Food News

Frito-Lay Chef Jody Denton on Brainstorming Sessions for New Flavors and When A Big Idea Hits

Chef Jody Denton had a 35-year restaurant career that spanned the globe and included work with some of the best chefs in the country, among them names like master chef Ernst Gruch, Dean Fearing and Wolfgang Puck. Then about a year ago, he left all that for an office job. But he still gets to wear a chef's coat. We recently sat down with chef Denton as he explained, among other things, how to put an entire meal on a chip and how the Doritos Locos taco shell for Taco Bell all went down.

When did you first get into cooking? As a kid I always cooked breakfast, I learned how to make omelets, pancakes and stuff like that. Then, in high school I got my first job flipping steaks at a steakhouse.

My dad loved food, wine and culture. He also noticed I liked cooking. Well, he had a friend at a culinary school and called him up and got a lot of information from him. Then, one day called me up into his room and had it all laid out like a presentation for a board of directors. And it was the only time in my life that anyone had a suggestion on what I should do with my life that I actually got excited about.

Where did you grow up? I was born in Austin, lived in Dallas until I was 7, then we moved Napa, California, which is where my dad really got that appreciation for food and wine. Napa culture really sucked him in. Then, he passed that on to me. We moved back to Dallas when I was 12.

Did you go to a culinary school? No, I did a formal apprenticeship under the first master chef in Texas. He was the chef at the Dallas Country Club, Ernst Gruch.

Then, I went to Switzerland for a few years. I just really wanted to go there; Europe really resonated with me. Then, came back and worked at some hotels in Dallas.

Then, in the mid-'80s a friend told me that Dean Fearing was looking for a sous chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. That really changed the path of my career.

How long did you work with chef Fearing? Five years, from 1985 to '89.

How was it working with him? He was really great to work with. He's extremely creative; he encouraged us to be creative and to collaborate. He wasn't a pan thrower. He didn't get all fired up like some other chefs have. That's how it used to be -- everybody use to throw knives and pans in the kitchen.

Have you ever tossed anything across the kitchen? I have never tossed anything across the kitchen in my life. I'm an even-keeled guy.

I just go into the walk-in and scream. No one hears it.

Then you went out to California to work for Wolfgang Puck, correct? Yes, one day I was working at the Mansion and Dean told me "I want you to go into my office. You're going to get a phone call from Wolfgang Puck."

I asked, "What's he going to call me about?"

And Dean said, "About his new restaurant in Los Angeles."

And he called, and it was the funniest interview I've ever had in my life. He said, "Do you want to be the chef of my new restaurant?"

I said, "Sure."

He said, "OK, I'll fly you in next week."

Why did he want someone from Fearing's crew? He really wanted to do something different for his new place, and he knew if he pulled from his Spago, it would be that style. So, where did you work in L.A.? Eureka, and it was the James Dean of restaurants. It died before its time. It was connected to a brewery, and the brewery failed and it dragged the restaurant down with it. But, it was one of my favorite jobs I've ever had.

Did Chef Puck ever scream or throw things? No he was a great guy.

You traveled around a bit after that, even owning your own place; what made you want to take this job at Frito-Lay? Well, I'd been in this business almost 35 years now. And Stephen [Kalil, executive chef at Frito-Lay] called me and asked for my help to find someone to work at Frito-Lay. He explained the job, benefits and compensation. When he finished, I told him I'd like to throw my name in the ring.

Was it a hard adjustment to a more corporate environment? Definitely. One of the things I enjoy the most that I don't miss at all about the restaurant industry is, here at this company, everyone I work with is a professional and everyone holds themselves to high standards and they're ethical. You just don't find that in the restaurant business. We're all professionals and adults and behave accordingly here.

Restaurants are just full of drama. That's just a fact. They are.

What exactly do you do there? One of the things I like about the job is that every day is different and every day is interesting. I work across a wide range of things. It's never just one brand. I'm involved in researching trends, cuisines, brainstorming flavor ideas, bringing those flavors to life here in the flavor kitchen.

What's something recent? The Ruffles Smokehouse BBQ and Tangy Carolina BBQ and a few other things that aren't in the market yet, so I can't talk about those. What we're seeing in the market right now are things I worked on when I first got here.

About the Smokehouse BBQ, I saw a quote where someone said it's like an entire meal on a chip ... One of the ideas behind Frito-Lay culinary innovation is to capture more than just the basic flavor. We're cooking with real food in the kitchen. It's funny when I meet people and tell them what I do, they shake their head and say, "You make chips?" I tell them, "No, I haven't ever made a chip."

We cook with real food and cook with real food flavors and then assess how to bring those to life in commercial means. But that's not even really what we do. We're just strictly flavor idea innovation.

Have you come across something that sounded good on paper but was awful in the kitchen? Nothing yet. We all pretty much know where we're going before we start. There are times when certain flavors resonate better than others, and sometimes when we put something together with a chip it doesn't work as well as it did on its own and we have to shift it and rework it. Can you tell some more specifics about what you do when you get in the kitchen for, say, the Tangy Carolina chip? It's on a Lay's chip and based on Carolina pulled pork -- it's not just based on sauce. It's actually sauce on pulled pork with coleslaw on top. So, when you taste the chip, you get the creaminess and vegetables of the coleslaw, the tanginess of barbecue sauce and little bit of spice. Then, you taste the pork. There are a lot of things going on. They had a much more difficult time getting our flavors translated to our seasoning partners. By using culinary innovation for the base of our flavors, we're able to get a much better match.

Do you do a lot of taste testing from the chip aisle? Occasionally we'll taste a competitor's products. But we're really not worried too much about what's in the market; we're driving it from what we think should be in the market and what we think our chips should be.

Have you noticed any new trends? The one trend I see that the global market is becoming one world. No matter where you are, people want flavors from somewhere else. People in America want flavors from India, Asia and the Middle East. Yes, people have their local food culture, but they want other flavors too. The world wants the world on their plate.

What are some of the craziest things you have tried to pull together in the kitchen? We get together and have these creative brainstorm sessions and they tell us "Don't worry about if you don't think you can do it, just put it out there." Sometimes things get a little crazy in those sessions. Someone will have an idea and it might sound good in the session, but maybe not so much later.

Are those meetings fun? They're a blast. We have a lot of fun. You get 20 creative people in a room with mandate to be creative, it's fun.

So, how did the Doritos Locos taco shell all come down? Taco Bell asked for our help in creating some new innovation for their menu. And a team of our chefs put together some ideas and presented the ideas to Taco Bell. They thought it was a really big idea and said, "We need to do that."

It took a lot of people and a lot of work and it was technically challenging. I think they produced some of them and we produced some of them [remember they sold 100 million in 10 weeks]. It was a big idea.

You know, we all try to find to find those big ideas. It's fun when one hits like that. It's fun to watch.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.