An interview with Caroline Crumby, M&S development chef

By
Eve O'Sullivan
Added
06 January, 2016

Cooked spoke to Caroline Crumby, the Development Chef behind M&S ready meals, to find out what it’s really like to be behind the scenes of the things we all love to eat. From prawn gyoza to classic lasagne, problem solving and taste testing are all part of a day’s work.

I’ve done lots of things over the years, but food has always been at the centre. I started off by training at Cordon Bleu, then I tried to have as many different jobs as possible, from catering to doing all the back-room prep at a cookery school. Then I moved to Australia and discovered the buzz and excitement of fusion; it’s so unfettered by culinary traditions over there. I suppose that’s what really inspired me and got me thinking about food more creatively. When I came back to the UK, I worked with Leiths on outdoor catering projects and then in restaurants before I joined Marks & Spencer. It feels like the perfect fit; learning how dishes work is brilliant, and that’s the continuing delight of being a development chef.

Marks and Spencer

I wouldn’t think of my job as a nine to five. As soon as I’m on the tube I’m reading restaurant reviews and looking at new trends; my life is a total immersion in food.

But I work office hours by and large. As you’d expect, I spend a lot of the day eating – I suppose that’s both the best and worst thing about my job; it can mean a seriously hot curry for breakfast! I’m often working on different ranges at different times, too, so we’ll have kitchen days cooking and trying different ideas balanced by research. I go out for dinner as much as possible to see what’s out there, and I’ve travelled as far away as Mexico and Vietnam to do the best job at creating authentic dishes. And it’s interesting to go to the USA to learn about different approaches and techniques on the restaurant scene. But I also try to talk to people in store – it’s the only way to get instant feedback on what’s on the shelves from the people who matter.

The most surprising thing about my job? How long it takes to get something to the shop floor. From talking about it with colleagues to getting it in the shops is a full year. That’s a long time, and I don’t think people know about the lengths we go to in deciding which dishes and cuisines to focus on – it’s quite a commitment. Sometimes it's as simple as making a dish in exactly the same way, but a larger quantity, but in other cases, the challenge of my role is to find out how we can make something work. You have to think about what translates in a practical sense. For example, tamales (cornbread that’s cooked in a leaf) are incredibly popular in Mexico, but I think realistically it’s just not something that would take off in the UK, and it’d be tricky to maintain the authenticity. Meals such as South East Asian curries are all about aromatic flavours and spices but they can dissipate quite quickly, so we’ve separated the herbs for the customers to stir through the sauce at the very end of cooking; that way, the flavour is released at just the right time. It’s about working out how to nail the cooking process to achieve the same flavour in a home kitchen as you would in our recipe testing environment.

Marks and Spencer

I couldn’t just pick one favourite product. Among the first I launched were Champagne sabayon and meringue croquembouche, which was pretty spectacular. But I’d say I’m probably most proud of the Taste range and, outside of that, the Thai fishcakes. I think the texture is spot on, and the flavour of the Thai basil really comes through. A lot of what we do is identifying trends, yes, but we don’t just focus on new products, it’s about maintaining the quality and relevance of all our dishes. If we wanted to adapt a customer favourite, we’d always do a lot of testing – there’s no sense in changing something that works well if we don’t believe it’s an improvement. That was our reasoning for changing the cut in the chicken fajitas from breasts to thighs; the meat was much more flavourful and succulent. 


Marks & Spencer’s is such a trusted brand, often it’s seen as somewhere you go for a treat.

People are a lot more savvy than they used to be – food is now a common currency. Even so, one person’s adventure is another person’s nightmare, which means we have to make sure we are providing low-risk adventures to a degree. I see products such as our gyoza, for example, as an easy and safe way for people to have a fantastic food experience. It’s easy to objectify food in this kind of environment, but at the end of the day it’s not about creating something cutting edge that doesn’t work as a pre-prepared meal, it’s about something tasting good.

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