Interview with an Innovator

Tesco’s Derek Sarno: ‘We’re changing the way retail works from the inside'

The supermarket's director of plant-based innovation talks about the interesting concepts coming out of America, what he sees missing from product development and his love of mushrooms.

27 July 2018
chefsmushroomsplant-basedseafoodsupermarketsTescovegan

Sarno on Paper – CV

  • Senior global executive chef for Whole Foods Market for six years
  • Co-founded vegan company Wicked Healthy, which includes his brand Wicked Kitchen
  • Executive chef and director of plant-based innovation at Tesco since 2017

Derek Sarno is happy to describe himself as a 'plant pusher.' The American chef was “courted” by Tesco before joining the retailer last year as its meat-free mastermind. This relationship has spawned an opening menu of 20 plant-based products, which were launched under Sarno’s Wicked Kitchen brand in January this year and developed with everyone in mind, rather than just vegans. Since then, Tesco has introduced a plant-based steak from Vivera, while Beyond Burger will go on sale in the retailer in August.

But there’s plenty more to come from Wicked Kitchen. Sarno says the range will be expanded, with a focus on seasonal ingredients and delicious surprises. One of his big loves is mushrooms, and he says the products currently being created in his kitchen with fungi will blow your mind. “My favourite dish to cook is anything with mushrooms, and I’m not talking white button or chestnut. Gimme the exotics, all of them,” he says.

Here, he chats to Food Spark about how compassion drives his plant-based mission, why Beyond Burger is so appealing and what he sees happening to meat in the future.

 

So many great people have influenced the way I look at cooking and food. I would say between my mom and grandmother, they both had a huge impact on my life of having a passion for good, clean, from-scratch cooking.

We grew up cooking with our Italian nana. She was always in the kitchen and always feeding people. Food was definitely her love language. As kids, me and my brothers spent a lot of time with her, helping and learning in the kitchen. We included some of our favourite recipes from her in the Wicked Healthy Cookbook, like Nana’s Red Sauce. 

Before I became the chef director of plant-based innovation at Tesco, I was formerly the senior global executive chef for Whole Foods Market. I owned several restaurants and catering businesses, founded a sustainable farm, and spent several years as a farmer and chef at an international Tibetan Buddhist monastery located in upstate New York. 

What initially motivated my plant-based passion was compassion and love. The years I spent at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I reflected on compassion. This concept naturally translated to exploring and eventually transitioning to a plant-based diet.  

I am aware of how much suffering there is in the world and have a strong sense of relieving some of that suffering in any way I can. And I’ve trained my whole life to be a chef. Shifting the food on our plates seems like the obvious way to reduce suffering in the world and is a proactive way to increase health by offering people delicious plant foods. 

Mushrooms are where it’s at. We’re doing amazing and innovative things with mushrooms, getting their texture and flavour to be so meaty, it’s unreal. The things we’re creating in the kitchen with shrooms will blow your mind. This is where we are going to maximise innovation.

The launch of the Wicked Kitchen range has been more successful than anyone predicted. There are products that are favorites and some that haven’t been as popular. The key is to hold a wider view, looking at the big picture. We are listening and continuing to innovate to bring people more of what they want. 

The Beyond Burger stands out in the plant-based burger market as it’s not a kale or quinoa burger. There is a huge draw to it for vegans and omnivores alike because all kinds of eaters can enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for kale burgers. But the Beyond Burger stands out for being smoky, meaty, fatty, hearty… all while serving up compassion. It has a lot of the features people love about typical burgers with infinitely less suffering.

In America, Oatly is doing some amazing things, and I’ve had the opportunity to try some of the new products they are working on. The plant-based dairy solutions from them are going to change everything.

In 20 years, we can hope meat will disappear. There are more and more people opening their eyes to the suffering that is inherent in our food systems today. The shift is happening, but I don’t know that we will make it there fully in 20 years. But I do know that in 20 years we’ll still be doing the same work powering up people's plates with kick-ass veg. 

I do see a meat tax coming in the very near future. 

US foodservice concepts people should be watching are Good Catch. Its sustainable, plant-based seafood solution is coming and will come to land with a bang.

The thing I see missing in product development is the mission and the why. There is a serious lack of connection to our food these days, and I think the Wicked Kitchen range is so successful because people can feel the authenticity, the reason for it and the wicked compassion we’re serving. We’re providing a solution by offering foods in a system largely based on animal agriculture. 

We’re changing the way retail works from the inside. We’re crafting and creating this amazing plant food, people are supporting it by buying it and we’re all changing the world together.

It’s not common to find this conviction in product development and product launches anywhere. But the amazing team at Tesco has worked with me so hard to preserve that mission of compassion, paired with culinary craft. And that’s making all the difference in the launch of Wicked Kitchen and everything else we’re working on.

Tesco courted me for about a year before we moved in together. We took our time getting to know each other and making sure that we would be helping each other grow before jumping into a committed relationship. They reached out to me and we had many conversations around what it would look like to work together. 

I’ve not seen many things in the plant-based desserts space ‘taking off.’ That’s news to me and is a new space that is full of opportunity for mainstream retail. Don’t worry though, we’re working on it and you’ll see it soon enough.

Trends that will be huge are healthy in the form of ‘delicious without compromise.’ Mind you, real health does not include animal products.

A fad to me is teams jumping on board something without being skilled, like food developers that have only done meat then suddenly jumping on board plant-based and vegan without walking the walk. People can see right through that shit. 

Mushrooms, green veg, root veg, and plant proteins are some of my favourite ingredients.

Pan-Asian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese foods would be my favourite cuisines. I’m partial to classic BBQ flavors and love combining them all together.

Add to Idea Book

"Tesco’s Derek Sarno: ‘We’re changing the way retail works from the inside'"
Choose Idea Book