prepared food section.

However, many retailers have given in to so-called fresh products with 60 or 90 days of shelflife. In the UK, if a fresh prepared food item has more than five days of shelflife, consumers are skeptical about its true freshness. In the U.S., consumers have been slower to catch on to the fact that a 90-day-old prepared, perishable food item is really not fresh at all.


PF: Compared to five years ago, how would you describe your own use of fresh ingredients (fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc.) in new formulas?


Kiefer: Much less important now. Individ-ually quick frozen (IQF) products are great, affordable and much less labor-intensive.


Ascoli: We’ve found a tremendous amount of high-quality, fresh ingredients. Since we believe strongly in using only the highest quality, freshest, straight-from-the-source ingredients, we have really benefited from this expansion of supply, and more producers [are] starting to get back to doing things right.


PF: Can you share examples of using fresh vegetables, fruits or herbs? What’s been a successful finished product application?


Kiefer: I use them strictly for finishing. It’s always important to finish a dish with flair. Food is not theater, but fresh garnishes make something more appealing to the guest. Using contrasting herbs and spices to create a strong visual cue with a great collision of flavor that works with the product hits a home run.


Ascoli: One great example involves potatoes. We use fresh, unprocessed potatoes, while most competitors use processed, IQF potatoes. We peel and cut our potatoes in-house, just 30 minutes before they go in the kettle. By taking this extra step, we ensure that we maximize delivery of taste, texture and nutrient content in our finished products, and we avoid unnecessary processing steps.

Red and green bell peppers are another great example of ingredients that are best when they are cut just moments before cooking. There are many, many others, but these are some of our high-volume produce ingredients.


PF: Kit, how do you work with your own food scientists, manufacturing and/or suppliers when it comes to translating your taste objectives?


Kiefer: GREAT question! Fresh means fresh—but fresh flavor is different. We need to count on our flavor manufacturers to provide products that deliver really fresh flavor as additives. Whether it’s an inclusion, a particulate, a liquid or dry flavor, it needs to be true to the fresh, natural taste and flavor of the ingredient.


PF: Any fresh ingredient problems you’ve encountered? Can you share any details about how you resolved them?


Kiefer: Yes, I’ve had some challenges with frozen IQF vegetables. The moisture migration sometimes is an issue, so the inclination is for the finished product to become dry.


Ascoli: You occasionally will encounter seasonality-influenced changes in ingredients. I’ll stick with my potato example. As the year progresses, our supply moves from the southeastern U.S. to eastern Canada. We occasionally notice variances in starch level or size of the potatoes, and we need to account for these differences. These aren’t ingredient quality issues, but we might need to adjust the amount of starches contributed by other ingredients to ensure a consistent finished product texture.


PF: Any advice or suggestions for suppliers on this topic?


Kiefer: I’d like to see more flavor particulates that are restricted melt and that bring dynamic, exciting, on-trend flavors. Some examples might include chipotle chips or saffron bites. pf