Aspen Hoffman’s culinary career path took an unexpected turn not long before her graduation from Johnson & Wales in 2009, when new classes on food science and product development led her to the realization that she could feed her passion for food without spending late nights and weekends toiling in a restaurant kitchen.
Today, Hoffman spends her days in the test kitchens of Carrollton, Texas-based Illes Seasonings and Flavors, as part of a team dedicated to discovering new flavor profiles and turning them into dry seasoning mixes, sauces and beverage flavorings for a roster of clients that includes large national restaurant chains and the food manufacturers and meat companies that supply them.
What are some of the latest food-flavor trends?
One big trend with my work on milkshakes and development there is red velvet. In the dessert world there are red velvet cakes, cupcakes, milkshakes and frozen yogurt. That was a big one that we’ve seen, that and tropical things. On the beverage side, we’re seeing trends around health and antioxidants, like yum berries and goji berries. In regard to the savory side, we’re seeing a lot of Korean and Asian influences.
The current trend started with Kogi Korean taco truck in L.A. Since 2005, when Illes started working on the Dine Around concept, the main focus was Latino. When Kogi brought in the Asian-Mexican fusion, we’ve been watching that and watching the Korean influence grow. There’s Korean fried chicken, for example, and fried chicken wings that are not nearly as messy as other wings. We’re developing some sauces that fit that profile, with less of a mess factor. The two cuisines use some of the same ingredients like cilantro, chilies and garlic, but they also use fermented products all little more. We’re going to be starting new kimchi products shortly.
Part of Hoffman’s job includes the company’s annual Dine Around trip, a quest to discover international cuisines. This year, the three-person team will travel to South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore in April to taste new flavors and bring back ideas. Often the trips reveal new ways to combine familiar ingredients, but sometimes the team will stumble across a new item that they can bring back for their clients. A previous trip to Peru led them to the aji panca, a sweet, smoky pepper that U.S. competitors can’t get unless they’ve got contacts in the country, she said.
What will you do on the trip?
We are going to go eat. It’s a big, all-day eating and learning experience. We’ll be visiting markets, looking at the ingredients and the raw products; we’ll go to different restaurants to see how they prepare things. We’ll attend a cooking class in Korea; we’ll look at traditional restaurants and traditional dishes. We’re looking for the best of the best, so we’ll ask the people there, “Where do you recommend going for dumplings? Where do you go for tofu stew or Korean fried chicken wings?” We’ll hit all those places and, in Singapore, a lot of it will be the hawkers, the street food vendors. In Korea, we’ll experience Buddhist temple cuisine and various cuisines and cooking methods. We’ll probably try a million kinds of kimchi while we’re there and learn about their food and also the culture and the values because a lot of times when you add two ingredients together, there might be more of a meaning behind it, a cultural or spiritual meaning, so we’ll be learning those things. Then we’ll use it all as a platform to build our ideas. I think the cultural stories are part of that “interesting” factor. It’s not just a new food, but you can share with people the meaning behind it and it gives them a better sense of why it might be a good idea — it gives it a better background and more support.
Do clients typically come to you first with an idea or is it the other way around?
It can go both ways. When we work on stuff, maybe we work on something for a new presentation — it’s not that no one has ever seen it before, but we develop it in a new way that’s something we think a customer might like, and then we show it to a few people to see if it has legs. Sometimes it’s more reactive — they say, “This is what we’re looking for,” and we create something to meet that need. But we love for things to be more proactive, and doing the Dine Around is a big part of that. We come back and develop new flavors and sauces and seasonings and share those with our customers.
Follow the team through Asia via Twitter at @illesfoods.
Photo credit: Synergee via iStockphoto.