I enjoy being a journalist, but there are jobs I could imagine that would be even more compelling. I once thought it would be cool to go around the country convincing people not to go to law school. But now I've perhaps discovered my true dream job: professional potato chip taster. Here's a job I've spent my life training for, but have heretofore only held amateur status and I haven't had much of an audience for my skills. (For more on my potato chip credentials, click here.)
That may have changed yesterday when a box from Kettle Chips arrived at my desk containing five new potato chip flavors that the company is considering putting into production.
It's all part of Kettle's very cool program where they let chipaholics like me (or chipaficionados, if you prefer) nominate flavor ideas and help decide what new flavors Kettle makes. Fast Company has written about co-creation with customers before, but this is a very developed program worth taking note of for any company interested in engaging its customers in their products.
So okay, enough of that "business stuff." On to the tasting.
Last year, Kettle added two new flavors thanks to customers--spicy Thai and cheddar beer. Those beat out chai, Moroccan curry, and strawberry cream. (Yes, strawberry cream. I predict that we will have a variety of dessert chips in our lifetime--you can get cinnamon-dusted sweet potato chips, or at least you used to--but apparently we're not ready for them yet.) Perhaps inspired by the number of drink-related flavor ideas, this year's flavors fall under a "happy hour" theme. Here's the lineup and how Carolyn Richards, Kettle's Chief Flavor Architect (okay, maybe I want her job) describes each flavor:
- Spicy Mary: A smoky, spicy tomato vinegar base gives this bloody mary-inspired chip its kick. Hints of pickled veggies and spices like black and red pepper, ginger, and allspice make your mouth tingle, while crisp celery notes leave a fresh finish.
- Dirty Martini: A gin-lover’s dream come true, the refined flavor of the Dirty Martini chip comes from a mix of subtle herbal notes, including juniper, and a strong olive flavor.
- Creamy Caesar Krinkle CutTM: This chip combines everything we love about a Caesar salad (minus the anchovies) to create a classic. Garlic and green onion give this flavor its personality while smooth buttermilk and parmesan cheese make for a creamy finish.
- Tuscan Three Cheese Krinkle CutTM: Reminiscent of the classic Italian favorite, bruschetta, this flavor combines sweet and tangy roasted pepper and tomato with creamy aged goat and Romano cheeses. Ciao Bella!
Wow! Okay, I promise we're getting to what I and my crew of tasters thought of these chips, but let's take a moment and marvel at these flavor descriptions. It's like the wine geeks (who have lately been fighting with the chocolate and cheese geeks for food nerd supremacy) have discovered potato chips. Carolyn Richards, your overblown flavor profiles point the way to a world in which potato chips cost $8 for a small bag (or more) and are brushed with truffle oil or are dotted with foie gras and lobster essence. And for that I salute you!
One more bit of business. You can go to Kettle's site and vote based on name or you can order a package like I received for $10 and have your own tasting party. They're currently sold out, but I'm told there will be more in stock next week. The winner's announced April 1 (which now has me convinced that my least favorite flavor will win as some sort of joke on me) and will appear in stores over the summer.
Buffalo Bleu Cheese
My wife Carol: "Tastes like a barbeque potato chip."
Me: "Yeah, pretty much."
Carol: "Well, I am picking up a little bleu cheese at the end."
Me: "Really? What about the celery? Are you picking up any celery on the finish?"
Carol (starting to get a little annoyed): "No."
Jennifer Vilaga, ace reporter and copy editor: "Ewww." This was accompanied by a face that looked like I had given her a cod liver oil potato chip. She couldn't finish one chip.
The Verdict: If you can make a better BBQ potato chip and sell it at a premium by making it sound like it's a Buffalo wing chip, good for you.
A really good, complex chip. A lot of different flavors that kept coming in waves. My favorite chip overall. Does it taste like a Bloody Mary? Not really, but I bet it would go well with one.
Jenn: "This is really strange. My mouth is all tingly."
Jenn and I then agreed that this is the most complex chip, although it's not her favorite.
The Verdict:There's no doubt I'd vote for these chips. Clearly the most interesting to my palate.
Me: "There's no anchovies."
Carol: "Then it's not a Caesar salad."
Carol: "Blah. Americans don't want a potato chip based on a salad. They want a salad made from potato chips."
Jenn: "I could get the same effect from eating croutons."
The Verdict: Clearly this one wasn't all that popular. It's kind of a third-rate sour cream and onion.
Kind of like a pickle chip or salt and vinegar, pleasingly sour at first and then it kind of mellows out.
Jenn: "It smells like a salt and vinegar chip."
Jenn: "It's a little limey."
Jenn: "It works. I really like the aftertaste."
That's the biggest turnaround since the Buffalo Bills were down all those points in that playoff game against Houston. If the Buffalo potato chip had the ability to reason and speak, it would say, "Hey, you didn't give me that kind of chance to win you over. No fair."
The Verdict: Other folks in the office liked these as well, noting that they tasted the juniper-gin flavor. I didn't pick it up until I kept eating some more of the chips (research, ya know?), but it's clearly there. Although, as my pal Michael A. noted, it's more of a Beefeater gin taste. In other words, it's a well martini, not one of those $14 Bar at the Four Seasons jobs with Hendrick's or Plymouth.
Tuscan Three Cheese
Carol: "Bruschetta? Please. It tastes just like any other cheese potato chip. It could be cheddar for all anyone knew, not goat and Romano cheeses."
Me: "I don't taste anything. It's like the cardboard potato chip."
Jenn: "Is this a barbeque chip? No, it's a vinegar chip. Okay, now I taste the cheese. This is not a very unique chip."
Me: "I finally taste the cheese, but it's still pretty bland."
The Verdict: Again, not really a winner.
Final Notes: Well, overall, I voted for the Spicy Mary chips, Carol felt strongly about those and the martini chips, and Jenn voted for the martini chips, although wanted to note that nothing was as good as last year's spicy Thai chips. Of course, everyone has different tastes. Lisa, our deputy art director and a foodie in her own right, deemed the martini chips "disgusting" and liked creamy caesar the best.
What interested me the most about this little taste experiment is that so many of these "new" flavors could so easily be compared to a pre-existing flavor. Anything with a tomato base could easily be confused with a barbeque potato chip. Anything sour conjures up memories of salt and vinegar chips or lime-flavored chips. Malcolm Gladwell said in Fast Company's pages last year in reference to a focus group on Herman Miller's Aeron chair, "They said they hated it. But what they really meant was that the chair was so new and unusual that they weren't used to it."
So is that it? Can my palate not comprehend creamy caesar chips because it's never encountered it before? Or is it that there's a limited spectrum of flavors that work on a chip and the rest is too subtle to be of any significant difference? Or more cynically, is it all just marketing and I feel more yupscale if I buy Tuscan three cheese rather than cheddar and sour cream? Sounds like the kind of discussion to have over a couple of martinis or Bloody Marys and a bowl of bar snacks.