Working in innovation is like having access to a great culinary store cupboard, according to Mark Richmond. “You have so many interesting people out there with so many skills and so many experts you can learn off, so that’s what I love about development,” he says.
Prior to entering the supermarket scene, Richmond was the world tour chef for National Geographic. He worked on a 100-seat luxury jet flying Americans on expeditions around the world. It’s where he learned a lot about world cuisines as he travelled to places like Australia, Chile and Morocco, and sourced local produce to design and create four-course meals to be served up in the air.
He then left the jet-setting life to land at Asda, where he is now the head innovation development chef. But he still needs to strap himself in for take-off, as every day brings new discoveries. One day, he could be in the kitchen working on new projects; the next, he could be showcasing ingredients to a bunch of bloggers; after that, he could be checking out the competition in-store.
In a chat with Food Spark, Richmond opens his culinary cupboard to reveal how mushrooms, seaweed and algae are spiking the supermarket’s interest, and why convenience, colour and experiences are big trends.
A lot of my food interest came from my grandma. I remember my grandma always cooking no matter when we visited, or she would have us sitting on the tabletop while she made cakes or pork pies or fish and chips from scratch. She had no refrigeration at the time, it was just a larder full of food.
When I first came to Asda, I looked after two categories myself, and they brought me in as a chef to add value through my culinary knowledge and skills. After two and a half years, I then got promoted into innovation as the development chef.
I now work in own brand as the head innovation development chef. It’s such a flexible role, there is no typical working day.
We have a plan we work towards two to three years ahead and that is for the very huge projects, but what we are finding is that we have changed a lot. We used to have a long critical path within our business. What we’ve done now is split it into three different types of critical pathways – just because of the changes within the macro environment, the way trends are working, the way things are turning over, the demand for speed in innovation and also the reaction to what is going on in the market.
There has been a shift in demand for creative innovations to come through faster and quicker, especially in fresh areas.
I’ve been at Asda for eight years, so there are countless products I’ve developed and to put that into numbers is crazy. For the last few months, I’ve been working on three key categories within ready meals and those three key categories can compile about 20 to 30 products. In a couple of months, you can be working with a product manager on 60 to 90 meals alone just looking at innovation and development – and that’s without looking at trend-led products that we present as well.
I get involved in a lot of different areas, like working with world-class bakers, to great Indian chefs, to spice experts. It gives you the capability and variability of learning new skills as a chef.
Innovation comes when you make products really easy and convenient for the customer. That’s what we do at Asda by bringing that through into our development process.
I’m really proud of developing a fantastic range of authentic barbecue products. This all started when Asda was competing in the Memphis World Barbecue competition. The products have been authentically smoked and cooked low and slow, and that was all about taking the hardship out of cooking and making it really easy for consumers. The products have already been flavoured and tenderised and complemented with a great range of authentic sauces.
A lot of the projects that I get involved in are reaffirming quality – so working around authentic recipes with Indian, Chinese and British recipes, making sure our recipes are up to standard, relooking at the recipes and doing a bit of reinvention. Because it’s really important for customers if they are buying an Indian ready meal that it represents their favourite takeaway.
The pitfalls of being a chef are that everything in a kitchen is very simple to do. I think that’s why we try and get out to factories quite a lot to understand process and work with the product managers to understand the technical side of the products. Sometimes it’s frustrating, as something made at home or made in a kitchen seems very easy, but actually producing it on scale is a difficult thing.
We have got a whole team looking at reducing plastic. We don’t want to start reducing plastics in every area if there are issues with food waste, as some packaging extends shelf life and reduces food waste. We have a very rigorous process that has been set up by our packaging team and anything we are looking at within a category has to go through the process.
We have done a lot of work around range rationalisation. We are not putting too much range in there so it’s easier to shop.
Making sure it’s simple, doing your testing and finding the right production site – that brings in the right matrix for a successful launch.
Our customer base is broad and their needs and expectations are ever evolving. We are continuously working to better understand these needs and to help them save time and money.
There is always somewhere you can gain inspiration from, whether it’s eating at a fantastic restaurant or reading a book or a trend agency comes in to talk about future trends or going to a trade show and meeting up with an old chef colleague and having a chat – this is the best thing about our industry, you can tap into so many different people to gain inspiration.
Plant-based is one of our big trends. It’s growing from a small base but it’s growing rapidly. Customers are demanding more from us as a retailer and we are doing more and more on it. When we look at the categories – so ready meals, dairy, frozen meal solution products, meat-free products – it’s just growing and growing.
Personalisation we have seen as a huge trend. It comes across in so many different areas. Some examples within Asda where we have responded to that are our build-your-own pizza on our counters and personalising your own cake within our in-store bakery.
We are seeing a lot more trends on fibre and gut health. Where we are seeing that in is in convenient products such as healthy snacking and drinks.
Food environments are trying to give their customers an experience, whether that’s walking in-store, new counter formats such as ready to wok or the restaurant, where the experience isn’t just about the food but is everything from chefs serving at the table right down to the crockery – that is one of the things we are seeing as an up-and-coming trend.
Colour is a big one because of Instagram and all the social media that is going around photographing your favourite food. Colour is becoming a big part of innovation, so the more striking food looks or how it will look on a photograph or how it will look to your friends or how you can talk about the food.
Also being transparent about your products. People are wanting more clarity about where the food comes from, food miles, plastics, etc.
Mash-ups are quite interesting as they are in and out quite quickly. As a retailer trying to follow up mash-ups or twists like the cronut, it’s very difficult to follow those trends at speed, as they are in and out and on to the next one before you have even got near the first one. So we sit in two minds whether to follow them or not.
We are seeing a lot of Asian coming through, especially the fusion side of Asian and the likes of Korean.
We are seeing a lot more Middle Eastern cuisines come through, like Turkish food and a lot from Israel… We are seeing cardamom being used in lots of different ways, so in drinks, used as a spice and with a citrusy, lemony feel to it. It can be used as a hint of flavour in traditional desserts.
Because of the whole craft movement, we are seeing the resurgence of British ingredients and foods. We are seeing lots of preserves, ferments and pickles.
With plant-based, we are seeing lots of mushroom recipes, as it seems to work really well, and lots of waste being used like broccoli stems and using the whole vegetable.
We are also looking at different alternative plant-based products. Seaweed has been big – and algae.
We are seeing seaweed come through in bakery products already to replace salt, so it helps looking at it from the nutritional aspect of products. And then we are seeing it in the base of products to help lift the flavours. Algae is another area that we will see start rising, but that might be in two to three years as an alternative plant-based product.
One of my favourite things to cook – because I think it takes a bit more skill – is cheap cuts and braising products, and getting the best flavour out of cheap cuts.