Menu inspiration continues to challenge independent restaurant operators across the country. To jumpstart the menu development process, Chef Marcus Samuelsson partnered with US Foods to create a line of products that aims to inspire chefs and restauranteurs nationwide.

Chef Samuelsson drew upon his Ethiopian and Swedish heritage as well as roots in Harlem, New York to develop six products that feature global flavors. Prepared Foods editors had the chance to speak with Chef Samuelsson about the new line and his process for product development. 

Prepared Foods: Tell us about the inspiration for the partnership with US Foods.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson: US Foods came to our events, and asked great questions, and they wanted to figure out how to get involved. And it was really with integrating CCAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program) into the partnership that the conversation started. 
When it came to the product, (US Foods) showed a lot of curiosity. We’re going from Norwegian salmon to Ethiopian inspired Berbere. That’s a very wide range. You can’t be more diverse than that. We could have stayed around the Red Rooster products like the fried chicken or just the cornbread. But no, they were really excited about trying something in the vegetarian space like the cauliflower and using the aleppo pepper, for example. So, we threw a lot of things at the wall, and the team was like, let’s try that. 
So, I’m like let’s be innovative, and let’s create something for that 40-seat bar or pub in small town America. How can we make sure that we are cutting edge? We really like the fact that we picked ingredients that are very relevant and haven’t peaked yet.

PF: When you go through the process of creating new products in your kitchen, what sorts of challenges pop up?

CMS: It’s all about trust. Finding vendors that help keep the integrity of the flavor. So, with the fried chicken, starting with dark meat, we took the bone out to make it easier for the end consumer. But we committed to buttermilk, coconut milk, things that we could have by-passed. The development was a lot of fun.
We want to capture the peak of something tasting at its best, and then kind of staying there. How do we build up to that versus dumbing it down?
You know, we went back and forth on the cornbread so many times, because I wanted a crunch on top. So if someone popped the cornbread in, you feel the warmth, but you also feel that crunch, there’s a texture difference from the top to the bottom. 
With the Berbere spice, we knew we weren’t going to be able to deliver the Berbere like we wanted to, so we went in a different direction. Let’s have it be inspired by Berbere.
There were a lot of places where we could have cut corners, but we asked how do we keep the integrity of the product and how do make it easier for end users — that chef, that restaurant — to scale up and scale down.

PF: Let’s say you perfect a sauce, instead reproducing that by hand, do you purchase products to assist you?

CMS: There are many things that start with a purchased product. Let’s say Korean chili paste, that culturally or fundamentally I didn’t grow up on. I love that heat, but we can’t make it better. Or Japanese miso. So, we can often start with a prepared item.

PF: So you find inspiration from a baseline food that you can then explore further?

CMS: Great food is great food. It can start on the shelf or it can start fresh. Making something pop and giving it a great flavor is something that I will always be committed to and excited about.  

Read more about Chef Marcus Samuelsson's partnership with US Foods.