Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
As the Executive Corporate Chef of Sodexo, explain your process for developing menus for a variety of clients from country clubs, colleges and universities to hospitals?
We work with a variety of clients across the country but in my case, it's specifically the Southeast region. The process of menu development is somewhat simple but, at the same time, it's complex because of the different demographics within one building or facility. With that in mind, I typically develop a menu that can goes across all demographics.
For example, Italian, Mexican or Asian; those are some of the most popular ones. Of course, I can always go down the modern American path which includes a variety of foods, flavors and techniques that are developed not just for the cooking time but also when displaying and serving. Additionally, plant-based foods and gluten-free are now very common requests from clients.
How do you alter the flavor ingredients like spices, herbs and seasonings to create dishes that are well suited for each of your clients?
First, we focus on the basics. We develop flavor from the beginning and do so by using high-quality products, from herbs to spices to dry rubs. These are items that traditionally help maintain the quality and integrity of the product. At the same time, they are items that can actually enhance or elevate the finished dish that, at the end of the day, satisfy our customers.
In developing catering style dishes for your clients, which techniques do you utilize to ensure maximum flavor upon delivery?
It's somewhat similar; I would just say that we always use the best that the market can offer. I believe that if you start with good quality products, it will show in the end result. It carries through the whole process; from the development of the recipe to the execution of the dish, whether it is applying herbs and spices directly to the product or using the same spices to create a marination or finishing sauce. I'm always looking for that opportunity to create another layer of flavor no matter what.
At Sodexo, you’re creating 1,000’s of meals daily. Where do you find inspiration for each of these meals?
We have clients and customers who challenge us to come up with a variety of food ideas that rank from classic to comfort to modern flare. Food, to me, is a constant moving target and by that I mean it evolves every day. Chefs across the country are changing, experimenting and doing something we call "playing with food." I believe that, as chefs, it is important to stay in touch with current trends, know what's going on in the marketplace and know in what direction food trends are moving. This is the only way you can stay competitive.
I get my inspiration from all the chefs in our own kitchens as well as ones that I follow on social media. Of course, there are always websites and great books out there you can drive from. Once inspired, I meet with each client and I learn as to what they want, that's the starting point. We then develop from there.
What are three tips a corporate catering chef needs to know in order to be successful in this type of environment?
a. Think "customers first." Your customers should always be your priority.
b. Always choose good quality products that enhance the end result.
c. Stay current.
If you do these three things, you will always be ahead of the competition. You will also increase your customer loyalty and be a financially sound business.
Which new flavors and ingredients can we expect to see making their way to the centre-of-the-plate in the near future?
Plant-based entrees are making a strong comeback. I just recently developed at least three or four new plant-based entrees that were gluten-free and one hundred percent vegan. That trend used to be called vegan but there is an increase from the customer base that don't want to eat meat, or at least not as much meat as they used to, but don't want to have the label of "vegan" or "diet" anymore. They have moved that into what we now call a plant-based lifestyle. You'll start seeing that more and more on a lot of menus in the marketplace.
Also, flavors and spices from the Middle East are starting to show across the country and I believe that it's a trend that will continue for some time. I think we have had in our pantries for a long-time items like turmeric but now that there is an added health benefit, you'll start to see it more in menus and restaurants. Sumac is a great spice; it's a sour mix, that you can substitute for lemon or orange peels. We've had cardamom for a long time but now it's being used more in bars, for example, for infusing beverages. We've had cumin mainly for Latin American dishes but it's now transitioning into some of our more Middle Eastern flavors.