“Our compliments to the chef,” might be an ovation most used in restaurants, but you could say the same thing in many supermarkets today. From the deli to the seafood counter, professionally trained chefs have joined retail grocery chains to up the culinary ante on ready-to-go meals and to offer cooking advice to customers.
“How nice to have an approachable chef that can answer questions on everything from proper cooking temperatures, particular ingredients, what side goes best with the entree they might be serving, wine pairings and advice on catering at home,” says John Szymanski, chef for Kroger in Atlanta for 16 years. After attending culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Miami, he worked as a hotel chef and then joined Kroger to develop restaurant-quality recipes for prepared meals. Now he and a team of chef colleagues cook in open kitchens at area Kroger stores for all the shoppers to see: “Our chefs love the fact that they can interact with customers daily.”
From the produce section to the spice racks, supermarket chefs pull from the same array of foods that shoppers have access to but might not know how to prepare.
“To have a multitude of fresh ingredients at our fingertips daily to cook with is awesome,” Szymanski says. “Throughout the aisles, you can find Asian, Italian, Hispanic, Indian and American items that you can find inspiration to cook with for the customers. We have many customers that seek us out when they come in to talk food talk.”
Go ahead and try it; you might like it. The seafood counter seems to elicit the most culinary questions.
“Customers are kind of intimidated so [they] need to be empowered with basic help and recipes,” says Abbatt Story, Seafood Team Leader at an Atlanta Whole Foods Market. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Story says the stores’ fishmongers also reassure shoppers about seafood quality and sustainability.
Chefs in the nation’s supermarkets encourage shoppers to try unfamiliar flavors, which is good for the supermarket’s bottom line and helps break down barriers to buying healthier foods.
Chef Alex Strauss of Midwest based Hy-Vee supermarkets says, “Being in the middle of Iowa, I like to promote seafood and make it more accessible to customers. The same goes for mystery vegetables like jicama or fennel.”
While indulgent comfort foods such as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes remain supermarket take-out favorites, Kroger’s Szymanski says, “The chefs are also seeing draws to grilled fish and chicken for the healthier alternatives. Whole grain, rice items and seasonal vegetable items are great movers as well.” Thanks, chef.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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