The theme “What is Progress?” permeated every aspect of the 2016 StarChefs International Chef Conference (ICC), held Oct. 23 to 25 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, including the private roundtable discussion hosted by Symrise.

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The conversation, led by Emmanuel Laroche, Vice President of Marketing and Consumer Insights for Symrise in front of a select group of clients, included Sam Mason of Oddfellows Ice Cream Co. in Brooklyn, NY; Danish Chef Rommy Emborg of Manhattan’s Atera; Meaghan Dorman, Head Bartender at NYC’s Raines Law Room; Brian McCracken, formerly of Spur Gastropub in Seattle, WA; and Pot Sommelier Philip Wolf of Cultivating Spirits in Silverthorne, CO.

Innovation Insight

The topic of innovation—how one approaches it and how one sources inspiration—was first and foremost.

Many agreed it often comes in the unlikeliest of places, say siting on the New York subway, from a piece of architecture, through collaborating with colleagues or, as often happens, through travel or trying to recreate something from one’s past. Focusing on the guests they’re serving also plays a part, as does revisiting old menu items.

“I get hair-brained ideas just getting to work,” said Mason whose Brooklyn ice cream shop is known for its unconventional flavors like Tobacco, Smoked Chili & Huckleberry, Saffron Passionfruit, Manchego Pineapple & Thyme, and Ginger Caramelized Banana & Walnut. He said living in New York City—with all its inspiration, challenges and frustrations—often brings out the ideas in him. “It can be as simple as seeing a building I never noticed before to my interactions with people to looking through magazines,” he said.

Travel is a big source of inspiration—living in Thailand, for example, really sparked his creative juices and anytime he jets off somewhere he tries to come back home and recreate the things he tasted—though he admitted trying to make those things happen when you’re not on that foreign soil can be challenging.

The Manchego Pineapple & Thyme was inspired by an experience he had in Barcelona where manchego, he said, was always served with fresh pineapple and thyme. He admitted he first tried creating a Manchego Cheesecake which turned out to be a disaster as manchego is an oily cheese and he and his team had to figure out to emulsify it to get it to a nice, cream cheese-like consistency. Trial and error got them from being as scientific as they are analytic—but it took time—and a lot of missteps. Now, he said, the Oddfellows' formulas are tried and true. The shop’s new Passport Program, launched in October 2016, highlights distinct flavors from around the globe with a theme of the month and flavors that tie into that region.

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Wolf, a fan of Thailand and Barcelona, also links inspiration to travel. While being abroad, he realized he wanted to dream bigger. While figuring out the “what’s next” part of his life, he opened one of the first marijuana medical dispensaries in Colorado. He had his “Aha” moment while at a wine tasting with East Coast clients out to see the “green rush” firsthand when he realized there was opportunity for a business based on educational food-based events and tours. His mission: To work with chefs and sommeliers to elevate the dining experience through cannabis (keeping in mind the right doses, strains, regulations and terpenes) and tap into mainstream America.

Dorman, on the other hand, said a lot of inspiration comes from her clientele. “The first question we ask ourselves is: Are our customers asking for something we don’t have?” At one point, she said, that was spicy cocktails—people asked for that a few years ago and so that made them amp up their house recipes.

The ingredients and guest experiences drive Chef Emborg who likes sourcing what’s seasonal, aiming for light and fresh flavors in everything he does. “It’s all about the flavor, he said. “And making sure we are making our guests happy.”

McCracken summed it up best: “I think we all have our own formulaic approach and then go into our mode of how to break that idea down to something pliable.”

Excitement In the Kitchen

Innovation needs a sounding board. You can do it alone—with a checklist and lots of facts and figures – but it’s always better to bring others into the discussion and throw around ideas, agreed the participants. Mason said the concept of “no bad idea” is a good one. “Let staff write down whatever they want – more times out of ten that hair brain idea will start the conversation and lead you to where you want to end up.”

For McCracken, sometimes it’s a hair brain idea and other times it’s forced innovation, meaning you have to solve a problem. For example it’s winter and you need a new menu. To keep the cocktail list at his tavern fresh, six times a year he and his staff would spend a full day devoted to testing new drinks. There were guidelines—a price point consideration, seasonal ingredients, products they could use, etc.—but the process brought in a lot of different perspectives. “Everyone sees something a little differently and tastes things a little differently but collectively, we could come together and develop new ideas. And because everyone was involved, it kept excitement in the kitchen,” he said.

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Emborg likes to have his staff take on different tasks, so one week someone may be working on fermenting while another is helping to create the fall menu or another is negotiating prices. “It will help them when they want to open their own restaurant,” he says. “And makes them more well-rounded.”

Old Vs. New

How does one balance tradition with innovation?

Mason says his ice cream shop offers guests a leap of faith into a world of new textures and flavors. “If you try to make everyone happy you’re doing a disservice to everyone,” he said. “People come to us for innovation and the experience and the really wacky offerings such as Foie Gras, Caramelized Onion and Beet Goat Cheese & Candied Pistachio ice cream so tradition doesn’t really play a part with us.”

For Dorman who oversees four different bar locations, the philosophy of the cocktail list is tied to each bar’s personality. At Dear Irving, for example, where the menu is more light and playful, they can more easily take a riff on classic—without upsetting customers. At The Bennet, which is more of a neighborhood bar, they offer more drink classics and house recipes but tend to sell more wine and beer. “It’s all about the brand,” she says.

It’s often, too, a lot about the seasons. Mason said fall is his favorite time of year and loves using autumnal flavors like squash, apples, pears and pumpkins in his products. Being in the Northeast there are so many stimuli happening around you—the cold, the leaves, that your palate really starts to crave these ingredients, he added.

Agreed McCracken who lives in Seattle: “This is the time of year when I love having campfires and wearing big chunky sweaters and so using smoke evokes that experience.”

What will we see in 2017? 

Mason is working on alcohol-infused ice creams and boozy desserts. He also predicts less flavor-centric and more textural-centric products.

Dorman says people are thinking more about what they are drinking and when and are less married to their standby go-to’s. “It’s more about context,” she said, “And drinking around an occasion.” Bitter flavors are also becoming more accepted.

And talking acceptance, Wolf believes more chefs and hospitality professionals will embrace the potential for cannabis cuisine. He hopes, in fact, such products will eventually rival the wine industry in scope and profitability.

Emborg sees more indoor farming where restaurants will take advantage of basements to grow their own herbs.

McCracken believes more wild ingredients like pine needles and pine tips will go mainstream. In Seattle, in particular, he said, there’s a big movement from pushing boundaries to offering a familiar comforting experience. There’s also a tendency to draw influences towards funky Asian fermentation and fish sauces.

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