Thoughts at 35,000ft!
Twenty years ago, this month, I left the comfortable world of corporate life working for one of the UK’s largest food producers, to set up my own agency NPD Direct.
Above: Burrata, fennel jam and bronze fennel
Twenty years on it still amazes me how food continues to evolve, impress and excite both the consumer and me as I explore the World’s food scene looking for the next great idea.
Take this week, I’m currently sat on a flight back from Sydney (not sure what time of day I’m actually writing this!), I am reflecting on the Australian client meetings and the inevitable ‘Next Steps’ that need to be written up and presented back. I am also thinking how it is always a real eye opener to the downtime you have on any foreign trip as this is inevitably when you find new pots of gold. In my case, it’s new restaurants, new markets, new packaging, new materials and just the evolution of food trends that allow our team to continually provide support to our clients.
Now, I’ve been in the food industry since 1987, my first business foray onto foreign soil was in 1991. A trip that started in New York, then down to New Orleans, onto Memphis, across to San Francisco and finally Los Angeles. What a baptism by fire! Boy, was I under pressure to find some new concepts to put onto the shelves of M&S but 5 cities in 8 days......come on!
Since that wonderful experience, and it was wonderful when I look back on it, the art of exploration and looking for new ideas whether abroad or home based has, in my case, evolved. NPD Direct is one of the leading innovation agencies in the UK and we know what we are doing, but we are all individuals and we all approach things differently. For me, these days, I’m pretty laid back about travel and food exploration. ‘Let the ideas come to you’ and not the other way around. You need to plan your trip against a business objective but chill out, relax and really take in the surroundings, the aromas, the flavours and the visual stimulation that washes over you as you explore.
L to R: 1. Cauliflower, currant escabeche 2. Anchovies and shaved fennel on toasted sour dough slices 3. Cannellini bean hummus, cumin burnt butter, flatbread
Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of trips that I have been on and the retailer/supplier combinations that have been set with rigid goals around the number of ‘new concepts’ they NEED to find..........calm down guys! In this day and age there is nothing really new out there that will hit you in the face and say ‘launch me, I’m the next big thing!’ It’s the sum of its parts that creates innovative new food ideas with characteristics from lots of different sources which crafts the newness.
Back in 1997, whilst travelling with a UK retailer, I came across a couple of Mexican concepts that were being shown at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. These concepts were deep fried rolled tortillas stuffed with what looked like chilli. OK, I thought, I’ll keep that in my hip pocket. Next stop later that week was San Francisco with a trip down Chestnut Street. For those of you who are not familiar Chestnut Street is about two miles long and at the time was full of new concept restaurants trying to gain traction in a competitive restaurant scene.
One place in particular grabbed my eye, they produced salads served up on a huge warm tortilla. A tortilla was heated on a grill, a mixed salad was thrown on top followed by chargrilled chicken and a dressing, the tortilla was then rolled and given a ‘wrap’ of aluminium foil to contain it. Mmm, ‘there’s something in this’ I thought.
Left: Zucchini flowers, truffle honey, pecorino
After the trip, I assembled my small team back at base and told them what I had seen. We then went about creating the fastest selling new sandwich concept in the UK. From concept to launch it was just 8 weeks, producing three flavours Chicken Caesar, Roast Beef and a Vegetarian Three Bean. For packaging, we took our lead from a McDonald’s French Fries carton. We figured out how best to cut the wrap and away we went.
What followed was the building of a new factory with the creation of hundreds of new jobs. To this day, Wrap Sandwiches are still top of the charts in terms of sales across the country. Now, was this a new concept? Not really, it was a combination of different elements from different food types. And that’s what it’s all about!
Anyway, enough rambling. Here are a few pictures from two great restaurants in Sydney that feel are right on the mark, NOMAD Up the Road and St Peter. Plant based, red meat free creations that are pushing the boundaries and testing senses with every mouthful.
Here’s to a gastronomic 2020!