Ask a Chef: Making a Luxury Restaurant Ingredient More Accessible

Ask a Chef: Making a Luxury Restaurant Ingredient More Accessible

Kathleen Hayden.writer

Diners travel from all over the world to the mid-Atlantic region in search of the best crab cakes, and often a Phillips Seafood restaurant is their destination. John Degges, corporate chef at Baltimore-based Phillips Foods, wants to bring sweet, tender crab meat to more tables, and has some ideas about how supermarkets’ prepared food sections can help further that goal.

Progressive Grocer: Crab meat can be seen as a luxury reserved for eating out. How can prepared food programs in retail settings help customers consider crab meat as an ingredient they can use at home?

Phillips Foods' John Degges talks crab meat
John Degges

John Degges: Crab can be a luxury item, but using some of the lesser grades of crab meat works well for home use. Claw meat, which is picked from the swimming fins of the crab, is a brown meat with a stronger flavor profile, making it a good fit for dishes with spicy or highly flavored sauces, as the flavor of the crab still comes through. I suggest this meat for casual meals and in a wide variety of applications, [like] everyday broth-based soups or chowders, and for grilled cheese, quesadillas, basic pasta dishes and mac-and-cheese.

PG: What are some food trends and global influences you are currently exploring in your work, and how does crab meat fit with some on-trend foods?

Ask a Chef: Making a Luxury Restaurant Ingredient More Accessible

JD: We continue to see food trends influenced by chiles and spices from around the world. I travel most often to Southeast Asia, where we do business and where our founder, Steve Phillips, travels extensively. He developed a love for local cuisine prepared by the street cart vendors in towns and cities across Southeast Asia. His love of the region inspired our restaurant, Street Carts, an Asian kitchen in Washington, D.C. Crab meat goes very well with the sweet, savory, salty and spicy notes of a lot of Asian cuisine. I especially like to use crab in small-bite appetizers like mini crab cakes, salad rolls, pot stickers and crab Rangoon.

PG: How can cooks of different skill levels take advantage of some of these trends and influences?

JD: People can be intimidated by using crab, but it’s actually an easy ingredient to work with. For staff with basic kitchen skills, making a simple grilled cheese with crab meat and our seasoning mix is an easy sandwich to make. Combining rice, cut vegetables, crab and purchased Asian sauce makes for an easy stir-fry, or offering all of these ingredients merchandised together can inspire an easy meal for shoppers.

The key is not to limit yourself because the ingredient looks intimidating. Try new things and experiment with different flavors. Crab with queso over potato tots or fries is a great party item with lots of flavor.

Ask a Chef: Making a Luxury Restaurant Ingredient More Accessible

Appetizers are a great way for prepared food programs to put ideas together for customers, who can grab tots from the hot bar and buy a tub of prepared queso and some prepared crab meat for some elevated tots.

PG: What best practices can prepared food programs put in place to assure that delicate ingredients like crab meat retain the best flavor and texture when being reheated at home?

JD: Train grocery store staff to tell customers to keep the crab cold, and don’t overwork the meat. When working with crab meat, treat it delicately so that it won’t turn to shreds. If it breaks apart too much, it can get lost in your favorite dishes.

PG: What recommendations do you have for operators who want to add crab to retail hot-bar menus? 

JD: We have a lot of customers who use crab for soups and bisques on a hot bar. I have seen crab used for stir-fry, crab mac-and-cheese and fritters. I have used and seen crab on top of many proteins, from chicken, pork [and] shrimp to a variety of fish.

PG: Your website has some great ideas for quick dinners. Describe some ways that busy families can use prepared crab meat to get dinner on the table quickly.

Ask a Chef: Making a Luxury Restaurant Ingredient More Accessible

JD: Easy meals tend to be quick and involve little preparation done ahead of time. One easy idea is to suggest shoppers use our appetizer crab cake miniatures as a quick topping for stuffed shrimp. This item is quick, easy and creates a restaurant-quality meal.

Similarly, you can make a decadent Chicken Chesapeake entrée with just two ingredients, frozen Phillips Maryland Style Crab Cakes and chicken breasts.

Another idea is to make a quick batch of pasta with some sautéed vegetables, crab, garlic, basil and white wine for a great meal that can be done in under 15 minutes.

For a fourth idea, offer some pre-chopped onions and peppers from the produce department, together with some Tex-Mex seasonings, a tub of crab meat and pre-made tortillas, for a quick crab fajita dinner.

PG: Where else can crab go that might be unexpected?

JD: For grab-and-go items, we have made some great items using our crab meat. We have made simple crab salad wraps, summer rolls, crab banh mi sandwiches, bao bun sliders with pickled vegetables, crab club sandwiches, and our take on the lobster roll with crab. Crab is a natural for topping salads. We have a recipe online that puts a delicious twist on the classic Cobb Salad, where you use crab meat instead of chicken. 

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