Interview with an Innovator

Moy Park’s Aaron Dixon: ‘We’re looking at alternatives to allergens, working with things like tiger nut flour'

The head of culinary for the poultry producer talks about what’s cooking at the new Grantham Food Lounge, how a bird business deals with the rise in plant-based eating and creating a visually exciting product using natural powders and spices. 

23 November 2018
chefsfood-to-gofood wastejapanesemiddle easternpoultry

Dixon on Paper – CV

  • Started out in restaurant kitchens, cooking in establishments in Ireland and on the Isle of Man
  • Joined Moy Park in 2005 as group executive chef, taking on the role of head of culinary last September
  • Develops new products for foodservice and retail, having previously worked with restaurateur Jamie Oliver as well as supermarkets like Waitrose

Would a British customer eat the gizzard of a chicken? How about the heart? Yet over in Japan, these cuts of meat can fetch a higher price than breast, Aaron Dixon, the head of culinary for Moy Park, tells Food Spark.

Dixon's job at one of the UK’s largest poultry producers involves lots of experimentation with global flavours, which is why he recently embarked on a scouting trip to Tokyo, where he was particularly inspired by the lack of wastage. “The complete carcass utilisation was amazing from our point of view,” he says, “because it’s an ongoing project at Moy Park that we want to sell more of the dark meat.”

Dixon and his team are at the frontline of innovation at Moy Park, a business that recently unveiled a new Food Lounge in Grantham specifically dedicated to product development at a reported cost of £450,000.

“We’re trying to move away from being identified as a food processor towards a leading food business that has creativity at the heart of it,” he explains.

The company’s Culinary Academy programme has been up and running for a year now, providing internal training for people across the business in everything from identifying flavours to butchering a bird. With the Food Lounge, Dixon has a new facility where he can teach the academy’s modules – as well as play with kitchen toys like water baths, a rotisserie oven and state-of-the-art ceramic barbecue grills from Primo and Quinta Kamado.

“I think Moy Park owns about 60% of the poultry barbecue market in the UK, so my team of chefs do barbecue development a lot throughout the year,” remarks Dixon. “We’ve got ourselves a bespoke barbecue area that can be used all the year round… It’s weatherproof!”

He talks to Food Spark about where his team derives ideas and why he’s spent a lot of time on Middle Eastern cuisine.

 

We have a team of chefs who travel far and wide to bring the latest barbecue trends to the business. Even within the UK, there’s some really good barbecue festivals that we make a point of making it to, like The Big Grill Festival in Dublin and Meatopia in London.

People think chicken is really only breast, legs, thighs, drumsticks, that sort of thing. But we’re looking at some innovative new cuts that can be used and cooked quickly on the barbecue.

I spent a week in Tokyo on a food safari… We tried all manner of yakitori-style grilled products. It’s very timely actually because that’s going to feature in a lot of my development for our internal stakeholders shortly.

In Japan, they use every cut of chicken, effectively, except the breast, which was really eye opening. They actually then replicate that in store, in the deli counters and on the retail shelf.

One of the first restaurants I went to it was skewered hearts, gizzards, liver, skin, parson’s nose… The neck as well was skewered and grilled on those little yakitori grills. It was absolutely mind blowing the scope of what we could do from a carcass balance perspective. I suppose the biggest problem there is getting the UK consumer to buy into it!

Japanese culture, they’re obviously brought up to eat things that have a lot more texture than we do in the UK. UK consumers are slightly afraid of texture, in the sense that a gizzard that is skewered and grilled does have a lot chew and bite to it. With other cuts of chicken like the livers and the hearts, they are actually very tender and really, really tasty. The parson’s nose in particular was probably my favourite, I had lots of them while I was there.

I think if people tried these things they would see the value in it and see that it’s absolutely packed with texture and flavour. Sometimes with the UK consumer, I think it’s about the education, to get them to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.

We do have opportunities in some of the Asian markets to sell some products. A large part of the reason we were there [in Tokyo] was to see what we can do for the Asian market, how we can add value potentially to some of those products.

I’m very fortunate in that I do get to travel quite a bit. I’ve been all over South America, so Lima in Peru, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Mexico City. I’m a firm believer that to really deliver those trends, that newness and that authenticity to your development, I think you need to experience it. There’s only so much I think you can get from a book and from visiting a restaurant in London.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic restaurants throughout the UK where you can taste authentic Mexican cuisine, for example, but I’m also a firm believer in actually visiting the country and seeing it for real. And I think that sort of rubberstamps your authority on what you think that cuisine is… Moy Park are really forward thinking in that sense, because they’re happy to send us. These trips are quite an investment for the business, but we look to capitalise on that and bring the right information back.

I would say that South American cuisine is still ready and waiting to happen. I don’t think it’s on a cusp yet, I think it’s there but it hasn’t become mainstream at any stage. I think it’s something that is a work in progress.

I’ve seen quite a few izakayas, which are a kind of Japanese gastro-pub-meets-tapas-bar. I’ve seen a few of them in New York at the moment. So I think that kind of Japanese – informal dining, tapas style, eating at the bar, a crossover from a sushi bar – is something that’s going to become bigger.

The Middle East is somewhere we’ve done a lot of development in the last few years. Key customers are interested in Middle Eastern cuisines and the health side of that, but also the freshness and the visual-ness of the spices. That’s an area I think will get stronger and bigger year on year.

A lot of our business is ready-to-eat, so food on the go, food off the shelf, and I think Middle Eastern cuisine allows you to deliver a really fresh, visual sort of product.

Consumers buy with their eyes, and we’ve developed a lot of products recently with turmeric in them, which gives you that golden look on the shelf. I think a lot of things like that with almost simple flavours but visual appeal will appeal to consumers.

Everybody at the minute has a ras el hanout sort of flavour profile on the shelf, and they’re now looking at za’atars becoming more mainstream. I think nearly every retailer now has those ingredients in their cook’s ingredients section, so you’re now seeing those becoming mainstream. Lebanese seven spice is something people are using and getting more knowledge of and are excited to use.

North African spices are something I’ve seen showing up quite regularly – it’s something we’ve put into our development quite recently. Hibiscus as well… It’s about delivering that point of difference, that point of interest.

Super powders are something that we’re seeing now as well and that are featuring in our development, like chaga, which is dried mushroom, and maca, which is a tuber.

We’re also looking at alternatives to allergens. So we’ve been working with things like tiger nut flour – I believe alternative flours is something that will become much bigger. With tiger nut, we’ve been coating some chicken in it and it gives you the most wonderful flavour and texture without the issue of allergens, though it does have that nutty flavour.

Also good gut health, good gut bacteria – in some of our development we’ve looked at how we can integrate chicken and kefir. Moy Park were the first company to launch omega-3 chicken, enhanced from the feed. Those additional, perceived health benefits in food are going to continue to grow.

If you look at the coated breaded chicken shelf, it’s a sea of brown. We’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes here to inject colour and vibrancy into that – with natural colours. In the past, when you’ve looked at some ready meals they were vibrant for the wrong reasons! Now it’s more about colours that naturally come from things like beetroot powder. I think it’s import to drive that culture, because there are also health benefits to that… The developers that we work with in foodservice and retail, they know that’s what the consumers want.

As part of the Culinary Academy, I’m just about to start doing masterclasses on Japan for relevant sectors of the businesses. We’ll start with our NPD colleagues and our chefs… but my learnings will be trained out to the rest of the team so that they benefit from what I’ve seen, so it’s not kept siloed. We’ll even take it to our commercial teams and marketing teams as well just to ensure that they see what’s going on and then they transfer that across to our customers.

The Culinary Academy was brought to the business by Debra Wharton, who is our director for food development and innovation. She’s brought these learnings into the business and it’s been really well received. We’re now starting to roll out beyond the NPD and packaging team, which is 85 strong. We committed to training all of those people within the first year, to cover all 12 modules within the Culinary Academy. Some of them, it doesn’t necessarily fit with what they do day to day, but we thought it was important that they should know the bare basics of how to butcher a chicken, for example – that’s one of the modules.

A new module we’ve just added is called ‘Trend Storm,’ which is us recognising future trends. We’re looking at trends at the minute that are maybe one to five years out, and that’s where things like kefir and gut health have recently featured – something that we’re looking at as the next trends that we should be taking a serious viewpoint on.

The one that unfortunately/fortunately keeps coming up is meat alternatives. For Moy Park as a poultry company, it’s not ideal! But what we are looking at is things like flexitarianism and how we can still incorporate meat into people’s diets… There are people that are still looking to have chicken, for example, but the majority of the dish will be other things.

Moy Park also owns a company called Kitchen Range Foods, which is a meat-free company. So there are opportunities there as well. I just presented a customer there last week with eight or 10 new meat-free alternatives.

We’ve looked at things like meatballs. So we have a chicken meatball, which should be between 80-90% chicken, the rest being breadcrumbs, seasoning, spices and herbs. We’ve done some development recently where the chicken content is down to about 30-40% and the rest is made up of pulses and grains with visually strong colours.

The drive to eat meat less frequently affects only a small minority of what we’re doing from a development point of view, but it’s something that we have to react to. We can’t turn a blind eye to it.

I love launching products that become benchmarks in the industry. We launched a product that we called a ‘king kebab’ last year. It was a thigh meat kebab which had an almost Middle Eastern buttermilk marinade on it; a jumbo-style double-skewered kebab that was kind of like a meat centrepiece. And since we put that on the shelf last year it has become a benchmark for nearly every other barbecue group we’ve seen. Every customer that we’re dealing with at the minute kind of wants their own king kebab for the summer.

Traditional with a twist is always what sells at Christmas. I think that we’ll see more of that again this year. The Heston team at Waitrose, for example, always look to take a classic dish and give it a Heston twist.

The UK consumer likes to know what they’re getting at Christmas… We’ve looked at a lot of different flavours over the years for various customers – we did look at a Middle Eastern turkey a couple of years ago, with some of those warming spices and warming notes that fit in with the Christmas theme, but it can be a step too far... It’s how you can do that little bit of quirkiness but without taking it too leftfield.

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