Prepared Foods talks plant-based seafood trends, tastes and technology with Chad Sarno, co-founder and chief culinary officer at Good Catch Foods, part of Gathered Foods, New York, N.Y. A 44-year food industry veteran, Sarno describes himself as a “plant pushing chef, restaurant and food service consultant, culinary innovator, creative resource, brand builder, plant-based product developer, cookbook author and co-founder of Wicked Healthy, LLC.” Sarno co-founded Good Catch Foods in 2017.
Prepared Foods: You have a lengthy culinary background. How did you transition to consumer packaged goods?
Chad Sarno: Over the years, my career has been driven by the level of impact I can have with my work—and I’d say that’s led to a natural progression. It started with spending years behind the lines [at restaurants] and having restaurants; joining Whole Foods Market as the lead RD chef for the healthy eating program; joining Rouxbe Online Culinary School; and launching plant-based cooking courses. All of those activities eventually led me to the CPG world.
PF: What led to you co-found Good Catch and focus on plant-based seafood?
Sarno: Growing up in New England, seafood was a core part of our diet. Fast forward to years of travels, lifestyle changes, immersing myself in plant-based culinary, and seeing the negative impact the commercial fishing industry has had on our oceans and ocean life worldwide. All those factors fueled my passion to be part of something that could be offered as an alternative solution.
Working closely with my brother Derek (also a chef and business partner) and our close friend, Chris Kerr, an impact investor, we set out to develop a plant-based seafood line. That’s how Good Catch Foods was born.
PF: What were some of your initial impressions of the plant-based market?
Sarno: During the past five years or so, the quality standards for plant-based meat has been set incredibly high, not only from standpoint of taste and wide-accessibility but also when it comes to functionality and ease-of-use for foodservice operators.
Now, there are many market options for plant-based meats, butters, and even cheeses that mirror the functionality of their counterparts.
PF: As a chef, what was it like to work closely with food scientists to develop Good Catch?
Sarno: When we decided to jump in, we knew we needed to combine culinary and food tech to develop formulations that were able to meet this standard in the protein space. This is where we knew we needed a partnership to merge culinary with the food science and technology to achieve what we were after.
We looked at a number of boxes to check during the innovation phase. In our case, it meant examining the key attributes related to seafood—starting with texture and nutritional profile. These are attributes such as “low fat” and “clean taste” and we also considered functionality. During the development process I wouldn’t say many of the elements were easy, but once the development was close to complete, application work was the easier part since our flaked fish product (available in foodservice coming this fall 2020) functions so well in cold and warm recipe formats.
Probably the greatest challenge of the process was the core part of development around texture. The thin layers of protein and flakiness that cooked fish has—was the first charge during the RD process. We achieved this through our diverse proprietary blend of six legumes, chickpeas, navy beans, soy, lentil, fava and pea. We first had to nail this attribute. Only afterward did we really start focusing on taste, application work and value-add products.
PF: In regard to Good Catch, are there culinary touches of which you’re particularly proud?
Sarno: As mentioned, once we were able to develop the protein texture the sky was the limit when it came to application work.
I am really proud of our frozen line, New England Style Crab Cakes, Thai Fish Cakes and Classic White Fish Style Burger. The burger in particular is very reminiscent of a lightly seasoned white fish burger I used to have as a kid growing up on the coast of New England, paired with a horseradish tartar on a buttered bun. It definitely brings me back to childhood.
PF: Are there particular ingredients you like working with in this space? Why?
Sarno: This changes quite often, and during these past few years of development I have become fascinated by plant proteins. There are endless possibilities and I only see more innovation opportunity. I do get excited to see more ingredients coming on the market, as well as the functionality of each and how they work in conjunction with others to achieve unique outcomes.
In addition to the protein category, I’d point to the culinary versatility and sustainable powerhouse qualities of mushrooms, which have been a passion of recipe development for my brother and me. Mushrooms star in our other product line, Wicked Kitchen, which is found in Tesco stores across the UK.
PF: What’s your assessment of today’s market in contrast to when the category first emerged?
Sarno: There were certainly some trailblazers in this space and some of those also have adapted to the high consumer standards we see now. One of those companies has been Light Life. Since being acquired by Maple Leaf Foods a few years back, they have poured more resources into innovation and they are able to ride this next wave of quality in the plant protein space. It has been really great to see a legacy company meet the evolving consumer demand—and do it well.
Flavorless, hockey-puck style veggie burgers are a thing of the past. This space is only improving and growing with the interest of larger investors coming. We see the supply chain demands growing and more ingredients coming to market. We are seeing—and will continue to see—a ton of innovation in the plant protein sector. And, compared to 10 years ago, it’s now here to stay and only moving like a freight train.
PF: And what’s your “big picture” take on plant-based seafood?
Sarno: We have an enormous impact opportunity to disrupt the seafood category. Globally, we consume between 250 to 300 species of animals from the ocean—and that’s compared to just about 30 from land.
From our standpoint at Good Catch, we see this as an endless innovation opportunity. Moreover, we are very excited to share our products and future pipeline with the foodservice industry.
PF: Let us close by circling back to you as a chef. Any thoughts about more plant-based foods appearing on restaurant menus?
Sarno: Many chefs are stepping up to the challenge and incorporating these products onto menus. I commend all the chefs that are leading that charge. I also know from being in kitchens most of my life that there are some hard-to-move chefs out there. They do not want to step out of their comfort zone and be open to how the food system is evolving.
Yes, there is of course a place for classic cooking technique and tradition. However, as the plant-based protein industry grows, there’s also greater innovation opportunity in front of us. These exciting new products not only can help us diversify menus but also reach a wider audience.