The rise of the development chef: Duncan Parsonage

A decade ago the development chef role was pretty rare, but it now sits firmly at the forefront of British cuisine. Produce Business UK talks to fresh produce specialist development chef, Duncan Parsonage, who works at Fresh Direct, an Oxfordshire-based fresh food supplier to the UK foodservice industry

If you’d have said to Surrey-born chef Duncan Parsonage eight years ago that he would be calling the culinary shots from a purpose-built development kitchen within a state-of-the-art major foodservice depot, where the coldstores are his giant larders, he would have been rather bemused.

With an eclectic background in hotels and restaurants, and at one time working under Toby Tobin, Parsonage’s career as a development chef has mirrored the advent of the role, and what could have been considered a risky move into an unknown has certainly paid off.

In his time with the company, Parsonage has seen Fresh Direct grow from a strictly fresh produce business to a foodservice firm with hubs throughout the UK, offering fresh fish, cheese, dairy, gourmet lines and fruit and veg, as well as prepared dressings, chargrilling and sauces, to mostly large casual dining restaurant groups. But, despite the diversity of his career, having studied horticulture and being a bit of a foraging fanatic (he is a fellow mushroom obsessive), Parsonage still naturally finds that he makes fresh fruit and veg the hero of the plate.

The role

“No two weeks are the same here,” explains Parsonage, who describes himself as a “solutions provider” for food development managers (FDMs). “My time is spent between visiting growers, processors, manufacturers, helping to design new recipes for customers and marketing-type days, where I will take the clients out foraging or to farms.

“Each brand we work with has an FDM. It varies from customer to customer, but higher skilled chefs will do their own development and then ask us to manufacture a product, as in a sauce or purée. The FDMs will come to us towards the end of their menu cycle and ask us to pitch new ideas. The way we approach it is not just by presenting fruit and veg, we will present the complete solution on a plate – the meat or fish, as well.”

Directly working with and influencing the people at the forefront of the casual dining scene at the height of its popularity is exciting, and Parsonage admits to feeling a certain buzz when a dish he has created or inspired makes it onto a national menu listing. “You have to get to the solution without stepping on any toes,” says Parsonage, diplomatically. “It is about knowing your customer and them trusting you. You need to know what storage or cookery restrictions they have, but it’s also about getting to know someone – I regularly catch up with chefs over a beer and keep up with what’s going on in their world.”

Fresh Direct approached Parsonage when he was executive chef at a De Vere hotel in Surrey. He had been part of a small group of chefs, who helped to evolve streamline purchasing and rationalisation of products across their menus. “I landed on my feet to a certain degree with Fresh Direct,” says Parsonage. “It supplied our hotels at the time and I just happened to mention to a director that I had itchy feet. He said that he had an opening in development, if I was interested.

“To which I asked, what’s that?”

Fresh Direct had outsourced its development work to an outside company until that point, when the firm was ready to bring it in house. Now there are three full-time development chefs working across the business and they represent an integral part of winning new business and maintaining existing customers.

The larder

Taking a trip around Fresh Direct’s coldstores with Parsonage is like going round Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with the obvious substitution of healthy fresh produce for tooth-damaging confectionery. It’s clear to see the chef is still in awe of the amount and variety of produce he has at his fingertips, as we jump from prepared sauces to brassicas, roots to fungi; investigating all the orders going out from the constant rotation of stock in that day.

Not to be outdone by all the talk of cooking, we set up a faux client situation there and then, to understand how Parsonage works when developing dishes. As the ‘client’, I’m looking for fresh produce to be the main event, but to also highlight the different kinds of wild mushrooms. We went around the facility picking up whatever he thought would be useful.

“Kale is so popular at the moment, as is cauliflower – at last; hopefully it’s in time for the growers to get a good return,” Parsonage points out, picking out some cauliflower and popping it into our box of goodies, which already includes pea shoots (at my request) and one of his favourites, an Oxford Isis cheese that’s washed in honey.

“Seasonal produce and regional food are musts at the moment, and things like heirloom carrots and candy beetroot are becoming pretty mainstream in foodservice,” he continues. “Flower sprouts are probably the next big thing and sea veg and micro cresses are already adding something to dishes where reduced salt is an issue. That’s a trend that’s going to get bigger.”

When it comes down to development, there’s always more to consider than just the ingredients, although Parsonage stresses that good quality must always come first. “You have to work to the skill level in a certain kitchen,” he explains. “Sometimes, what dictates a menu listing is whether a veg is easy to prepare like spinach, mange tout or rocket – if it is too highly skilled it can come down to timing as well, for high-volume restaurants.”

The result

As the client, my restaurant is highly skilled (naturally) and the first dish out of development is a mushroom kiev with a garlic butter filling, served with mushrooms and smoked oil. It’s certainly got that umami taste.

“Fermenting and pickling fruit and vegetables are both very popular at the moment,” says Parsonage, who has a whole fridge devoted to his latest fermentation experiments. “Fermenting is a challenge because a lot of it has to be done at room temperature, which feels a little unnatural. A smoky flavour is something I keep being asked for in purées and butters. I even have a smoked water, which is great for poaching.”

The next dish presented by Parsonage is a relatively low-skill, high-taste spring salad of wild mushrooms and chargrilled purple sprouting broccoli, fennel and cauliflower, with a butternut squash oil as a dressing.

“People are looking for the real meaning of seasonal,” explains Parsonage. “You have to get to grips with roots and brassicas at the moment and be creative. Seasonal, provenance and something that little bit different are the perfect ingredients to get attention right now.”



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