Meeting and chatting with Goya Foods Executive Chef, Fernando Desa as he was preparing for his food presentations just days before the “Grand Tasting” at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF) was great fun. He was filled with enthusiasm for the upcoming event. You get the real sense that this guy really likes what he does and loves competition even better.
This native of Puerto Rico who grew up the youngest of three brothers busted out of the family business of becoming a physician to follow his dream of being a chef. There was nothing that was going to stop him. He went to the prestigious Johnson and Wales School of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island where he achieved “Head Chef of His Class” distinction.
The best chefs in the business mentored him. Aaron Wratten at Horned Dorset Primavera Resort, Puerto Rico and Peter Timmins at Tavern Room Restaurant, Greenbrier Resort and the notable Volker Frick at Kettle Cuisine.
He readily admits, with an air of true passion in his words, “Cooking is my life. I love to cook.” He further described, “It’s all about being creative and the challenge.” This is what drove him ultimately to apply for the Executive Chef’s position at Goya Foods.
Goya is America’s largest Hispanic-owned food company, based in Secaucus, New Jersey. Chef Desa’s is indeed challenged each day with creating authentic and refined Latin America’s diverse cultural flavors using nothing more than Goya’s 1,800 products (plus a few more that he invents along the way.)
He started with Goya in 2007 and in 2009, the Goya executives asked him to develop an R&D department, which he now heads up. He hired a nutritionist, two-food scientist and another chef. Together he and his team create culinary magic for Goya.
Desa states, “I am primarily responsible for the research and development of new products and recipes for inclusion on the Goya website and its related publications.” In his capacity as Executive Chef and Product Development Manager, Desa teams members of the Sales and Marketing departments to explore the usage of new products from Latin America and adapt them for Goya’s consumer markets.
So, how does he do it? There are multitudes of Latino cultures and subcultures. There are so many variations on a recipe theme even with the most popular of dishes such as paella, arroz con pollo or mofungo, to name a few, which are prepared differently throughout Latin America.
“Goya is all about authenticity,” Desa touted. “They are looking to emulate the traditions of the native foods from Latino countries around the world. This is not just about packaged and canned foods, it more. It is about diversity and pride,” he continued to voice with a sense of conviction.
I asked him how he figures out what the next product will be? “That is simple, but it is a very complex process,” Desa says. “It comes first with the demographic need. The first question is, what are the [Latino] population culinary needs are there that the company wants to address. Once that is defined, you look at the region from where the demographic tells you, say for example Colombian. You make the dish according to the various recipes that come from the different parts of Columbia because each region may make it a little different,” Desa explained.
Essentially, what Desa does is he looks for the commonality in the various recipes and then formulates a single recipe based on that commonality for a specific dish, which ultimately yields the final recipe. Desa adds, “Once the test groups are satisfied, we can commercialize the recipe using Goya ingredients or create the ingredients we need to make the recipe.”
Desa feels that he can readily leavage the brand’s commitment to authenticity and refine Latin American cuisine in many ways. Goya allows him a good deal of latitude to re-create a touch of classic Latino homestyle cooking going from the test kitchens and to the shelves and refrigerator/freezer sections of local supermarkets around the world.
Today, isn’t it all about convenience? Goya has officially cornered the Latino convenience food market quite nicely. With their appointment of Chef Desa to their executive team [Goya] has truly expanded its horizons. This was quite clear when I finally met up the chef at the SOBEWFF held in Miami Beach, February 20 – 23, 2014. We met up right before the Grand Tasting on Sunday the 23rd at Goya booth. He is young, handsome and oh so very charming. Do not let those qualities fool you though. It was clear right from the start that he was in-charge. His staff awaited his orders and moved into action. A true chef!
He quickly put together two excellent dishes for the SOBEWFF crowd to enjoy. Of course, I had the first sampling. And let me tell you, they were both delicious.
Chef Desa job is not an easy one. It is extremely challenging and highly creative and with a whole lot of pressure. There is no doubt he is up for it. Under his leadership Goya will be putting out new products and recipes on a regular basis. Big things will surely be cooking at Goya now that he is in the kitchen.
Well, I feel inspired. I am off to cook up some paella…but where did I put that paella pan?