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Top (Secret) Chef

Healdsburg incubates innovative food and beverage lab


MARSHMALLOWS ARE VERY SERIOUS  The Pilot R&D team plays with different ingredients - as they create new flavors and products.
  • MARSHMALLOWS ARE VERY SERIOUS The Pilot R&D team plays with different ingredientsas they create new flavors and products.

You wouldn't know it from the outside, but the tidy house on Brown Street in Healdsburg is a secret food and drink R&D laboratory.

The kitchen is loaded with high-tech devices like colorimeters and incubators. One wall is given over to an apothecary of spices, herbs, extracts, roots and functional ingredients used in recipe formulation. And there's a custom-built beer cooler that comes out of a big log. For research, I'm guessing.

The team behind the company—Pilot R&D—is impressive. The four partners (Kyle Connaughton, Ali Bouzari, Dana Peck and Dan Felder) have résumés from some of the most acclaimed and innovative restaurants in the world: Momofuku, the French Laundry, Noma, Saison, Benu, Eleven Madison Park and WD-50. Connaugthon is the executive chef at Healdsburg's Single Thread, which earned two Michelin stars last month.

Pilot R&D develops menus and proprietary food and beverage products for companies like Sprig, Exo, Avenir, Primal Kitchen and Barnana. While those projects are hush-hush, Pilot launched its own brand, Render, and just introduced its first product called State Bird Seed, a partnership with San Francisco's State Bird Provisions restaurant.

The idea behind Render is to collaborate with great chefs to create great food and drink products—chef-to-shelf they call it. State Bird Seed grew out of State Bird Provision's transformation of leftover quinoa and seeds into a salty, crunchy snack that's also used as an ingredient on other dishes. The Pilot team refined the process and created three flavors (sea salt, almond and rosemary, and furikake) and put it all an attractive, co-branded resealable bag. The snack is good right out of the bag, but last week the Pilot team opened their doors for a private lunch to show how the crunchy bits work with other food.

The verdict? Very well. State Bird Seed is great as a crusty layer on cider-braised ribs and excellent sprinkled on bitter greens or on pear-apple crumble.

A bag goes for $4.99 at Mollie Stone's, Healdsburg Shed and Good Eggs.

The next product launch will be his-and-her beverages from former Bar Tartine chefs Nick Balla and Courtney Burns that are due out in the spring.

Part of the idea behind Render is that many chefs have great ideas but developing them into a packaged product is beyond their skill set or resources.

"That's not what any of these chefs set out to do," says Peck, "but Render allows for that collaboration."

Ali Bouzari, who has a PhD in food chemistry from UC Davis and worked on cooking vegetables sous vide with the French Laundry for his dissertation, says a lot of the firm's work involves getting everyone in the kitchen a table and playing with ingredients, adding this and trying that, iterating—rendering—as they go. At the end of lunch, Bouzari grated bits of this and that—pecan, allspice—over a plate of just-made marshmallow in effort to achieve autumnal flavors.

"In improv," Bouzari says, "they would say, 'yes, and . . .'"

It will be delicious to taste what that means in the months to come.

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