Prepared Foods talks with JeanMarie Brownson, culinary director at Conagra Brands, Chicago. Brownson joined Conagra in September 2016, just a few months after the company acquired Frontera Foods Inc., which Brownson co-founded in 1996 with Rick Bayless and Manny Valdes. At Frontera, Brownson was in charge of all new product development, quality control and consumer educational materials.
A Chicago native, Brownson is an accomplished chef and writer. She has been awarded with several prestigious recognitions for her writing including the James Beard Foundations International Cookbook Award for “Mexico – One Plate at a Time,” which she co-authored with Bayless and his wife Deann; and the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award for “Dinner at Home,” a collection of her favorite recipes from her long-running bimonthly food column in the Chicago Tribune which goes by the same name
Brownson now leads culinary development not only for all Frontera products but for all of Conagra’s growth business programs.
Prepared Foods: Looking back during the past 12 to 16 months, what new Hispanic or Latin dishes or flavors have caught your attention? Why?
JeanMarie Brownson: One trend that caught our attention is the proliferation of high-end Mexican restaurants. Restaurants such as Empellon in New York City and Topolobampo in Chicago are elevating Mexican dining to a white-table cloth experience with very high-quality ingredients and fresh presentations.
These restaurants are creating flavor combinations that not only are new but also give a nod to traditional Mexican cuisine—like a mother would make. The resulting food and experiences teach people about what a Mexican dining experience can be and we’re seeing it filter down into casual and at-home Mexican dining.
PF: In early 2017, Conagra introduced a line of Frontera Mexican bowls and skillet meals. What are you most proud of in regard to that launch?
Brownson: Our new Frontera skillet meals are fantastic. Because these are multi-serve meals, they are designed to be shared and this really embodies how meals are consumed in Mexico—with friends and family. With these meals, we were able to take the same flavors found in our salsas—such as roasted poblanos and tomatillos—and capture them in a frozen meal. These meals taste like the Frontera that Rick Bayless and I envisioned when we started the brand years ago.
PF: Let’s look ahead to the next 12 months. What new Hispanic-inspired flavors or dishes do you see gaining even more popularity?
Brownson: Street food and food truck culture is really going to take off. This food is intensely flavored and can be eaten while standing. With today’s consumer craving bold flavors with a convenience factor—this type of food is a perfect fit either for a quick meal or snack. Chiles of all kinds also are becoming more prevalent. They’re a great way to not just add heat but also flavor.
Originally appeared in the April, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as First Person.