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The Tastemaker

Local chef-turned-flavor-consultant shares some tips and trends


After working in a health-food restaurant in Hollywood, serving as Michael Jackson’s personal chef, and owning his own Los Angeles bakery, chef Mani Niall knows a little something about taste. Now he operates Mani’s Test Kitchen in Emeryville, where he’s using that discriminating palate to help food producers of all sizes—from hometown artisans to multinational corporations—perfect the recipes that go into the food products sold in your local grocery store. And he’s got some cooking tips for you, too.

1 What led you to open the test kitchen?
When I owned the bakery, I discovered how much I liked fiddling with a recipe, getting it to the point where you could re-create it every day. People want consistency—even if it’s six months later, they want [a dish] to taste just like they remember it.

2 How do food producers decide which recipes to pursue in the first place?
The larger companies do a lot of research to find out how far the envelope is being pushed. [For example,] what regions of the world do people recognize? Can you use words like Provençal, or Tuscan? What sells in upscale restaurants might not be ready for prime time. The artisan companies tend to go by hunch or gut instincts.

3 How can you know when the public is ready for a new dish?
It’s a lot of looking at trends. You don’t want to be so far ahead of the curve that nobody knows what you’re talking about. But once a trend becomes recognizable, then there’s some momentum. Jack in the Box has a ciabatta sandwich. I bet you never thought you’d see ciabatta in a fast-food chain.

4 Are there cycles to those trends?

I think so. The media are so trend-driven in this country. Everyone latches on and writes a story about something, and then a year later the perception is that it’s over, when the reality is that it’s just entered the lexicon of familiarity. Things don’t tend to fall out of use; they just fall off the radar.

5 So what’s the next big thing?
I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest the next big thing, but I’ve noticed [a growth in] regional food companies specializing in handmade foods such as salsa, guacamole, sushi—things that are time consuming or difficult to make at home. I think that speaks to a desire to have food made from a familiar source. But you have to look carefully, because everyone’s trying to package stuff to look that way. Words like made with love and family recipe are popping up everywhere.

6 What’s the easiest way to ruin a dish, flavor-wise?

Being bland or boring, and just not being vivid enough with your flavors. Don’t be afraid to make a statement. I’m also a big proponent of color.

7 What’s an easy color tip?
Pureed carrots can give a tomato sauce more of a rosy hue and a richer spectrum of red. And when you’re shopping, look for freeze-dried foods. You’re seeing that a lot now in cereals with little bits of fruit. Those foods tend to have more color and flavor than dehydrated foods.

8 Are there any secret ingredients that make foods taste better?
Any acidic ingredient will make fruit taste brighter. Try mixing some lemon peel into your blueberry muffins, or balsamic vinegar into your strawberry ice cream.

9 Do Americans prefer different flavors than the rest of the world?
We’re more about big portions—the super-size, the all-you-can-eat buffet. And we do like our desserts ridiculously sweet compared to most Asian countries. When I was making a presentation in Japan, I had to cut the amount of honey I used in recipes back by about two-thirds, because that level of sweetness just isn’t appreciated there.

10 What about the Bay Area? Do we have a good reputation among food experts around the country?
Absolutely. A lot of food companies look to the Bay Area because they know they’re going to get a progressive, food-savvy point of view. We’re at the cutting edge—we’ve got the oceans, the mountains, organic fields, hot farming country, and cool coastal ranges. [It’s] an amazing array of options, and you see that in the restaurants, the markets, the food companies, and the
wineries. It’s a rich tradition.

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