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The Sensory Season: A Q&A With Kathleen Hoffman

Food has become a favorite pastime for consumers, and whether it is eating out or learning what they want to bring home, chefs have become the stars of today’s new eating traditions.

So, I was more than a little starstruck to gain insight from US Foods’ Senior Culinary Manager, Chef Kathleen Hoffman. What is on her plate? How does she make fruits and vegetables a culinary craft for the foodservice distributor? Dive in with me, but prepare to be hungry.


Melissa De Leon: Flavors, combinations of ingredients, and trends are great to watch around the holidays, especially as the consumer palate evolves. What are some ways to really take advantage of produce on the plate during holidays and how are you seeing different items take center stage as we explore fall and winter?

Kathleen Hoffman: Produce can take center stage on any holiday menu. Menus featuring traditional fall produce truly resonate with diners across the country, regardless of the climate. For filling and flavorful center-of-the-plate options that really shine, I recommend slow-roasting portobello mushrooms or grilling a medley of vegetables like beets, squash, and turnips. Let the vegetables be the star! Plant-forward menus are trending, and restaurants are getting more creative with how they showcase vegetables. For example, I have seen operators play with mixed temperatures such as a warm salad of curly endive with braised artichokes and goat cheese, or work with recipes that play off of very different textures like salt-baked potatoes with marjoram. When it comes to a traditional crowd pleaser, an operator can never go wrong with a warm seasonal soup or chowder, such as a farmhouse corn chowder.


MD: I love to learn how produce and food play out in the homes of chefs across the industry. What does your pantry look like and what items define your own kitchen?

KH: I like to have fresh herbs and root vegetables available, such as beets, turnips, and parsnips. Cauliflower is also a must-have. It makes a great purée alternative, and riced cauliflower has a variety of uses, such as a replacement for a standard mashed potato recipe or served in a cold tabbouleh for a new take on the traditional side salad. Don’t get me wrong, I do love working with potatoes, especially during the colder months. One of my seasonal favorites is potato latkes made with shredded potatoes, onions, fresh herbs, and matzo meal. When it’s the holidays, you never know when you will be asked to throw down six dozen latkes! Homemade applesauce and crème fraîche alongside the latkes are optional, but highly recommended.


MD: How have you seen the dining and eating experience change during your time as a chef?

KH: Millennials have influenced a wave of different dining-related trends, which have changed the eating experience in many ways. For example, 42 percent(1) of millennials want more global cuisine and 65 percent(2) of millennials enjoy foods that are natural or organic. It was also reported that 74 percent(3) of millennials would order delivery from a table service restaurant if available. All these different trends mean that restaurants must adapt and rethink how to best serve their customers. For example, offering grab-and-go items and putting in place a delivery service are now table stakes for restaurants that want to remain competitive. This signifies a major shift in the overall dining experience during my time as a chef. In fact, US Foods recently devoted one of our Scoop™ new product launches to products specifically designed for take-out, grab-and-go, and retail product solutions. One of my favorite items from the launch is the Chef’s Line Lemon Loaf Cake Slice, made with the juice of California lemons and topped with a delicious, tangy-sweet lemon icing. It’s pre-sliced and pre-wrapped in an individual serving, so it’s perfect for on-the-go snacking.


"Menus featuring traditional fall produce truly resonate with diners across the country, regardless of the climate."

-Kathleen Hoffman, Senior Culinary Manager, US Foods


MD: What is your background and what brought you to US Foods?

KH: I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and was the Executive Chef for Checkers Catering & Special Events in California, where I was a US Foods customer for 15 years. In 2011, I became intrigued by US Foods’ commitment to new product development when it launched a creative lineup of innovative products to help operators differentiate their menus and develop a robust roster of exclusive brands.

I wanted to be a part of that movement and joined the product development team in 2012 as the Product Development Corporate Brands Chef. In my role, I helped bring the Chef’s Line® lineup of exclusive branded products to life. It is my absolute joy to work closely with our food scientists and product developers to bring new, on-trend products to customers nationwide. In my current role as the US Foods Senior Culinary Manager, it is my privilege to bring the customer voice to the team. I create recipes, host demonstrations, and lead inspiration sessions with chefs in all foodservice segments across the country, and at our corporate kitchen in Rosemont, Illinois.


MD: Nostalgia and food are deeply tied together. What dishes or foods take you back to your early memories?

KH: One of my childhood favorites was cranberry relish. I know what you’re thinking, but yes, it really was! It is still my absolute favorite holiday side dish, but I have since created my own recipe, which features slow-simmered fresh cranberries, oranges, pineapple, and brandy. I try to find a way to incorporate it on every plate. One of my favorite holiday memories is being in Tucson, Arizona, for Christmas, and it snowed! I’m from Buffalo, New York, and celebrating in Tucson, my family and I anticipated 105-degree weather and staying indoors to avoid the heat. But that year, we embraced the cooler temperatures and slow-smoked our turkey outside on the grill. We even roasted local vegetables and warmed our rolls on the barbeque. To me, a quick roast of a few seasonal vegetables enjoyed with my favorite spiked cranberry relish is the essence of the holidays on a plate. Whether you are cooking indoors or outdoors, vegetables really bring a dish together for any special occasion.


Flavors, and all the senses they awaken, are crucial to making a holiday something to celebrate. And if there is anything I learned from seeing the kitchen through Kathleen’s eyes, fresh produce not only holds a special place in that celebration, but can easily inspire consumers to expand it. How will impactful moves by Kathleen and the rest of the US Foods team, like its seasonal Scoops, shape holiday spreads? I am desperately in need of root vegetables and some goat cheese as I wait to find out.


1 Mintel
2 The Hartman Group
3 National Restaurant Association 2015 Restaurant Industry Forecast