By: Phil Saneski
Greg Grisanti CRC®, CFSP
RCA Founding Member & Director of Research & Development at Frisch’s Big Boy
1. As a Research Chef Association founding member, can you please provide students with some insights on how the RCA developed and has evolved over the last 20 years?
The RCA was founded by a group of chefs, mainly from the manufacturing, and multi-unit restaurant segments of the industry. At the time the RCA was formed, I happened to be working for an equipment manufacturer (Winston Industries), creator of C-Vap technology for holding cabinets and vapor ovens.
When I was invited to a meeting in Chicago at the NRA show, I eagerly accepted and it was at this meeting when the very first board of directors was formed. I was honored to be voted in as Vice President, serving on the first board of directors for the RCA. Some of the founding members got together at this year’s conference in Denver to document the accurate history of the RCA. What a wonderful meeting it was, seeing great friends and colleagues who were in the room that evening back in May of 1995. The only way I can describe it, is that it becomes more meaningful with each passing year. To be a founding member of any consequential organization is a great honor, and the pride I take in the young members who follow, is the greatest satisfaction.
2. Congratulations on being elected to the RCA Certification Committee! Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to as a new member?
When the RCACC was formed, I served for two terms (2001 – 2004), immediately following earning the CRC designation, so this is really my second time around. I felt it was time to serve again. I’m a believer in service, but to also take time away, to let “new blood” infuse the various committees, etc. This way, new ideas are constantly generated from different membership perspectives. My want is to bring a sense of history to the RCACC, along with fresh ideas that come with age and experience.
3. You were the RCA’s second ever Certified Research Chef. What is the test like and how you studied for it?
My strategy was very simple, and I still impart the same advice. I took the reading material, and divided the number of pages by how many days I had to the test. A simple calculation in my case was: 730 page text book, divided by 121 days to the test, and came up with 6 pages a day, that I must read (and absorb). This was meaningful, and an easy schedule to stick with. The strategy worked for me. Knowing I only had to read 6 pages per day, it seemed like a doable task. I did it, stuck to the plan and it worked – I passed on the first try. (Bear in mind, when the test was first instituted, there was only a 24% pass rate).
4. What does your schedule look like this week at Frisch’s Big Boy?
Our new menu rolls out this week, so my schedule is pretty insane, with store visits and checks with operations, etc. I’m usually in the office by 7 and home around 6:30 or so. Normally, my days are not this long. With any new program, I’m very invested in the success, so more time is needed.
5. Frisch’s Big Boy is very unique in that you oversee one of the only full-service restaurant concepts that produces almost all your own food from scratch. How do you balance staying fresh while expanding restaurant locations?
Two very good and different questions here. We keep the menu fresh, by not trying to be everything to everybody – and by that I mean we pick a lane and do the very best at what we do. We grind all our own beef at our central USDA commissary kitchen, so offering a great, hand pressed burger is a natural for our concept. We are introducing a Primetime Burger line up, that begins April 6th. I was able to formulate a truly extraordinary brioche bun (with real butter), as well as bring in natural sharp cheddar and real Swiss cheese for the new burger platform. See link to our ad here. https://youtu.be/OIh3tFMo3BE As far as the question regarding expanding restaurant locations, we do plan to increase unit numbers, but will accomplish this thru franchising more. Currently, we operate 95 corporately owned units and have 26 franchised locations.
6. For those of us who did not have a chance to try Frisch’s famous hot fudge cake during your 2016 RCA Conference presentation, do you mind sharing some problem-solving tips on how to best reformulate partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) out of all types of foods?
My best advice is start with the simple items on your menu, and work back from there. For us it was changing the fry oil, and then reformulating the easier items like cake mixes, etc. Always lean on your vendor partners, as they are the experts on the subject, and that is precisely what I did here at Frisch’s. I worked with Chef Mitch Riavez with Stratas Foods (our main oil supplier). Also, take your time and get it right rather than doing it quickly and alienating your customer base. Our customers, for the most part, are long term and very loyal, so for us it was more about getting it right over doing it quickly.
7. Describe how you get inspired at work?
I am constantly looking at the “big picture” when it comes to getting inspired. I do read lots of trade journals, but something as simple as getting out to eat at really cool, up and coming places is a great source of research. When I travel, I take the opportunity to visit with local restaurants that do similar food to Frisch’s Big Boy and take inspiration from them. I am always on the lookout for new, fresh ideas and listening to consumers is always a great place to learn. Ask questions, but beyond that, I always ask “why”, why do you like this particular ingredient, flavor, cooking technique, etc. By delving deeper into the question of “why” is a better way to gain insight into how people think and make decisions about food choices.
8. Who do you think is the most influential person in your field?
There is no one person that is the most influential in this vast field of food product development. I can cite some individuals who have influenced me, as a chef. I would call out several chefs to put on this list: Chefs Bill “Pops” Hahne, Steve Schimoler, Jeff Cousminer, Barry Yates, Winston Shelton, and my father, Ferd Grisanti, to name but a few. There are many others, including the wonderful chef instructors at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, SC. I also draw inspiration from other people in the field, not necessarily chefs, such as Alton Brown, Michael Pollan, and Harrold McGee. These writers have influenced the way I look at food in general and have shaped my “food outlook” and have inspired me to look at food in its more natural, un-processed state.
9. In your professional opinion, what is the most underrated flavor in the culinary arena?
I will choose two “flavors” – Vanilla and Coffee. Vanilla for its intense simplicity, and coffee for its intense complexity.
10. Is there a secret ingredient you put into your “Cincinnati chili?”
At Frisch’s we don’t make “Cincinnati Chili”, but I can tell you that Cincinnati chili is very specific to this region and is a taste that is loved by people in this area. I can’t comment on any secret ingredients, as it would not be a secret, if I shared my thoughts. We make a good, basic chili recipe here at Frisch’s that contains lots of fresh ground beef, tomato, spices and plenty of red kidney beans. We serve ours plain, or over pasta. Some like shredded cheddar and fresh diced onions. A drop or two of Tabasco sauce makes it pop for me.
11. Was there a project at work that you thought would succeed, but ended up postponing?
Yes, I prefer to say I was ahead of the market, but I showed a dessert concept 4 years ago, that was rejected by the ownership at the time. I showed it again to the new ownership group about a month ago, and we are finally moving forward with it, sometime this summer. You’ll just have to follow #Frisch’s to see what it is…
12. Was there a project at work that you thought would not do as well as it did?
We just finished up testing a house made meatloaf, that I thought would do, ok, but it really exceeded our expectations. We are rolling it out this fall, once the weather cools down. I expect it will do well when we do roll it to the system.
13. What are the benefits of students who attend the annual RCA Conference?
In a word, networking. This is the single most valuable aspect to the face to face nature of a conference, such as the RCA. Other side benefits are the educational opportunities, but networking and meeting other chefs and mentors is a huge benefit to our student members. I happen to believe that students are our most important segment of the membership; they need our guidance, support and friendship. As a student member, if you haven’t found an RCA mentor, please make it a priority to find one person to get to know, so you can ask questions, gain insight into this wonderful segment of the industry.
14. What advice do you have for students trying to land their first entry-level job?
Don’t be afraid to start in an area you are not completely familiar with. In other words, if your educational background was focused on say, dairy, don’t be afraid to look for a position in the savory meat area of the industry. Learn about something different that will stretch your “comfort zone”. When I took my first position at the corporate R&D level, it was with an equipment manufacturer, something I never dreamed of until I took the job. They made ovens, holding cabinets and fryers. The end result was, I learned more about food with this company (Winston), than I had in the previous 10 years as a chef on the line in fine dining restaurants. I learned how to keep a lab notebook, take proper notes on cooking procedures, and in general, how to grow and learn as a chef in the R&D world.