Top secret tastes cooked up inside Louisville test kitchen - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

Top secret tastes cooked up inside Louisville test kitchen

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Marie Zhang (Source: WAVE 3 News) Marie Zhang (Source: WAVE 3 News)
LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Think about what you eat each night for dinner. What is your main concern when planning what to serve your family?

For a growing number of us, making sure it's healthy is at the top of the list and that's forcing a locally-owned quick service chain to change the way they do business. WAVE 3 News got never-before-granted access to their test kitchen to see what they're working on.

[SLIDESHOW: See what's being cooked inside Long John Silver's secret testing kitchen]

Long John Silver’s has an advantage, the restaurant serves seafood which is widely known for being high in protein, low in fat and containing heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. But when you think of the chain, you probably think "fried only" and that's a perception that it is working to change.

The kitchen just seems like a natural place for you to find Marie Zhang.

"When I was a little girl, I was always around my mom or my grandmom, you know, in a kitchen to cook," she said.

Except her kitchen now is in a top secret location -- blacked out windows and all -- and the results go out to tens of thousands of people at 1,200 restaurants across the country. She's known as Long John Silvers' Chief Food Innovation Officer.

[VISIT THE WAVE 3 CHEWS BLOG]

"A local, Louisville group purchased Long John's about two years ago," Zhang explained. "Ever since the purchase, our focus has been more menu innovation."

She invited us inside for an exclusive peek at what they were cooking in the test kitchen. It's the place where last year, Long John's cooks took trans fats first out of the oil they used for cooking and then out of all the food the chain serves.

"Some days we worked 24/7 just to make it happen," Zhang said.

Zhang says it's part of a demand that they're hearing from consumers like you.

"We've heard a lot of customers come to our restaurant and say, 'You know what, my doctor told me I can't eat here more often because of my heart disease, because of my health,'" she said.

So this month, the wraps come off a "better for you" product line: "Three sandwiches and two salads -- this is a side dish -- and two soups," Zhang explained. "We have 10 meals under 600 calories."

So what's on the horizon? The company is looking for different ways to get you to eat seafood -- salads, sandwiches, tacos and wraps -- and the chain famous for its fried fish is testing out the grill.

"I want you to try some of the grilled products we're going to introduce next year," Zhang said, bringing out food. She set down teriyaki sesame ginger salmon and lemon pepper tilapia.

Then we got to test some things that are just in the beginning phases of development.

"This is a barbecue salmon and topped with our coleslaw on a pretzel bun," Zhang said. She explained that before a product even gets to this point, extensive research with customers has helped the chain identify a need and react to an idea. This one got high marks.

"Americans love barbecue. Why don't we just call it marriage - Barbecue and seafood married together."

Before she could tell us if it will make it to a restaurant there are several more steps: focus groups and tweaking before a full launch. So a sweet and heat shrimp or delicious lobster mac and cheese might never make the menu unless more people love them as much as we did.

Zhang has a feeling she's got something here and she's hoping you agree both for your taste buds and your health.

"Our mission is to promote seafood and increase American seafood consumption because seafood is so healthy," she said.

The test kitchen is a busy place because they're currently experimenting with a company goal of reducing overall sodium by 10 percent by the end of the year. In addition, they also quality check all of the 20 nationwide distribution center every two weeks.

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