Innovative menu engineer loves cooking 
Johan Verbon, Food Intelligence Menu Engineer at Sodexo Nederland, is in charge of around 370 chefs at about 700 sites in the Netherlands where Sodexo provides catering services. Verbon is well-known for his high level of expertise, his knowledge of cooking literature and a strong drive to innovate and experiment. He keeps himself up to date on the latest culinary gadgets, alternative foodstuffs (meat replacements such as soya products and insects proteins, chocolate-covered locusts) and new technologies and trends. Johan Verbon has, since 2007, spent five years working for Sodexo at the Restaurant of the Future of Wageningen University & Research Centre (Wageningen UR). He also worked together with engineer Jeroen Knol, former employee of Wageningen UR and now working at Effost - European Federation of Food Science and Technology). Wageningen UR is the only research institution in the world where researchers take the emotions a product evokes, the effect of environmental factors on the sensation of taste and the consumer's actual choosing and eating behaviours, into consideration. Together with Jeroen Knol, Johan Verbon is also the co-organiser of the Food Professional Day (2010, 2014). The theme of the latest edition of the Food Professional Day in 2016 in Wageningen was 'The Harvest of the Earth'. Inspiring chefs and leading scientists engaged in interactions about potatoes, vegetables and legumes. They both used to work together in the Restaurant of the Future. Johan Verbon explains, "This was an initiative aimed at bringing the chef from the Food Service Industry closer to science, in order to generate interaction between the two. Food and science are inextricably interconnected."                


In search of the ultimate hamburger 
The famous British chef Heston Blumenthal has also visited Verbon in Wageningen. Blumenthal runs The Fat Duck restaurant, which has occupied position 1 or 2 in the world's top 50 restaurants for many years. Blumenthal was searching for the ultimate hamburger and Verbon helped him find it in Wageningen. In particular, Johan Verbon and Heston Blumenthal investigated the best way to mince meat using the mincer. They investigated how to make the meat as tasty to chew as possible and which way made it the juiciest. "Johan was extremely inspiring and used scientific knowledge as well as his own experiences to see how he could apply this to the ultimate hamburger," Jeroen Knol explains. 


Advanced equipment to ensure that products are cooked in a quick, controlled manner 

Johan Verbon serves a dish, prepared using the Nuti-Pulse.  

In Wageningen, Johan Verbon was introduced to the Nutri-Pulse® e-Cooker produced by IXL Netherlands BV, a piece of equipment designed to cook fish, steak, potatoes, vegetables and fruit in a quick, controlled manner by means of high-voltage pulses, with a minimal heat impact. The Nutri-Pulse makes it easier, for example, to quickly and consistently get 100 steaks at the right temperature (essential for the catering industry), whether the meat needs to be rare, medium-rare or well-done. Johan Verbon was one of the first to put this piece of equipment to the test. He experimented with it a lot and provided the necessary input to the producers and scientists in Wageningen. Verbon has promoted the Nutri-Pulse at a number of trade fairs. Johan Verbon explains, "The Nutri-Pulse is not yet available for commercial kitchens and the catering industry. There are just a few prototypes, which can only cope with small volumes of food. It's great to see how this technology works, and what it does with the ingredients and the speed at which a product can be cooked. What I find most special about the Nutri-Pulse is the way of cooking; the temperature increases equally throughout the whole product. This way of cooking produces new possibilities, including for top-class gastronomy."         


The Restaurant of the Future 

The Restaurant of the Future at Wageningen UR, where consumers' food, behaviour and eating patterns are studied by means of camera observation. 

The Restaurant of the Future in Wageningen opened in 2007. There are also laboraties above the restaurant that help measure and analyse the eating behaviours of consumers and the food choices they make. Consumer researcher Nancy Holthuysen is deeply involved in the restaurant and has also worked closely with Johan Verbon, who worked with her as a chef and product developer. She explains, "The Restaurant of the Future is a joint venture between Wageningen UR, Sodexo, Noldus (software provider) and Kampri (supplier of kitchen equipment). Employees of Wageningen UR can enjoy their lunch here. Customers' eating behaviours and choices are studied by means of camera observation. Visitors to our restaurant are intensively observed, and we also carry out real-life research in other locations such as supermarkets, nurseries, care homes and hospitals. Anywhere you find people eating, we're able to record their behaviour. However, because it's not possible to investigate everything by means of real-life research, other forms of research are also used, such as sensory research, for which we regularly invite trained panel members. We're currently carrying out a study in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for example, whereby we're teaching children about the importance of a healthy breakfast. The guests who eat in our restaurant register at the till with their personal badge so that we can see afterwards what people are eating on a really personal level. Johan Verbon has been partly responsible for ensuring that the Restaurant of the Future has gained lots of attention in the press and on TV. He was therefore also very important to us in terms of publicity. Especially in the first year after opening, the demand was huge. TV crews came to visit the restaurant from places as far afield as Japan, Italy and America. They really came from everywhere."                


The beet burger, Isabel Boerdam.
© De hippe vegetariër. (The hip vegetarian). Photographer:
Julia Peleala. 

A food designer who likes to experiment
Verbon is also well known as a food designer. He's the inventor of the Sodexo croquette, made with local beef, that's been awarded the 3-star 'Better Life' quality mark, making it unique in the Netherlands, and grasshopper nibbles (see photo below). He's also the driving force behind the beet burger and various flavours of marinated mushroom that make use of a new marinating technique, and also tasty, low-fat, creamy salads using a mayonnaise alternative. Johan Verbon is well known as a food designer, collector of cook books and expert on the (international) history of food, as well as a top chef who likes to experiment. Sodexo was the first caterer to feature the Purple Bee Hive veggie burger, an initiative of the Zwanenberg Food Group, on its menu. Verbon explains, "Sodexo really values the importance of good nutrition and aims to promote the health and well-being of our guests. The veggie burger fits this ambition perfectly. Veggie burgers are already very popular. A wide range of burgers is currently available. You can find beetroot burgers and bean burgers, as well as a variation with corn, which sells very well." Inspired by the beet burgers, Johan Verbon's team at Sodexo added some of its own recipes. These are exclusively available to guests at Sodexo restaurants (source: Out.of.Home Shops). Verbon has created a number of recipes for Sodexo for both hot and cold dishes, but he has also designed lemonades based on pure juice and smoothies such as The Dreamer, made from four main ingredients: spinach, avocado, banana and mango. Johan Verbon explains, "Banana and avocado are the creamy ingredients, and mango provides the sweetness that makes the creaminess pleasant without overpowering it. Raw spinach is the main ingredient, which provides the counterpart to the creaminess and gives the whole thing a bit of punch. It's a vitamin and mineral 'bomb', a great smoothie with which to kick off the day, jam-packed with energy."                  



The Dreamer   Grasshopper nibbles © Lotte Stekelenburg 
































Johan Verbon: a career of almost 30 years at Sodexo  
Johan Verbon (53) has been working for Sodexo Netherlands for almost 30 years. Sodexo is a French multinational corporation with headquarters in Paris that specialises in services that improve the 'Quality of Life', such as food services, cleaning, technical maintenance and other facility services at client sites, and  420,000 employees in 80 countries across the globe, serving over 75 million customers every day. 


"At Sodexo Netherlands, we feed almost 250,000 mouths each day, which means that menu structures and ingredients require special attention; it's rather complicated and the volumes we're dealing with make it a challenge. Another difficulty we face is the very limited budget we're working with; I sometimes compare it with top-class gastronomy, where there's a menu that runs for a number of months, the budget is unlimited and they have different guests each time. We have the same guests every day, and we feed the same mouths every day with a small budget; 'it's extraordinarily difficult."   


"I've known ever since I was born that I wanted to be a chef."
Johan Verbon has become one of the top chefs in the food service segment in the Netherlands. Between  the ages of 13 and 17, he attended the Zomerhof cookery school in Rotterdam, where he learned the tricks of the trade. He then gained extensive catering experience working in six restaurants, first as a kitchen helper and later as an apprentice chef, before he moved on to Sodexo, where over the course of three decades he became the culinary face of Sodexo. During the five years he spent working together with Wageningen UR, his cooking expertise was enhanced thanks to nutritional knowledge from the field of science. Verbon explains how it all started off, "I'm a Rotterdammer pur sang; I've known ever since I was born that I wanted to be a chef. As a child, I used to stand beside my mother in the kitchen on a little stool and look into the pans while she was cooking. I did all but climb into the pans myself. I also started reading and collecting cookery books, in various languages, at a young age. I read them like novels. I think I was about 13 when I first started cooking, stews I think, as they were the easiest to make. I picked it up at home; cooking was in my genes. I think it was the smells and tastes that appealed to me. My mother also really enjoyed cooking and her way of cooking was very special. She was a fantastic cook. She used to cook organic vegetables and meat as long as 50 years ago. She was a real pioneer in that regard. I can still clearly remember eating organic vegetables, potatoes, fruit and meat at home; it was always a hell of a job trying to manage all of that in those days, because those were the early days of organic food. My mother had a vegetable distribution centre. She stood at the cradle of what is now the organic vegetable and meat industry."                    




The first ever Dutch insect cookbook, put together by three specialists from Wageningen University, Arnold van Huis, Marcel Dicke and Henk van Gurp, was presented in the Restaurant of the Future on 17 April 2012 and offered to Queen Máxima of the Netherlands. On this occasion, the world's largest grasshopper cake was cut. The insect cookbook aims to help shape sustainable food of the future in a culinary way. The recipes were created by insect chef Henk van Gurp, who's been involved with the tasty preparation of insects for twenty years. Johan Verbon also contributed to the insect cookbook and created some dishes that were included in the book.     


Dish with locusts. Will we be cooking this in our homes in a few years?  Dish with bee larvae, still something for the future. 

© photos: Guy Ackermans 2014


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