Heather & I had the pleasure of meeting with the people behind Kettle Cuisine: Jerry Shafir, President, Volker Frick , Executive Chef and Levon Kurkjian, VP of Marketing. Jerry Shafir’s success is as much a product of his energy and vision as it is of his business acumen. He hosted an entertaining conversation about our vision for WhatsTheSoup, the art and science of soup production and Kettle Cuisine’s response to the needs of vegetarians, vegans, and those with gluten free and celiac requirements. His comments and encouragement were uplifting. He embodied their slogan: Passion. Integrity. People. I was curious, how do you scale up a recipe to hundreds of gallons from one that serves 4? Both Jerry and Chef Frick bubbled at this question. “It’s more than just science.” Jerry said. You cannot just multiply the amounts in a recipe. Chef Frick said that many trial recipes fail his tests in larger quantities. There is no set of rules. He just knows when a recipe is working and when it needs adjustment.
We were encouraged to take a tour of the operation. So, we donned sanitary garb (hair net, long coat and shoe covers) and were led to Chef Frick’s office. There was a desk, a small conference table and a bookcase that teemed with such titles as “The Omnivores Dilemma”, “A Vietnamese Kitchen”, and “Wiener Kuche”. And as much as I longed to pull out a few volumes and discourse on technique and recipes, we were compelled to follow Chef through his adjacent test kitchen and in to the Kettle Cuisine production area. I was not sure what to expect.
I have seen several kinds of factories. So my vision of a soup factory ranged from Updike to the frantic human-devouring machine in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But we were in for quite a shock. There was cleanliness. There was pride. The workers we met all shared pleasant smiles and competent strides. Everywhere we turned there were happy staff. From the Spice Room attendant, to the tub washer, the freezer room to the sauté room everyone we met was genuinely happy.
First stop: the Spice Room! The bins of neatly ordered and labeled spices filled our noses and got my senses tingling. The quality of the herbs and spices was sparkling and sensual. The barrel of sea salt gleamed of white crystals. Chef Frick’s operation proves that the essence of great cooking is in the ingredients. Every room we toured was appointed with some of the best and freshest ingredients one could hope to see. There were bundles of carrots from California and blemish free bell peppers equally worthy of Edward Weston photography or culinary distinction. Potatoes shopped from whichever region is offering the freshest: following the prime harvests from the South to the North as the season progresses. Beautiful onions that are only diced as they are needed. Whole stalks of broccoli that require only the briefest hand trimming are purchased at a premium due to their shorter stalks. Fresh clams. Bones for stock. Cream. And all in large, large quantity. Wouldn’t diced onions be easier? Why buy whole broccoli when florets are available? Chef Frick met my eyes with “Easier is not better.” On to the Stock Room: fragrant and humid. Large vats of beef, chicken and fish stock simmered there with purpose. As Chef Frick lifted a vat lid, a clear fish stock smelled perfectly of the sea and infused herbs. I was struck by an odd realization. We were standing in a room with 300-gallon vats of bubbling stock, in a sprawling operation of machinery, people and ingredients. Yet it was all under the close scrutiny of an Austrian Chef D’Cuisine as thoroughly as if he were in the elite kitchen of a 12 table restaurant. The only difference is that thousands are served every day. Made with the finest ingredients, USDA certified organic, no preservatives and strictly monitored, Kettle Cuisine soups are improbably indistinguishable from small batch soups. Chill bags and containers of all types of soups were sliding down the conveyer to be packaged for sale as we left the production area. Later that night I opened a container of Kettle Cuisine Chicken Soup. The delicious product of Jerry Shafir’s vision and Chef Frick’s kitchen steamed in front of me and was gone in a flash. Watch this blog for an early look at a special Kettle Cuisine Fall offering.