Clara Park – Corporate Chef of Culinary Innovation at Chelten House Products, Inc.
Clara Park works today as Corporate Chief of Culinary Innovation at Chelten House Products, Inc. What Does a Corporate Chef of Culinary Innovation Do? Where are the priorities? All this we will learn in the following.
Today you work as Corporate Chef of Culinary Innovation at Chelten House Products, Inc. in Philadelphia, with many impressive stations as chef before. Where does your passion for the profession of cook come from?
I love to eat and I love to cook, it’s as simple as that. I still get excited about trying new things/ingredients/techniques as a cook but also to try news things as an eater. The greatest thing about food and cooking is that there is always something new to discover. I also love that cooking at its core is the true combination of art and science. There is beauty, color, texture and flavor in every ingredient but you need to have sound technique and understand the science of the ingredient to get the best results.
You developed recipes for gluten- & dairy-free cookbook, The Intolerant Gourmet. How was this experience working on a cookbook?
I learned a tremendous amount from Barbara Kafka about how to write a good recipe and ultimately a good cookbook. She was a die hard researcher and read more than anyone I know. Her collection of cookbooks was epic and in 5 languages. She taught me that you need to do the research and try things a million times so that you could have all the answers for the home cook. She also drove home the message that home cooks are different from professional cooks. You need to make the language and instructions accessible to everyone. I think the book was ahead of its time but Barbara saw that gluten-free and dairy-free would come to the forefront ten years ago and she was right.
Your time as Executive Chef at the Le Moulin Bregeon, Linieres-Bouton, in France; how did it influence and change you as a chef?
Le Moulin Bregeon is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life and the fruits and vegetables grown on the property were the most delicious and gorgeous. We would cut fresh lettuce for the salad course, grab fresh eggs directly from the chickens and pick peaches for snacking or dessert. Terroir, growing things without pesticides and chemicals and just having access to the freshest, cleanest ingredients made a huge impression on me. It’s SO MUCH better. I felt like I was tasting things for the first time because they were so much more flavorful than what I was used to. We have become accustomed to having whatever produce any time of the year which is completely unnatural. Seasonality, locality and freshness make a world of difference.
With your former work as Executive Chef Southgate Restaurant, Philadelphia, you created the opening menu for Korean gastropub and helped with kitchen design. How do you see the concept of gastropubs these days?
Gastropubs done well are great. I am not a fan of overly fussy food. I love gastropubs that take their ingredients and technique seriously to elevate typical pub fare. Some of the best things I’ve eaten have been in gastropubs with super talented chefs who understand that it’s not necessary to be in a fine dining restaurant to serve the highest quality food. Deliciousness can be found anywhere. Good gastropubs deliver that daily.
How deeply are you involved in Asian cuisine?
I love Asian cuisines of all kinds. My heart leans to Korean food bc that’s where my parents are from, but I also love Szechuan, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese and have even been learning more about Laotian cuisine. I love the surge in popularity of Filipino food as well. I think my approach to cooking always sways a bit more heavily towards Asian influences. I teach cooking classes that tend to be Asian themed (Korean bbq, asian noodles, etc.) but I enjoy teaching cooking of all kinds.
Which current food trends, which developments do you see today in the USA?
Allergen-free foods (gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, etc.) but also specialized diets (keto, paleo, sugar-free, fat-free, corn-free) are all the rage. I also see plant-based diets taking over. In my job we get asked a lot to come up with plant-based versions of many products and the trend shows no sign of waning.
Urban Farmimg, “nothing more than a drop in the ocean”?
No, I think it’s the future. Humans are overpopulating the earth and simultaneously trashing the environment. The only way to grow enough food for future generations is urban farming. We need to come up with smarter and more efficient ways to farm and urban farming is one of the most elegant solutions.
The knowledge about the origin of our food is gaining in importance. To what extent do you see this trend developing in restaurants?
It’s a trend that is only going to grow over time. Provenance is so important to customers these days. Proper sourcing and knowing where our food comes from has been important to chefs for a while now but customers are catching on. Where the food comes from has a direct impact on flavor, quality and more. It’s no longer ok for food just to be delicious, people want to feel good about where the ingredients came from and who grew them. I see more and more restaurant menus listing all their farmer partners, which I think is great.
Your time as Chef Instructor at the La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA. How do you reminder that time?
I love cooking but also really enjoy teaching cooking. I am a firm believer that everyone can cook and everyone should cook. Studies have shown that health is improved and costs are reduced simply by cooking more at home. Also the importance of sitting down together to eat should not be ignored. I grew up in a house where my mom made dinners from scratch almost every night. I didn’t realize how special that was until I encountered people who didn’t grow up like that. By teaching people to cook, I am helping people take control of their health, their wallets and their quality time with their family and friends. That is so amazing.
In the meantime, you received lots of Honors and Accolades. How important are these awards to you?
Honors are nice but I don’t know that they are that important. I would still be doing the same things with or without the awards. I cook because I love it.
As Corporate Chef of Culinary Innovation at Chelten House today; what is your job about?
Basically, I create new products for my company and our customers. Sometimes it’s traditional items like pasta sauce, salad dressings, marinades and ethnic sauces but other times it’s innovative items like “pumpkin pie in a jar”. The essence of the job is creation and culinary innovation. I also do lots of client presentations to educate our customers about how to cook with the products.
How creative can you be at this job? “Or are the controlling and the salespeople always breathing down your neck?”
I am very lucky because I get to be very creative. My boss and team trust my insights and experiences so I rarely hear “no”. It’s fun to push the envelope and come up with completely new ideas, flavor combinations and products. The sales people and I are more collaborative rather than combative.
How close do you work with some of the farmers?
We have a really great procurement department that works with our vendors and farmers to source the best possible ingredients.
An important part of your job today is, to explore new ingredients, techniques, products and flavor profiles from around the world. How do you do that? How can you imagine this work?
I read voraciously (print, media, websites, etc.) but am also out and about all the time. I travel a ton for work and use that as an opportunity to see what chefs are doing, source new ingredients, learn different techniques and talk shop with industry professionals. It’s fun to talk with passionate people and share ideas. I probably learn the most just by talking to people and asking questions.
With this you increase your culinary knowledge and gain a better understanding of existing and future food trends. What are some of the current trends you see?
As I mentioned above, specialized diets, plant-based diets/products but also an explosion of global flavors and influences. I love that African and Middle Eastern flavors are becoming more popular. I just read about Kawerma, a Lebanese spiced lamb dish. I’m also learning more about regional flavors from all over Africa. Everyday I learn something new. That’s very exciting.
And what are the trends that others may not yet see?
I think that we will see a dramatic reduction in the consumption of meat, processed foods and super sugary foods. People are gaining more health consciousness and understanding that food is medicine. You are what you eat, etc. etc. I also think that people will take the science of diet and behavior more seriously in the future. Fun fact: eating beans and corn together can provide essential amino acids that your body can not produce on its own. In cultures where meat was scarce or too expensive, the people figured out that they could get the amino acids (building blocks of protein) by this simple combo of beans and corn. I think that is so cool and that sort of functional dieting will become more prevalent as time goes on.
Thank you Clara.
You can find Chef Clara Park on instagram at @claraparkcooks