Delicious and Healthy For the Win! Kowalski's Culinary Director Wins FMI Supermarket Chef Showdown

Delicious and Healthy For the Win! Kowalski's Culinary Director Wins FMI Supermarket Chef Showdown

July 9, 2014

by Amanda Rubizhevsky

Rachael Perron is Kowalski's Culinary Director and recent winner of the FMI Supermarket Chef Showdown competition. She competed in front of a live audience on the exhibit floor of FMI Connect, the new, annual FMI Show held in Chicago. She shares her insight and expertise here with RDBA – Also, find out how you can get more engaged with your customer by connecting with your in store chef.

Tell us about your winning recipe at the Supermarket Chef Showdown.

Greek Grain Salad with Dilled Feta Dressing is unique from other grain salads in that it features two grains; many grain dishes feature just one. The red quinoa and wheat berries work in tandem to provide the balance I wanted in terms of nutrition and bulk. The wheat berries give some heft but between the two I was able to get the ratio I was looking for when it came to the other components, most importantly the fruits and veggies.

Because the criteria for the competition didn’t allow for unlimited salt, I was focused on giving the salad balanced flavor and texture that would make you come back for more. It’s nutty, sweet, sharp, herbaceous, citrusy and salty as well as chewy, crisp, tender and crunchy. Every forkful is different, keeping you interested from the first bite to the last. Good for you, delicious and gorgeous – I don’t know what more you could want from your lunch!

How did you come up with the idea?

I had been contemplating some new summer salads for our Deli for a while and wanted to capitalize on the popularity of grain salads as well as ethnic-inspired foods. I love Mediterranean foods – they’re so fresh and interesting. I knew I wanted to focus on that, so I chose cucumbers, tomatoes, garbanzos, dill, lemon, oregano, olive oil and feta cheese as key elements. Italian parsley and onion rounded everything out, bringing some sharp notes. My favorite element is the finely chopped dried apricot – the salad just wouldn’t be the same without it.

What are some common requests or trends from shoppers in foodservice?

Healthy, healthy, healthy! They also want ethnic flavors, but in familiar ways. We’ll introduce a spice or flavor combo in a pasta salad, on chicken or in soup as a way of getting shoppers to try global tastes. Once they get used to them, they start to want more and more. That’s really fun for a chef, both to be responsible for opening someone up to something and just being able to produce new tastes. It’s the same for me with healthy foods. I think it takes a lot of skill to produce food that’s not just delicious, but craveable, when you can’t rely on things like more salt, butter, chocolate, bacon or sugar, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff, but these ingredients can get to be a crutch in the kitchen. For me, it’s more challenging and fulfilling to do it “the hard way.”

How is Kowalski’s meeting their shopper’s demands for healthy delicious foods in foodservice?

Key to meeting customer demand is making sure customers can easily find healthy food, and signage is a big part of that. We have tons of options, but if people don’t know which ones are the best for them, that’s a problem. Working with our Nutritionist, Sue Moores, MS, RD, we just went through a huge project to put shelf tags on the best choices in around the store, making healthy selections easy.

When it comes to developing recipes for customers or for departmental use, I look for ways of taking the basics and making them standout. Grains, greens, fresh produce, herbs, lean meats and seafood, healthy fats, spices – these mainstays of a healthy diet always seem to find a way into my work in the kitchen. The fact that we have the best of everything helps. Great ingredients are everything. When you have the finest peaches, chicken or salmon, etc., it’s easier to produce superior healthy dishes. Some think you can make sub-par ingredients taste better or that you won’t taste their inferior qualities when you combine them with a lot of other stuff, but I think the reverse is true. One less-than-stellar ingredient can ruin a dish. Simple is almost always better. Every ingredient should stand on its own.

Do you ever collaborate with your in-store dietitian to develop recipes or nutrition criteria for foodservice?

I collaborate with our Nutritionist, Sue, all the time. We work really well together; we trust each other and we hold each other accountable. She won’t compromise on nutrition and I won’t compromise on taste, so when we come up with something that we’re both happy with, it’s always a winner. One of the projects we worked on this last year that I thought was most exciting was creating several dozen “Dinner Tonight” menus that meet Kowalski’s Good Foods for Good Health criteria. Not just recipes – full menus – that are both healthful and easy enough for customers to pull off on a busy weeknight.

Your favorite healthy offering at Kowalskis?

How could I NOT pick my winning salad? But truly, it is my favorite, at least for now. I’ve been eating it for breakfast and lunch a lot lately! Otherwise, it kind of depends on the season. We have the best of everything – our standards for our produce, meat and seafood are so high, it’s always easy to find something delicious and healthy to eat. One thing always in my fridge is our Kowalski’s Jalapeño Hummus – I love that stuff!