Pierce film lid…
Since I started my second career as a chef I have been often surprised at how many different types of jobs there are in the food industry; from producers and wholesalers to food stylists who make those cookbook recipes look so tempting.
Earlier this year I had a call which definitely piqued my interest. My pal Tony Singh, the Edinburgh chef and one half of TV’s the Incredible Spicemen, had been asked by a food manufacturing company called KK Fine Foods to do some consulting work for them on a new range of curries. As he was otherwise committed he suggested they give me a call. I was really keen to see what being a consultant on such a big project would be like, so I enthusiastically agreed.
So a few days later I found myself on a train to Chester with my own recipes for the 7 curries I was going to work on. I was slightly nervous about what to expect and apprehensive that I might not even like the food. I don’t like ready-meals or processed foods, so should I even be getting involved?
But I couldn’t help being fascinated by the process and I wanted to know more. Haven’t you ever wondered how those ‘pierce film lid’ meals come into being? Or even, as I had long suspected, the food you order at many of the big chain restaurants? Well I was about to find out…
I was met at my hotel by KK’s managing director Samir Edwards, who I liked immediately, because of his obvious love of food and travel which put me at ease straight away. This was clearly not a person churning out tasteless food, he was passionate about making the best possible dishes and the effort he was putting into this product development reflected this. So then I had a new worry; would my recipes be good enough?
I learned that KK was a family business started by Samir’s mother Leyla back in 1987, who remains the company’s Chief Executive and is a glamorous dynamo of a woman. Leyla started out by cooking vegetarian food in her own kitchen and door-stepping the landlords of pubs in North Wales until they agreed to sell her food in their kitchens. From those humble beginnings, KK Fine Foods is now a vast modern food manufacturing facility employing over 200 people in Flintshire.
I was amazed by the size of the development kitchen, and the number of chefs working there. I was teamed up with Andy, one of the development chefs with a particular interest in world foods. Andy explained the process to me which went something like this:
- I cooked my recipe in the way I would normally make it in my own kitchen, and note down exactly how it came together, down to the last tenth of a gram of each ingredient. This would then be blast-chilled, packaged in a ready-meal tray and then ‘re-generated’ or heated and served as it would be had it been purchased in a supermarket or restaurant.
- My recipe would then be subject to ‘the panel’, meaning it would be tasted and compared with the KK version of the same dish, alongside several other versions of the same dish from supermarkets and KK’s competitors.
- If the panel approved my dish, I would then work with Andy to make my recipe more ‘factory-friendly’ as if it was going to be made in the production facility. Then I would make it from scratch again, and it would be subject to the panel again.
- Whichever version of the dish went forward would then be cooked again, packaged and put forward to the client at a later date.
For someone who never measures anything in recipes this was going to be a difficult few days for me. And I have to say I haven’t worked so hard in a very long time! It was relentless, and there were no corners to be cut and absolutely no guesswork. The recipes have to be scientifically accurate, and measured at every stage. Even before and after cooking so that the amount of evaporation that occurs during cooking is calculated, so that it can be exactly replicated in the manufacturing process. As you can imagine the quantities that are made in the factory are huge, so even 0.1 of a gram of error could have a massive impact on the final product.
I suppose the main prejudice I had against ready-meals has been put to bed now. These are not machine-made products. They are dishes developed by real chefs, in a well-stocked kitchen that looks like any other commercial kitchen and the care and attention put in to getting the flavour right was a real eye-opener. It was a great experience for me but I have to say I won’t be in a hurry to taste 7 varieties of chicken jalfrezi at 11 am again anytime soon!
So what was the final result I hear you ask? When all the dishes were tasted, you’ll be pleased to know that 6 of the 7 dishes I produced made it through the panel. It was good to know that the flavours that came from my own recipes could be replicated in the factory-friendly format that we developed together and I was happy to contribute to the project in a meaningful way. The one that didn’t pass was my Chicken Qurma recipe; we still don’t think the great British public are ready for a ‘proper’ Bengali Korma or Qurma. But if you get the chance to try it, you really should – it’s fabulous!