Interview with an Innovator

Sodexo’s David Mulcahy: ‘Customisation is well and truly embedded in consumers’

The culinary director discusses his process with innovation, his trend predictions for 2020 and the impact of changing consumer attitudes towards work and food. 

17 January 2020
flexitariangrainsingredientsmeat alternativeNPDplant-based

Mulcahy on paper

  • Moved to the UK aged 21, entering into contract catering from the hotel dining arena.
  • Became vice president of the Craft Guild of Chefs in 2005 and today manages a number of the Guild’s annual competitions.
  • Joined Sodexo as culinary director in 2007 and is responsible for the culinary development of over 2,500 chefs working across the UK and Ireland.

When David Mulcahy first came to England as a young chef, he thought it would only be for a few months. He arrived from Galway as chef number 68 in what was a 68-strong team bound for the newly opened Penta Hotel near Heathrow.

That was 30 years ago, but the experience made Mulcahy a huge advocate for taking opportunities when they come. He’s since worked his way up through the hotel and catering space (including at Compass and Leith’s), achieving Culinary World Cup and Culinary Olympic gold medals as part of the Craft Guild of Chefs’ culinary team along the way.

Today, as vice president of the Guild, Mulcahy advocates healthy competition (being a prolific competitor himself) and manages a number of chef initiatives, including National Chef of the Year (NCOTY) and Young National Chef of the Year (YNCOTY) awards.

“The people who do well in life are usually the ones who stick their hands up over and over, and they tend to be the same people,” Mulcahy tells Food Spark.

“It’s not that they’re better, it’s just that they’re more willing, and that’s so important. To succeed, chefs need to constantly be there, pushing themselves to the front.”

In his role as Sodexo’s culinary director, Mulcahy manages a large team of executive development chefs and dietitians, developing menus and ensuring the company remains in line with the market in terms of trends and customer experience.

Here, Mulcahy details his recent innovation-centric projects with Sodexo, discusses key ingredients and concepts that could shape the year to come, and explains the benefits of being part of the development arena in the current “melting pot” of different consumer cultures and generations.


Part of my role at Sodexo is to drive innovation through various forums and events throughout the year. Working with our buyers, manufacturers and producers, we can ensure that our menus and offers are continually refreshed and always exciting.

Our innovation process is led by translating market and consumer insight into a clear pipeline for innovation. This is not restricted to food and beverage but includes technology and solutions which affect environmental and social impact where we operate. Working closely with SME businesses, artisan producers and cutting-edge suppliers to support the core offers ensures we remain exciting and produce food that people want.

Innovation means different things to people in different environments. By using insight, we can ensure that traditionalists and millennials are all fully catered for.

One of the biggest food trends we have seen this year is the phenomenal rise in the number of adults actively looking to cut down on meat and adopt a more plant-based diet. There is a growing awareness that what we eat has a massive impact on our planet. We must be agile, adapt to changing conditions and manage rising food costs and external pressures together with training and developing our people to ensure success for the future.

Attitudes to food and work are changing – from agile and part-time working to increased awareness of key sustainability issues. With the increase in agile and part-time working, the role of the workplace restaurant itself has evolved and they are fast becoming active social hubs that improve productivity, collaboration and communication for organisations.

Foodservice providers need to ensure that their workplace offer maximise this opportunity. And to do this we will see fresher and more varied, internationally inspired, nutritious menu choices with a focus on plant-forward foods, replicating what is on offer on the high street.

We continue to run innovation forums to drive exciting new ideas into the business. Most recently we have developed, and are launching, a Market Halls-style initiative with delicious, authentic and fully on-trend food concepts. The Foodiverse Concept will continue to evolve as a modern solution, as a move onwards from the ever-popular street food trend.

Working with WWF and Unilever, we have recently championed the Future 50 project, focusing on a number of the world’s most sustainable plant-based ingredients. We have led the field here, running our Finer Diner roadshow across the university business to engage over 12,000 students with plant-based dishes.

We worked with an international team of Sodexo chefs to create around 40 recipes around these 50 ingredients – everything from pulled jackfruit tacos to shish kebabs that included smashed falafels. But I think the hero product was amaranth seeds, which has an interesting, nutty-sweet flavour. It’s used a lot in Indian cuisine to bulk out wet dishes. We worked with more everyday sustainable ingredients such as kale and spinach at the same time as lesser known foodstuffs such as black mung beans.

The Finer Diner project is set to hit hundreds of Sodexo sites in the coming year. We will continue to focus on a positive environmental message, with reducing animal-based proteins within menus a part of this fast-moving lifestyle choice.

Keeping an eye out for new ingredients and techniques to experiment with is part and parcel of being a chef – my ingredient of the year has been banana blossom.

Customisation is well and truly embedded in consumers. The Gen Z consumer expects to have customised, to ‘have it my way,’ instantly.

Obviously, this year we’ve seen the rapid growth of alternatives. Alternative proteins, grains, milks and uses of ingredients in a creative way, with health and wellbeing an underlying driver. I expect that alternative alternatives will grow. Where soy has been an alternative, we are now looking at other options with less allergens, more nutritional benefits and exciting menu appeal.

It’s a very interesting time, with a crossover of culture and generations. Some generations aren’t going to move with the times as much, but others are looking to eat better and less. And there are some who want to cut out things like beef or adopt a more vegetable rich diet.

Flexitarianism is also a big consideration, so you’ve a real melting pot of ideas and routes, which is a phenomenally exciting space to be in. The only danger is if people don’t look and react to the insight. Companies and restaurants close all the time and they often haven’t reacted to what’s changing.

Eating less meat, particularly beef, has led to more blended alternatives. Even for carnivores, there are options. Beef burgers blended with grains and vegetables will sit comfortably alongside the plant-based options going forward.

Watch out for new flours too. Non-gluten, of course, but more about using ancient grains more commonly. And keep an eye out for banana flour.

The use of nuts and seeds to make butter is on the rise to limit the use of palm oil-based butters. And bringing a buzz to the whole 2020 trend is CBD oil, which is making quite an impact. Snacks, blended smoothies, beers and even coffee are taking on the CBD infusion.

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