It is a widely-accepted truth that good food comes from good people. This may well be the year that a chef wins a Nobel Peace Prize for the first time, and industry-wide, chefs are being recognized not only for their innovation in the kitchen, but also for their relationship to communities and contribution to meaningful organizations.
They make it look easy—and fun—but a chef’s day is jam-packed with challenges, from the line cook who calls out or simply doesn’t show up to the burner that stops working mid-rush and the delivery that’s been delayed. Vendors, who come and go from restaurant kitchens, don’t often see the carefully managed chaos that lives there, but it is important for suppliers to understand the daily pressures that chefs experience in order to provide the best service possible.
“We have a garden, we have hens, and we have multiple restaurants on site,” says Michael Ponzio, executive chef for Medinah Country Club in Chicago. “A lot of my day is spent bringing in ingredients, meeting with my teams, checking reservations and staffing, and ordering for the next day.”
A restaurant kitchen should run like clockwork. For Ponzio, that includes more than cooking delicious meals for diners—he does that too, but in addition he manages catered events, oversees menu development for multiple restaurants and dining rooms, and engages his team with regular training sessions.
“The most common challenges come from staffing and product quality and consistency,” he says. “Either someone doesn’t show up or the products we receive are wrong—or they’re bad or not produced properly. Those things can really disrupt whether we have what we need for that day’s service and the following day.”
Successful chefs around the country have spent a lot of time developing relationships with their suppliers in order to minimize these kinds of problems. Working with a vendor that has an intimate knowledge of a chef’s daily challenges also helps to ensure that when problems do arise, they can be resolved quickly.
“Vendors have a lot of people they have to work with, all of them with large levels of need,” Ponzio says. “The most important things for me when partnering with a supplier are accessibility and honesty. I don’t need my contacts to answer a call at one o’clock in the morning—I just need them to call me back the next day if I’ve left a message.”
Another challenge that restaurants face is menu innovation. Consumer demand for different flavors and products is an ever-changing landscape, and in the midst of juggling a chef’s day-to-day responsibilities, it can be difficult to keep up with current trends.
“All chefs are creative,” says Frank Dominguez, corporate chef for Smithfield Culinary. “But oftentimes they are too busy running their kitchens to research new recipe ideas. They just want someone they can reach out to for a fresh outlook on how to prepare familiar products.”
This is the goal of Smithfield Culinary: to be the resource chefs and restaurant leaders need. The test kitchen at Smithfield has everything any restaurant would have—from smokers and steamers to combi-ovens to skillets, chargrills, and fry grills, allowing its team to innovate the way chefs would inside a restaurant. Dominguez hosts chefs from around the world who contribute to innovation sessions in order to develop unique recipes and cooking instructions which are then shared with clients through the Smithfield app and website.
“Smithfield provides a wealth of ideas for recipes and innovation on their app and on their website,” Ponzio says. “I use their resources frequently because they share a lot of data, as well as information such as the effects of using different woods for smoking different meats. They’ve done the homework for me and accumulated information from reputable sources, so I know it’s information I can trust.”
Periodically developing new menu items that appeal to customer tastes and align with current trends is an important item on a chef’s to-do lists. In the current market, ethnic cuisines are on the rise. From South American street foods to Meditteranean sampler platters, restaurant offerings are incorporating a wider variety of global flavors in order to differentiate menus and satisfy diner demand.
“Customers want more flavors in their food,” Dominguez says. “The younger generations are driving that. By bringing in chefs from around the world, Smithfield Culinary is able to provide a lot of help to chefs who are otherwise too busy running their kitchens to develop new recipes or identify new uses for their protein products.”
Dominguez says that he spends a lot of time developing ideas around the products that chefs are already using. For example, as Thai and Korean dishes have become more popular, the Smithfield team has explored different recipes that tie in to those trends using the same protein that operators and chefs are already buying.
“If they have something on the breakfast menu, we’ll help them figure out ways to use the same product at lunch and dinner,” he says. “We’re creating new trends as much as we’re following them. We do a lot of forward thinking in the culinary field because we know what chefs need now, but also what they’ll need in the near future.”
In addition to helping chefs to innovate and develop new ideas relative to current trends, Smithfield also helps partners to provide information about menued products to customers.
“I have a lot of guests with dietary restrictions,” Ponzio says. “Smithfield has been very helpful in providing information that I can in turn share with my customers.”
Having high level access and communication with vendors, Ponzio says, helps him to build brand reputation and trustworthiness with his own diners. Having an honest relationship with a vendor that prioritizes the needs of chefs makes it easier to work with them.
“All of our partner chefs need something different,” Dominguez says. “They need something creative, relevant, and trendy, and it’s my job to help them identify—and cook with—the products that fit their customer base.”