Can-do culinary leader

Posted: May 16, 2010

As an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America, Tom Griffiths ate well: pad thai, trout almondine, oxtail. Since he became head chef at Campbell Soup Co. in February, his tastes are changing.

"I'm craving egg salad sandwiches or tapioca or soup," he said.

Griffiths, one of 61 master chefs certified by the American Culinary Federation, is leading Campbell's new Culinary and Baking Institute. The institute is aimed at elevating "the culinary heritage" of a company that made its name with condensed soup, said Julie Simonson, vice president of research and development. Griffiths will oversee a staff of 25 chefs around the world, including seven at the company's Camden headquarters.

Along with food scientists and marketing experts, the chefs develop recipes for new soups and other products. They also work in the $600 million food-service division, helping clients - restaurants, universities, grocery stores - find ways to use Campbell goods in their products.

Griffiths' role will be to fuel the company's "passion for food," Simonson said, and to connect with home cooks.

It's not a new goal for the 141-year-old company. Think tuna noodle casserole or tomato soup cake.

Campbell has published dozens of cookbooks through the decades, said food historian Andrew F. Smith, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.

The casserole, with its can of cream of mushroom, was "the dish in the '50s," Smith said. "They didn't create that recipe, but they popularized it."

While the Campbell name stands for good, inexpensive products, Smith said, the company has been branching out in recent years with heartier, thicker soups and more options for the health-conscious.

As Griffiths pressed risotto cakes, cooked with Campbell's Swanson broth, into a mold during lunch at the company's Camden show kitchen, he talked about his beekeeping hobby, gardening in the Hudson Valley, and his return to New Jersey.

"I love every part of food, from beginning to end," he said.

Griffiths crisped the cakes in a pan, then lay them over sautéed vegetables. On top, a drizzle of two "nourishing" Campbell's Soup-based sauces ("Make sure you say nourishing"): tarragon-infused mushroom, and tomato soup with a sun-dried kick.

For dessert, Griffiths dug into a vanilla pot de creme prepared by senior research chef Amanda Zimlich, no Campbell product added. "We don't eat Campbell's Soup all the time," he said.

Griffiths grew up in Rutherford, Bergen County, and first honed his cooking skills over a campfire as an Eagle Scout. He learned his way around a kitchen as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"It was something I could see doing all my life," he said.

As a young chef, Griffiths worked in various kitchens in New York City, including the United Nations and famed Le Cirque, where he learned a "reverence for food."

He went on to become associate dean of advanced cooking at the New York institute, with a focus on global cuisine. He earned his title as master chef in 2004 after an intensive 10-day test.

When a friend mentioned the Campbell job, Griffiths was surprised.

"I didn't know Campbell's had chefs," he said.

Since he arrived, he has learned how to translate a 10-serving recipe for soup into a factory production of 600 cans a minute.

Griffiths' first big on-the-job test came last month when he led the chefs in preparing dinner for 400 company managers. On the menu: goji-berry-glazed roasted turkey and braised veal osso buco with saffron risotto. No tuna casseroles here.


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