Interview with an Innovator

Tesco’s Martyn Lee: ‘It’s not only about the flavours, it’s also about how foods are delivered to the customer’

The executive chef for product development shares his views on the influence of street food, putting more offcuts back into the food chain and why fermentation is a fad with a future.

14 September 2018
chefsfermentedfood wasteNPDsupermarketsTesco

Lee on Paper – CV

Started his kitchen career at Pitcher & Piano in York, working his way up to become head chef

Moved into NPD with Pork Farms, supplying to M&S, before moving to poultry producer Moy Park and working on Waitrose products

Joined Tesco in 2016, becoming the executive chef for product development in April

Inside Tesco’s recently opened multi-million-pound Welwyn Garden City innovation centre, Martyn Lee is busy at work. Only the second development chef ever employed by the UK’s largest retailer, his job centres on inspiring everyone from suppliers to product developers with cuisines, ingredients and flavours, helping to create the supermarket’s next wave of foods. Not that it’s a private, secretive affair. On the contrary, he is keen for his colleagues to wander into the New Food Experience area, asking questions and exploring recipes.

“How do you change or maintain a culture of food in a business like this? You need to see, taste, touch, smell, experience food as often as you can,” says Lee. “That was quite key in how we planned the kitchen, to make sure that it’s visible, it’s open, people can walk in.”

Having previously worked on product development for both M&S and Waitrose, Lee has lots of experience with experimentation. At Tesco, he is backed up by the in-house Food Academy, complete with a team of trends researchers. “They do some really great work on getting our food trends book ready,” says Lee, “and our job is then to bring these pages to life through food.”

Each year, the book highlights some of the key areas of innovation, which for 2018 include health and wellness, global larder, connect or unplug, consumption curiosity and food waste. “Connect or unplug is all about the link between technology and the Instagrammable, how people are connecting with food when it’s not necessarily just fork to mouth,” explains Lee. “Consumption curiosity is all about evolution of the street food circuit – how is that now coming back into bricks and mortars?”

As for wellness, Tesco announced at the beginning of the week that it will be partnering with Jamie Oliver to promote better eating habits, a move Lee describes as "a fantastic opportunity to influence the health of all our customers."

We spoke to Lee about why food waste has been one of his big missions this year, going on food safaris and why some fads do have a future – at least for a year or two.


When I came into the business, it was almost a case of writing my own strategy for what I want a development chef for Tesco to be, so I worked really closely with Richard [Stride, head of Tesco Food Academy] on building that strategy and the pillars I wanted to be responsible for.

I initially wanted to be a teacher, so I was always really passionate about learning and development of people and transference of skills. I wanted that to be one of the fundamental pillars that I brought in as well, which is why you’ll see my team is resourced by supplier chefs, because if they’re spending time with us they get to understand. I get to teach them and mould them into a chef that can talk eloquently, can talk with passion and expertise, and be a real go-to person within their category.

Cheshunt [site of Tesco’s former innovation centre and headquarters] was a great space for creating products in a very traditional format: supplier comes in, shows it to the product developer who gives an opinion, goes away, comes back again two weeks later. What we’ve got now, with the culture of openness and breaking down the walls, means we have this changing culture of co-creation. Starting with the chef network, we’ve got suppliers from red meat, white meat, fish, grocery, packaged and then three different ready meals suppliers. So we’re covering loads and loads of different categories, but all working together, all feeding into each other’s ideas.

There’s nothing better, I believe, than having a group of chefs talking about food, because the ideas go from the sublime to the ridiculous. And we want to concentrate on the sublime, but actually the ridiculous is a really great stretch. Having those great conversations with natural experts, inquisitive natured chefs, I think it’s just one of the best atmospheres you can have. And the fact that we’ve now got this space that allows us to do that incubation period – the value on that is just brilliant.

Ridiculous is a great place to be. And I don’t mean whacky and wild ideas, it can sometimes be aspirational ingredients. What are the aspects of the highest-grade wagyu beef that we love? How can I bring essences of that into something that is feasible? It’s the ability to break down a product into its component parts and identify the little bits that you can influence.

We curate food safaris out into town… For instance, you go out and see a great burger. Our job would be to make sure that you don’t look at that plate and see a really great burger, you see the possibilities. You’ve got a burger bun that’s relevant to bakery, packaged, frozen; you’ve got the patty itself, red meat, dark meat, whatever it could be; you’ve got the chutneys; you’ve got the salad mixes; you’ve got the side orders.

Our job is to make sure that one plate is relevant to as many categories and as many people as possible, because clearly you’ve only got a limited amount of time. So you need to have the biggest amount of impact.

Generally, [the food safaris] wouldn’t be as targeted as [burgers], it would be something slightly broader. So if we were looking at global larder, we could look at modern Indian and we’d take our people to some of the great modern Indian restaurants that are popping up.

It’s not only about the flavours, it’s also about how those foods are packaged up or delivered to the customer. There’s a great movement within modern Indian that’s almost this tapas-style Indian, so you don’t overcommit to having one dish. You can actually pick and choose, and that’s actually really relevant to how we consume food nowadays.

Tesco's Christmas bauble

People want to understand more about where the food comes from, the credentials of the food. They want to know that some time, love, care and attention went into it. Food waste feeds into that as well because it’s not just about where your food comes from, it’s where your food ends up.

Food waste in itself will only continue to be an increasing part of the agenda, and I do see it as one of my big missions for the year; it will constantly carry on into the coming years. It’s just to see what I can do from my bit. How can we use more of the food waste within product development? How can we innovate and use more food that is essentially a by-product from one supplier? These are not simple solutions, but these are all great things that we will be investigating.

We’ve done a lot of work identifying food waste, whether it be from store, whether it be from factory… We’ve looked at creating different kinds of base sauces using food waste vegetable purees. We’ve got a BBQ sauce that’s based on apple cores. We have slices of apple going into pack – but what do you do with the cores? Well, we’re going to turn it into a BBQ sauce. So it’s sweet, it’s sticky, it’s acidic, it’s got all those great flavour notes.

Food waste is not the right term, because ultimately it’s an offcut, it’s a trim, and we’ve been using all these kind of things quite well throughout a number of years. I think the challenge now is how do we get more of it back into the food chain? How do we get suppliers working together? And how can we work closer with our charity partners to make sure we’re educating and giving them the tools to use the surplus that we donate? It’s not just about the creation of new products, it’s also about giving the communities the tools to use more of the products that we donate. So there’s lots of different streams.

In terms of products I’m proud of, when I was at my first role at Pork Farms, we developed the M&S gastropub runny Scotch egg, and that’s remained in the range ever since I think. That was a great one; that was real first-to-market stuff.

With Tesco, we’ve got a number of launches coming up for Christmas, bearing in mind we started work on these 18 months ago. We’ve got some really innovative desserts that I’ve been working on that will launch into stores this year. Things like the Christmas bauble dessert. One of my suppler chefs is from Bakkavor, and we basically got in all the ingredients they had to hand, a whole heap of different packaging, and had a day in the kitchen playing with all the possibilities.

Fads are interesting, because they’re fads for a reason, because of their popularity. It would be very easy to discount them… There are certain things like the novelty kind of colours we’ve got at the moment, like unicorn and flamingo, that appeal to a certain audience, but they haven’t really got the longevity. However, it would be very easy to be quite foolish and say there’s not an opportunity there, because actually there is in cakes and bakery.

Fermentation culture, you’re starting to see it much further afield, with restaurants experimenting with fermented flavours… You’re starting to see restaurants nationwide experimenting with these techniques. Customers are starting to understand this deep, savoury kind of flavour and complex kind of flavour that you get from that kind of process.

I think fermentation is something that’s really worth exploring from an NPD point of view. How can we use those techniques and those flavours to add more flavour impact? Because we are constantly facing the need to reduce salts and sugars, and we need to find new and interesting ways of developing and balancing flavour.

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