Chef Gerry Ludwig visits restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York to keep Gordon Food Service abreast of trends in the food industry. Photo by Michael Buck
Food trends and fads come and go on a broad scale, so for a major business in the North American food industry, it pays to know what people want on the menu in the near future.
Gordon Food Service, in Wyoming — one of the largest food service distribution companies in North America — tries to stay ahead of the market with its corporate consulting chef. But the position isn’t new — Chef Gerry Ludwig has been in that role for 21 years.
Actually, he has been employed by Gordon for 29 years, but his first few years were in sales and marketing. Before that, he worked as an executive chef in Chicago, which included buying food supplies for restaurants and a private club, and that was when he became impressed by Gordon Food Service.
A native of Chicago, Ludwig said he knew “from a very young age that I wanted to be a chef.” His parents both worked, so they often let him cook the evening meal. Then one day, he watched Julia Child on PBS demonstrating how she makes coq au vin, a classic French chicken recipe. Ludwig said he took notes and, after the program, checked the kitchen. The Ludwigs had everything the recipe called for except mushrooms, but he figured he could make do without them.
His parents were pleasantly surprised that evening at dinner.
“I was 9 years old at the time,” he added.
He actually started culinary school a few weeks before his senior year in high school ended, so he was still 18 when he graduated from culinary school. He plunged into his chosen career.
His experience in downtown Chicago restaurants and then as executive chef at a private club in the suburbs got him thinking there might be a better career opportunity in the corporate world — and he thought of Gordon Food Service first. However, the company did not then have a chef on the payroll, so he proposed becoming its first consulting chef.
Ludwig said he made a distinction then between a corporate versus a consulting chef. Corporate chefs do public relations-type cooking, whereas a consulting chef is devoted to research to understand and compile the most advanced culinary trends — information that can be used by major customers of the industry.
Ludwig said Gordon was not sure it could use a chef but hired him 29 years ago as its first sales rep in Chicago. After a few years he moved into a marketing position where he was able to test the possibilities of a consulting chef working with customers. After eight years, he was hired as the consulting chef and moved with his wife to the Grand Rapids area to work at the corporate headquarters.
The only cooking Chef Gerry, as he is called, does now is at home. His focus is research; he closely follows new restaurant openings in the nation’s three largest cities, and about 70 percent of his time is spent traveling — for speaking engagements but also to find out what is new in culinary trends and what’s shaping up for the future.
Last year, Ludwig researched hundreds of restaurants and visited 108 of them, divided almost equally between New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. On those trips, he sampled 1,154 dishes. These “research tours” have been going on for 14 years, and all the information he collects is shared among Gordon’s chefs in major markets around the country, who in turn are keeping the company’s customers informed and current on what their customers want to eat.
Visiting restaurants for a living may sound like a lot of fun, but he notes that after the seventh or eighth restaurant visit in a day, “it turns into some serious work.”
Competitors in the food service industry don’t seem to do research like Gordon does, probably because it takes a lot of work, said Ludwig. But he notes discovering what is new and unique at the best new restaurants is key because “consumers are always looking for the next new thing.”
In July, he spoke in Indianapolis at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Food Services. From there he flew to Monterey where he and his friend, Chef Jet Tila, spoke at the annual meeting of the Produce Marketing Association. Tila has appeared on the reality cooking show “Cutthroat Kitchen” and others.
The Produce Marketing Association is a direct link to one of the biggest emerging trends in American fine dining: vegetable-centric cuisine. The “centric” is a reference to the center of the plate in front of the restaurant patron.
Traditionally in America, the center of the plate is where the meat or seafood is found, but vegetable-centric does not mean these are vegetarian meals. Often they include meat, fish or fowl, but the vegetables in the center are prepared in creative new ways that make it the main course. Ludwig said the trend began in L.A. and migrated to New York. He predicts it will be throughout the country over the next few years.
Some of the new trends are huge, referred to by chefs as “globe streaming,” meaning traditional ingredients from around the world are found in mainstream restaurant meals.
For example, chefs are seeking alternatives to beef because of its price, and Ludwig said some restaurants now list robust pork chops on the menu as a steak alternative. Boneless skin-on chicken thighs are also a big new thing, as people realize dark meat has a more tender texture and richer flavor missing in the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breast.
“Fat-free” — which led to all those chicken breasts — was a “huge” movement, but Ludwig thinks it peaked a number of years ago. More dining consumers are realizing a balance that involves some fat is necessary to make a truly satisfying meal. A lot of chefs are going back to using animal fat — in fact, duck fat is becoming a big thing, too. He said frying french fries in duck fat “really kicks (the flavor) up.”
Another trend in dining is what he calls “casualization.” White tablecloths are becoming scarcer, and many people no longer feel it is necessary to dress up for a fancy dinner out.
But even as more casual dining grows in popularity, the industry knows two things discerning restaurant consumers value highly: a nice sit-down restaurant for special occasions, and meals they cannot easily make at home.
Twenty years ago, when the Ludwigs moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago, there was a “very different foodscape” here.
“There really wasn’t that much happening,” he said, but that has changed radically in the last few years, particularly in West and Southwest Michigan. One example is how this region has become nationally famous for its craft breweries. It also owes much to the national “buy local” and “farm-to-fork” trends — and Michigan is the second-largest agricultural state in the nation, after California.
That naturally brings us to Restaurant Week, a foodie celebration of great restaurant food that has spread to cities around the nation. Grand Rapids has definitely got a leg up with its Restaurant Week. Running from Aug. 12-23 this year, it features special deals on three-course menus at more than 60 restaurants.
It also reveals that, for a relatively small metropolis, Grand Rapids has an amazing assortment of excellent restaurants. The challenge is to try them all.