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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 22:50 GMT 23:50 UK
An ambassador of processed foods
By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News, Crawley

Simon Boyle giving a demonstration
Simon Boyle trained at the Savoy Hotel

The room is spotless.

White-coated lab technicians open large refrigerators and remove substances for testing in vials.

Exactly as one would expect from a laboratory.

But what is unusual is something entirely invisible: an overwhelming, tantalizing fruity smell.

The air is thick with aromatic strawberries - or is it pina colada?

"It's passion fruit and pineapple - a new juice flavour," a cheery blond technician pipes up.

This is no ordinary science lab.

This is Unilever's Innovation Centre: the place where the firm's recipes are refined.

Food movement

As technicians experiment with juices, Unilever chef Simon Boyle gives a tour before a cooking demonstration of a Unilever recipe.

"I hope to head a food movement at the firm."
Simon Boyle, Culinary Ambassador, Unilever

In fact Mr Boyle is not just a chef.

He is - as the embroidered title on his white chef's outfit states - the Anglo-Dutch firm's only "Culinary Ambassador".

The softly-spoken 34-year-old appears the antithesis of the stereotypical hot-headed chef, but no less passionate about food for that.

He is on a bold mission. "I hope to head a food movement at the firm," he says. "I want to bring back chefmanship and the enjoyment of cooking."

Chefs as chefs

One might well ask why a conglomerate such as Unilever should need such a person as an internal food leader.

Chicken Tonight
Ben & Jerry's ice cream

But Mr Boyle says food items, which represent the majority of the firm's portfolio, still need good cooks behind them.

"A food factory is effectively a large kitchen," he says.

"It just goes into a larger cooking pan - but the end result has to be enjoyed by the consumer.

"A lot of businesses have chefs but turn them into technologists. Chefs should be kept as chefs."

'Natural ingredients'

Like a restaurant kitchen, the Innovation Centre has its equivalent of a larder.

Fresh ingredients for Chicken Tonight
Even mass produced food needs good ingredients

But unlike a restaurant, there are no fresh ingredients visible.

Instead, with the solid food all tucked away in freezers or fridges, the main feature is a dizzying array of herbs, spices and flavours freeze-dried and stored in row upon neat row of jars.

As Mr Boyle removes their lids, each is strikingly distinct - from lemon grass or galangal to butter powder.

"It's all totally natural," says Mr Boyle. "Just because it is dehydrated doesn't mean it's no good".

Savoy training

And Mr Boyle would certainly seem to have the credentials to spearhead a food movement.

As the "ambassador" effortlessly dices onions for the first of several sauces, he reveals that his wish desire to be a cook started at the age of 13.

That led to the Academy of Culinary Arts, then four years at London's Savoy Hotel and two stints on cruise ships, one of which on the MV Minerva was as executive chef.

Mr Boyle also has his own enterprise - Beyond Boyle - which provides cooking courses, a venue for meeting with tailored menus and a catering service.

Cooking crisis

Whatever the menu, good ingredients are vital, he says, as he prepares a dish using a Unilever sauce called Chicken Tonight.

While removing the pan-fried chicken from the hob, Mr Boyle says two factors have driven his desire to pioneer food within the company.

There is a crisis. People don't know how to cook from scratch.
Simon Boyle, Culinary Ambassador, Unilever

The first is health, after an alarming rise in obesity in Britain.

Supermarkets, and therefore food firms, are under pressure to offer healthier food.

As part of Unilever's Nutrition Enhancement Programme, the firm has eliminated 15,000 tons of trans-fats, 10,000 tons of saturated fats, 2,000 tons of sodium and 10,000 tons of sugars.

But another issue seems of greater concern to Mr Boyle.

"There is a crisis," he says. "A lot of people don't know how to cook from scratch."

Simon Boyle's outfit
Simon Boyle thinks people need help learning how to cook

A sauce in a jar might not be ideal, he acknowledges.

"But what is the real alternative?

"Getting a takeaway, eating frozen foods, or buying a ready meal?"

He argues that "semi-scratch cooking" - whereby meat or vegetables can be added to a commercial sauce, such as Chicken Tonight - is a step up.

Unilever's Ragu for Kids helps the "plight of Mums as they try to get children to eat properly".

The firm has also started providing bowls of fresh fruit, as well as nuts, to raise awareness internally about healthy eating.


The proof, of course, is in the pudding - or in this case the Chicken Tonight.

Of the three dishes Mr Boyle has prepared, the one using entirely fresh ingredients before adding freshly-cooked chicken undoubtedly tastes the best.

It presented less contrast with the ready-made version than expected, but the latter still tasted - well - processed.

And the version devoid of salt, pepper, herbs or mushrooms, predictably tasted bland.

Many might say that however good the ready-made options, they are no substitute for learning how to cook.

But getting people back into the kitchen has to be a first step - and Mr Boyle hopes to get them there.

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