Ethnic Foods: A Corporate Chef’s Perspective
A conversation with John Umlauf, vice president of culinary operations for Saffron Road
Prepared Foods talks with John Umlauf, vice president of culinary operations for Saffron Road, a brand of American Halal Co., Inc. The Stamford, Conn., company began in 2010 with four Indian entrée varieties. The line debuted in Whole Foods as the first all-natural, halal-certified, antibiotic free, and humanely raised frozen entree.
Saffron Road’s line has expanded to embrace broader “World Cuisine” with Southeast Asian and now Hispanic flavors. Likewise, its line now includes ethnic-inspired varieties of chicken nuggets, chickpea snacks, simmer sauces, broths, hand-helds, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.
Prepared Foods: In regard to their embrace of ethnic cuisine, how do you think consumer tastes have most changed during the past five years?
John Umlauf: Indeed, India and Southeast Asia have become a great focus of interest for American chefs and consumers, partly because of the complex balance of spices, textures and colors that are core to these cuisines and also due in part, I think, to the romance associated with these regions. The recent movie, “The Hundred Foot Journey,” for example, is all about the romance between classical European cuisine and the timeless flavors of India. What a story!
PF: What are a few new offerings of which you’re particularly proud? Why?
Umlauf: Our Yucatan-Mexican line of frozen entrees launched this past January in Whole Foods. I believe it’s a great new twist on a cuisine that has appealed to Americans for decades. We took some great and classic Yucatan recipes, including an authentic Nixtamal tortilla made only with masa and lime, and put them in reach of the everyday consumer. That is very satisfying!
PF: Is there a particular new spice or ingredient that’s popped up on your radar?
Umlauf: Well, sriracha is not new, but it certainly has jumped up the ladder in terms of consumer interest and we are leveraging that now into some new entrees and sauces. What I like about what I am doing now is that we have sourced a properly aged and fermented chili pepper, a very important part of this whole process of creating sriracha, and I look forward to showcasing this unique form of umami—combining fermentation and heat—in innovative ways.
PF: How do you stay close to consumers? Also, how do you ensure your flavor profiles make it all the way through production?
Umlauf: We have a very strong commitment to social media. However, I’m not just talking about media itself but a commitment to the people we find there. This gives us a [consumer] “heartbeat” that we try to sync to. Regarding how to get our flavors all the way onto the shelf? That’s just good old-fashioned [internal] discipline, hard work and communication! Those things never change as part of the recipe.
PF: What can you tell us about sourcing authentic ethnic ingredients?
Umlauf: More than ever, the emerging flavors that consumers are demanding these days require imported ingredients. In turn, this requires a diligence not just on the quality assurance and food safety side, but also a firm commitment to understanding and working with the supply chains. We have to be sure that ingredients arrive on time and in sufficient quantities.
We have a full time person on staff who does mostly that and I can’t tell you how glad I am to have her on board!