David Johansson is accustomed to introducing Americans to food from Sweden, his home country. After opening a chain of Swedish cafes in New York City, Chef Johansson returned to Sweden and went to work at IKEA to show the world that Swedish food is much more than the meatballs the furniture giant is known for.
IFT: You’ve worked as a chef at Michelin star restaurants in France, top eateries in Stockholm, and had your own chain of Swedish cafes in New York. What made you decide to move back to Sweden and work for IKEA?
David Johansson: I realized that I had been working for almost nine years in New York testing all the classic Swedish foods on a very international crowd. That’s when an idea came to me: IKEA is doing the same thing but on a much bigger and global scale.
So I reached out to someone I knew at IKEA and just started asking them questions. What is IKEA food? How do they work? I got in contact with a range manager at IKEA food, and we talked for a couple of months just about how IKEA works. Then, one day, they offered me a job as product developer for IKEA food, and I have been working there for five and a half years now.
IFT: How do you and the food team use the IKEA model of democratic design (form, function, quality, sustainability, and a low price) to develop new dishes or food products?
Johansson: It’s a tool that we use in all our product development. Over the last four years, we have been examining a lot of our older products and kind of washing them through the democratic design review process to make sure they are still viable and find where improvements can be made.
We also utilize the democratic design tool when we develop new products. Sometimes, it’s easy to get stuck on details within a product, such as developing the flavors in just the right way. When you take a step back and use the democratic design model, it’s a good way of getting the whole picture of what you are developing—from the sustainability aspect, to maintaining the low price we want in order to make a great product that is available to everyone globally.
IFT: How does your food team work with suppliers to develop final food products?
Johansson: Sometimes, we know from the start what we want, and we will develop it in the Food Lab and make prototypes. Then, from there, we work with a supplier on fine-tuning the product to produce it on a large scale.
But with a lot of other products, we start by meeting with the supplier. So, for example, we may be working on one product and find something else interesting while visiting with our suppliers—maybe a component or a machine that’s interesting. Also, we look at how they may be making one of our products and what the leftovers from that production may be. How can we work with the supplier to use the leftovers?
For example, we use a lot of salmon. We had a salmon fillet in one of the hot dishes that we often bake. To optimize the parts of the salmon that are best suited for oven baking, we were left with parts from the tail and belly. We knew that the belly meat would be good hot smoked, but that it would absorb a lot more of the smoky flavors than the tail because of the belly meat’s high fat content. So we brought in some more smokiness with a barbecue glaze that we developed. That’s how we ended up creating a pulled salmon sandwich. We increased the percentage of what we could use from the salmon, making it a very sustainable product.
IFT: In your 5+ years at IKEA, what is the most exciting change that’s taken place?
Johansson: Some recent research we conducted shows that more than 20% of people are going to IKEA primarily to eat. That’s a lot of people. We are creating food that is interesting and that will get people into the store. And, by the way, the store has some furniture to buy as well.
We are working on increasing the freshness in our dishes. Having fresh herbs on a dish, for example, actually does a lot for the perception of the dish and the flavor. Even if it sounds like we are just taking small steps—like fresh ingredients or moving towards more plant-based dishes—those changes affect so many people. I think that’s the most exciting thing we are doing.
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