Interview with an Innovator

Jardox’s Darren Sutton: ‘I don’t bang the authenticity drum at all’

The ingredient supplier’s culinary director talks to Tom Lee about meal kits being big business and why authenticity is overrated.

18 October 2019
chefsingredientsInterview with an Innovatorjapanesemanufacturemeal kitsNPD

Sutton on Paper – CV

  • Started off in restaurant kitchens, before moving to Rank Hovis McDougall (RHM) as a development chef in the late 80s
  • Joined Hazelwood Foods (now Greencore) in 1998, initially to work on the Tesco Italian account
  • Currently culinary director at Jardox, where he has been employed for over 17 years

Darren Sutton originally thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a joiner, but it turned out his talents lay more in constructing dishes than wooden fittings.

“I think the minute I started at catering college I loved it,” he says, recalling the first stage in his journey towards becoming one of the early cohort of development chefs.

“I was probably the third chef that RHM ever took on, and I was brought on to develop Berni Inns. But within months I was working on the Marks and Spencer account, which was the main account on that business.”

Several years on, his job at Jardox centres on demonstrating the breadth of flavours and ingredients that can be incorporated into new products, taking cuisines and food trends and applying them to the business’ core specialities of stocks, sauces and spice blends.

When Food Spark meets with Sutton, he’s preparing to launch 2021’s barbecue brochure, which has become a pillar of client presentations, showcasing the kind of tastes the company can offer in creative ways.

“The interest it generates is phenomenal,” says Sutton. “These [flavours] are translatable as well. It’s not just about barbecue.”

While he dismisses some trends as impractical for manufacturing (“foraging is not BRC compliant”), he believes others like Japanese still have a lot more life in them.

Varuval chicken

I’ve got to come up with a spin on what the next trend is. Barbecue mash-up is a great example really, where it’s a bit of Japanese and a bit of Korean. We’ve been asked an awful lot in the last two to three years for Japanese ingredients and Korean ingredients.

Gochujang, we couldn’t spell it in the factory five years ago and we’re making tonnes of it now. It’s come from nowhere in a little way.

I don’t bang the authenticity drum at all. This authenticity thing worries me a little bit, because everyone wants to be authentic in the development world, but the customer or the consumer is not understanding what we’re trying to do.

It’s more about trying to break it down and find out what’s fun about it, rather than trying to get completely authentic. Kimchee, for instance – what do people like about the kimchee and how can we apply that? So we’ve got instant pickles that we’ve developed.

We all know that Japanese is quite on trend at the moment… I think we all agree that it’s not going to go away anytime soon with the Olympics next year. But does your average consumer know what yakiniku is, let alone teriyaki? Teriyaki is massive in the States but it’s never really gained traction in the UK. It’s about and a lot of people know it roughly, but you go to a QSR in the States and invariably you’re going to have teriyaki in some way, shape or form.

Meal kits have been massive for us in the last five, six years. It’s just exponential. We do a hell of a lot of meal kits here. The Simply Cook brand, that’s ours, it’s all made here in house. And then you pick Gousto or Hello Fresh – all the pots invariably are ours within those kits.

We’ve got 70 dishes on at Simply Cook at the moment on the website, and you do see that breadth of people buying them. We’re not getting massive peaks and troughs of people just buying green Thai curry.

Simply Cook is reaching 80,000 customers and growing, so I don’t think meal kits have reached a peak, even though I thought they might. Ready meals have seemed to be plateauing a little bit, but meal kits aren’t, so maybe this is where some of the market’s going.

The sachets and pots are not just about meal kits, they’re about the consumer just finishing that dish, whether it be a pot of spice that they just put on at the end to garnish or a finishing sauce that the consumer puts on the dish before putting it back in the oven for 15 minutes. It’s about that little bit of involvement, so that they’ve done something themselves.

Kashmiri salmon

I think Netflix is a good source of inspiration. David Chang’s series, Ugly Delicious, especially the episode where he went around LA with Jonathan Gold, was excellent. It’s appealing to the younger audience as well. It’s not stuffy French chefs in whites – obviously that’s the way I was brought up, I’m not mocking that – but it’s about sharing knowledge and seeing funky places.

It’s a bit of an old adage now, but Instagram has definitely changed the marketplace in the way that people see food – literally see food!

Things like food halls and market halls are fascinating – we were in Lisbon not that long ago looking at the Time Out one. It’s just a phenomenal thing.

I think the less formal way of eating has definitely had an impact. With sharing plates, you will invariably taste dishes that you didn’t necessarily order and that just opens the mind so much.

People come to us for anything savoury. Stocks is still a big part of our business. And spices and herbs and blends.

Everything we make here is bespoke. There’s only a couple of things – a couple of beef stocks and maybe a chicken stock – that are not bespoke these days. And that’s because each supermarket, for example, will have totally different criteria.

We weren’t doing much gluten-free until about 18 months ago. Now we’ve got a segregated area in the factory and a segregated area in the development kitchen. And the same for vegan.

We ask a couple of questions when it comes to gluten-free: are you declaring gluten-free or do you just not want gluten in it because you don’t want gluten as an allergen through your factory? They’re completely different standards.

Keralan wings

Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen range has really fired up the vegan market… Wicked Kitchen has made vegan a bit cooler, where it was a bit too sandals and knit your own shoes before.

Plant-based has been driven upon us rather than we drove it. It’s just what the consumer is asking for now. Every day a brief will come through for plant-based.

One of the things that has changed quite a lot in the last couple of years is naming chillies. Rather than just saying chilli or cayenne or jalapeno, people want that named chilli. It can be quite a challenge. You can go to Borough Market – and chefs do this all the time – and find a fantastic fresh chilli and want eight tonnes of it next year, but it’s not that easy, because it needs to be coming from a BRC-audited site. But more and more are becoming available.

Pasilla chilli, literally in the last 18 months we’ve been able to get hold of from a really good source now. It’s not really taken off that much yet but it’s in the background I think, and it could be a good one. It gives you real deep, chocolatey, curranty flavour, but it’s not actually got that much heat.

I think Middle Eastern is no longer getting lumped into Middle Eastern, it’s becoming much more regionalised, a little bit in the same way as American did a few years ago. We’re seeing interest in Israeli food, for instance, and Israeli culture – and some of their tech businesses are doing amazing things.

We’re now using fully traceable beef stock, beef extract. Since Horsegate, that’s never really been available. A lot of the beef extracts are coming from South America, Brazil – it’s a byproduct of corned beef, for instance. We’re now boiling bones from British cows that are fully traceable. Potentially we’ll fill the loop. So, for example, we’ll be using cows that are bred for Asda, the meat has gone into an Asda pie, and the bones have come to us, and we’ve used the stock to make that gravy.

When I do my trends presentation, at the minute I’m actually telling customers, don’t go to London on a culinary tour, go off to Lisbon. It’s probably going to cost you just as much, especially if you’re in Sheffield or [further north], which a lot of our customers are. Jump on an easyJet flight to Lisbon and go and see the Time Out market, and then go up into the hill of the town.

There’s so many flavours you’ll pick up looking at the tapas and pintxos and whatever else. There’s so much going on!

There’s no one big cuisine anymore. There’s hundreds of cuisines. There’s so much choice.

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