Before I even came to the fresh produce industry, I knew what Sysco was—the bright, bold lettering, a constant ambassador for food in the area where I was raised. I saw the company’s name on vehicles around town, and knew that it was a key foodservice operator for the restaurants where I worked, bridging that gap between the field and the fork. As one of the world’s global foodservice leaders, the company stretches far past my little world in Sacramento, California, laying an international network of roots that support customers in 90 different countries around the world.
At its heart are the values of integrity, excellence, teamwork, inclusiveness, and responsibility—tenets that I know our industry can get behind. Being at the seed—the beginning—of innovation means that the company can guide its values forward across global menus and help to evolve the way food arrives at the table. One of the amazing ways Sysco accomplishes this is through a network of industry-leading, food-passionate professionals and artists who bring their own personal love of food to the Sysco vision. Kelly Bean, Culinary Consultant for Sysco Nashville, is one of those great minds that brings her passion for food to Sysco.
We pick up our forks and knives in this Q&A and dig into some of Kelly’s food loves, ideas, and insights as we move through autumn and winter.
The month of November and the holiday push provide a great opportunity to try new ideas with fresh produce or rethink traditional dishes. What are some of the flavors, combinations, and trends that you are seeing, or would love to see, played out on the plate?
Kelly Bean: Being from the South, we love our greens. I adore collard greens and like to use them in non-traditional ways. Usually, they are slow cooked for a long time, but I appreciate the texture they have when they still have a little bite. So, I will put them in a pan and quickly cook them with some red onions and a bit of apple cider or honey to cut the bitterness. What you end up with is a delicious green that still has texture. This is wonderful under roasted chicken or blackened fish.
Sometimes, I don’t cook them at all, but toss them in a fruity, warm vinaigrette. Apple and cranberry juices make the perfect pairing for this. This makes a delectable fall salad, easily paired with quinoa, some spicy pecans, and fresh apples or dried cranberries. I like to add bacon as well, because it makes everything just that much better. I am loving the new spice blends we are seeing from all over the world—it is fun to add things like black garlic to something simple like French fries and see them transformed.
JO: When it comes to fresh produce, what are a few of the staple items that we will find in your kitchen this holiday season and why?
KB: One of my favorite fresh produce items is the leafy greens of celery. They are often underutilized and many people throw them out. Some believe they aren’t sexy, and you don’t see them featured on menus often—but that is part of why I like them. I love the clean flavor and enjoy adding them to salad greens as they have a palate-cleansing quality that I really love. Of course, celery is part of the trinity of flavor builders that is used to make so many things, including soups and braised dishes. So, I always have it on hand.
I can’t get enough of Brussels sprouts, and it has been really fun for me the last few years as they have grown in popularity. We love to fry them in the South, and I toss them with fresh lemon juice and garlic and serve them with a lemon aioli. This makes a perfect starter, and it’s also Keto-friendly, which is something that continues to trend. I have also had fun making different types of slaw with them. We serve slaw with many items in the South.
JO: What holiday dish reminds you of your childhood? What is one of your favorite dishes now?
KB: We always had green bean casserole when I was growing up. I truly thought fried onions in a can was a side dish because Mom always bought extra. She made it exactly like the recipe on the can said. It was always the same, and I thought it was fabulous. My holiday table always includes grits. People have strong opinions about grits, and they are often misunderstood. All grits are not created equal. They must be stone-ground and cooked slowly with heavy cream, sharp Cheddar, and plenty of good butter.
Sometimes, I like to make them ahead and chill them, so we can make pan-fried grit cakes. These are great for breakfast with eggs or served with any protein for lunch or dinner. They get crispy on the outside and are so creamy and full of flavor on the inside. If you haven’t had these in your life, you are missing out.
JO: How have you seen the dining and eating experience change during your time as a chef?
KB: It’s interesting to me how eating out used to only really be about the food. When I was starting out in the industry, we ate where the food was good. The atmosphere didn’t really matter, and you could see that by how new restaurants looked when they opened. Now, it is just as much about the experience as what people eat. Food has always been visual—if it looks good, then it tastes better. I hear people ask all the time, “Have you been to that new place with the cool artwork or the patio with the fireplace?”
“One of my favorite fresh produce items is the leafy greens of celery. They are often underutilized and many people throw them out. Some believe they aren’t sexy, and you don’t see them featured on menus often—but that is part of why I like them.”
JO: What is your background and what brought you to Sysco Foods?
KB: I grew up in Florida, and my parents were from the South. My mom was a teacher, so every summer we went to my grandparent’s home in a small town in West Tennessee. When I grew up, I decided to move to Nashville. It seemed like a perfect blend of Southern hospitality—which is really a thing—and of still being big enough to offer me a city lifestyle. It was a much different place than it is now, but I loved the Southern vibe and wanted to be in a place with a change of seasons—I love to put on a cozy sweater!
I worked in chain restaurants growing up and have never worked outside of the industry. I thought about it for a minute, but food is in my blood. I have a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition and worked in healthcare foodservice as well. While I liked my job, the hours were tough and I had a young daughter at home. My sales rep told me I should think about applying for a job at Sysco, which I hadn’t considered before. I took the plunge and started in sales to gain some experience. I have been with the company for 24 years now, and I truly love my job and the company I work for. My mom always wanted me to be a teacher, and I told her that is what I get to do every day—I get to share my knowledge and experience with our customers to help them be more successful. It is so rewarding to be blessed enough to do what I love for a living, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Stories matter in so many different ways, and one of the most important to me is that they make food taste better. They make a product and an innovation that is much more valuable and dynamic. What happens on the plate all starts from a childhood experience or a moment of wonder that becomes a collective love. Kelly Bean knows that well, and so does one of the beating hearts of foodservice—The Sysco Corporation.