Prepared Foods talks Chef Todd Ketterman, culinary manager at Reser’s Inc. Reser’s, Beaverton, Ore., is one the nation’s largest manufacturers of refrigerated salads, side dishes, sauces and more for supermarket in-store deli departments as well as commercial and non-commercial foodservice operators.  A Portland native, Chef Todd has more than 30 years of experience as an executive chef in private country clubs, resorts, and restaurants around the Northwest. He received his degree from Western Culinary Institute and has participated in several continuing education classes through the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif.  Chef Todd manages a team of product development chefs working within Reser’s R&D department.

Prepared Foods: Before diving into our particular topic, may we simply ask about today’s market and how you’ve stayed busy during the COVID pandemic? It’s certainly been a difficult time for your traditional foodservice operator customers.

Chef Todd Ketterman: Yes. It has been sad to see what has happened to the industry overall. It will take a while to rebuild, but we’re confident things will continue to open up and get back to some sense of normalcy.

When COVID-19 first came on the scene, the industry faced a lot of uncertainty and supply issues. We have 14 facilities across the country and were fortunate that our manufacturing and distribution remained strong so that we could continue to serve customers’ ever-changing needs. 

For instance, with kitchens running with fewer staff in the back of the house, some operators converted to our prepared mashed potatoes, because labor was a critical issue and they were looking to reduce labor costs. Colleges and universities also were challenged with dining hall closures. With more cafeterias closed, we shifted to offer more grab-and-go items.

Our product pipeline has stayed active and consistent throughout the last 16 months. We anticipated demand to decrease—yet, in fact, it increased. We had a very tight system in place to keep everyone safe and distanced while working in our Innovation Kitchen throughout the pandemic. We listened to our customers—as to what they needed to address the ever-changing conditions within the market. With the removal of things such as hot bars and deli cases (bulk items), we saw an increase in demand for single-serve items. 

PF: Where do you go for inspiration? With so many independent restaurants closed, how do you continue to learn?  

Chef Todd: We are inspired by trends within the industry that appear to have staying power. As everyone has seen during this past year, plant-based options have really taken off and are becoming more mainstream. The demand is increasing, and this is something that could really shift the industry during the next five to 10 years. 

This forces us to continue to learn more about this specific area and start conversations about how we can increase our participation and work in this area with our current innovation goals. It is very exciting and definitely keeps us energized and inspired!

PF: This month we have a culinary trends feature focused around on-trend grains and seeds. Do you find Reser’s working with different or new types of grains and seeds? How so?

Chef Todd: We continue to develop and launch products using these ingredients. Some items we like to work with are different varietals of quinoa, wheat berry and barley blends, and wild rice. We are very selective in how we use these ingredients and what our target customer base is when we develop and market these types of items. This development is driven by customer requests, internal marketing initiatives, and our R&D chef’s innovation projects.

PF: What have you learned about transitioning these ingredients from a “gold standard” type product you develop in the kitchen to a more finished, prepared item that your facilities can process and package?

Chef Todd: We have learned how to utilize these ingredients as components of finished goods, and how they can contribute texture and flavor without being the main ingredient focus. Since these typically go into cold salads, we need to source grains and seeds that are ready to eat. 

Rarely are we cooking these ingredients in our production facilities from raw state. It is crucial that we can source ready-to-eat items that are of the highest quality and maintain the flavor and texture of something that would be cooked from raw and contain a clean and natural ingredient deck.

Looking ahead, I’d note that we are excited about several new grain-based salads in the pipeline to tentatively launch later this year and in early 2022.

PF: Any advice about the interplay between corporate chefs and food scientists? What have you learned about helping both sides “win” during product development?

Chef Todd: It is really quite simple: communication and collaboration. Each party brings a unique skill set and vision to a project. In order for that project to be successful, a chef and food scientist really need to be on the same page from the beginning of that project, identify what the goal and desired outcome will be, and what parts each person can contribute to make the project successful.

Transparency in communication and agreeing to accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses will create a very balanced and successful project.

PF: What are a few of your goals for the remainder of this year? 

Chef Todd: One initiative is to continue embedding innovation into our culture within the R&D department. And how we can continue to push the envelope of development.

I think another goal is to monitor how the year continues to unfold and see how it may transition back to where it was pre-pandemic. That will help give us direction on where to focus our efforts and how to develop products that best support our customers’ needs.

We also hope to return to some traveling and visiting our customers and plants later this year. We have all been working in physical silos for the past year, so it will be nice to get back to visiting and collaborating with people in person!