Potatoes USA chef RJ Harvey showcasing potatoes in exciting new ways
If the Food Network ever devotes a show solely to potatoes, RJ Harvey would be the perfect host.
Harvey’s job as director of culinary for Potatoes USA has him coming up with innovative ways to use potatoes and potato products in the kitchen, whether in a restaurant or the home. His creativity and cooking chops are taking spuds in exciting new directions.
“He is a gifted communicator and a passionate advocate for potatoes,” said Blair Richardson, CEO, Potatoes USA. “He has trained young chefs across the globe in the use of potatoes in new and creative ways — from China to Thailand, Japan to Panama, the U.S. and beyond. RJ has inspired chefs to create new uses for potatoes such as potato ceviche, potato charcuterie, potato shawarma and potato risotto, to name only a few.”
Harvey has been with Potatoes USA since 2017 and was promoted to his current position in July 2019. Spudman recently caught up with Harvey to find out what he’s been working on.
Could you share a little on your background?
I’m from right here in Denver where our home office is located. Interestingly enough, I moved around quite a bit after school — I went to Johnson & Wales University in Denver, but also the one in Providence, Rhode Island. My degree is in culinary nutrition. After leaving culinary school and going around to fine-dining restaurants, resorts, hotels and being a private chef on yachts for a while, I ended up in the Atlanta area working as a corporate chef in healthcare, but also for K-12 schools. Coming onto Potatoes USA allowed me to come home, which has been fantastic. I’ve always worked in the R&D area of fine dining in my career, so that lends itself to the type of innovation we’re focusing on at Potatoes USA.
What is the purpose of your position?
We have extended our culinary reach to all of our programs. On a daily basis, I figure out ways where there are turnkey solutions for everybody to crave potatoes. What I mean by that, for a consumer, it can be something as simple as the best way to make a baked potato. We’re creating a gold standard within industry to showcase to consumers and the public that this is the top way you should create a baked potato, but also showcase different ways they can bake a potato that might fit into their lifestyles, whether it’s using an air fryer or a toaster oven.
In foodservice, we’re trying to entice operators with innovation and ingenuity. What that might look like for them is finding ways to move potatoes to a plant-based, center-of-the-plate option as opposed to it being historically just a side item. For foodservice operators, we’re trying to come up with solutions that will allow them to put potatoes on their menu more, often using things they already have in their kitchen.
It may also be taking a specific cut of a potato, say, a frozen half-shell, which most chefs have just used as a way to make loaded potato skins. Now, we’re challenging operators to fill those frozen half-shells with just about any global flavor that’s under the sun, whether it be Hawaiian-style poke or using barbecued pulled pork as a filling, or even something as simple as an avocado relish or guacamole. It’s getting them to think of other ways to utilize potato products. A lot of it is stuff they already have in their freezer, but it’s putting it on their menu in ways they never thought of before.
What have been some of your favorite creations?
For fresh, we took a potato and ran it on a vegetable spiralizer and to turn potatoes into fresh noodles. It’s a wonderful gluten-free solution. … A fresh-spun potato is about as minimally processed as you can for a gluten-free option. We made tagliatelle (pasta) with broccoli rabe and spicy Italian sausage with some chiles and garlic.
For frozen, my favorite was probably the Spudwich. We used frozen hash brown patties as a sandwich vessel instead of using bread or biscuits or English muffins. These cuts have a lot of utility and versatility. It’s opening up quite a few eyes. We took a traditional frozen potato item and showcased it to operators who have been running breakfast in their QSR for many years.
It really doesn’t matter what the filling is, but you entice the guest with that crispy exterior. Everybody loves that crunch, that texture.
We’ve been having a lot of fun with dehy with a lot of different ways. The big one for me is using it as a gluten-free breading or coating for something as simple as a pounded-out chicken breast. Let’s say you’re going to make chicken parmesan; instead of going the standard breadcrumb route, use potato flakes. … It works really well. It browns up beautifully. The one thing I do tell people if that if you do like a little extra crunch, you can blend 50% dehy potato flakes and 50% breadcrumbs. One of the things the potato wins over the breadcrumbs is the flavor. You get this almost nuttiness from using potato flakes as a breading.
Potato noodles sound quite interesting. Do they hold together well?
They actually hold together great, but it does depend on the potato. What I have found is a potato with higher moisture content and lower starch content tends to hold together better. So, your yellows, your whites and reds tend to give you a more resilient potato noodle than something like a russet. Sometimes you do want those longer noodles, so a russet does lend itself better to those types of dishes. Like a Vietnamese pho, for example. The russet noodles end up really close to rice noodles, which is a traditional noodle you’d use in a Vietnamese pho. We just mitigate the cooking time so that the noodles don’t fall part. We’ll blanch them for a much shorter amount of time, so the propensity of them falling apart isn’t as high. I do like to use a yellow for something like spaghetti and meatballs or that tagliatelle dish.
How are you reaching chefs and foodservice people with these ideas?
Foodservice, specifically, one of the things we do every year is hold a culinary innovation session. It allows us to come up with these ideas on the forefront, but also develop some assets so we can have amazing pictures that can be used on our website, in trade communications — like the farm report newsletter that we send out quarterly. … Also, we create a tangible piece of art/information that we call a look-book. It’s different than a traditional cookbook because the images are meant to drive inspiration.
Different ways to use potato noodles or an idea for next loaded fry concept. We show a wheel of sorts that showcases different fry cuts and with what condiments or topping or flavors that might go well with them. It could be a bánh mì loaded fry or maybe a carne asada loaded fry and then we’re pairing them with the cuts that make sense for those toppings.
This technique book is printed and then send out to our industry contacts in foodservice. We also take them to trade shows and hand them out when we’re face-to-face with operators. They’re also on our website. So, we do a lot of internal communication with people in the potato industry, but we also do a lot of external communication with operators who are out in the field.
What about the general public?
We’re showcasing what are some uses are for different potato varieties. Like, what are the best ways to cook a yellow potato, or the best ways to cook a russet potato. So, we have these guides that retailers can use as part of their marketing strategy, or they can print it and hand out while they’re doing an in-store promotion.
We’re all familiar with the anti-carb diet narrative that’s out there. What kind of feedback have you gotten from chefs or culinary students when you’ve been in the field?
Most of the people I deal with in foodservice or retail or just general consumers, and young culinary students as well, the reaction is always very positive. Not only myself, but everybody on our staff hears very regularly, “I love potatoes!” That’s a really cool feeling. I don’t think the outreach of potatoes being negative is as widespread as we think. Yes, it is in some of those certain channels, what I like to call the ivory towers, the Harvards of the world and so forth. People that try to label one food better than another aren’t grabbing the attention of the common consumer, so I’m not too worried about in that regard. I will say there are dietitians, nutritionists or even chefs that attend these conferences that Harvard puts on are starting to menu fewer potatoes. However, they realize there is business in it and that consumers really want potatoes. They are curious for information, and that’s what we’re here for. We showcase there are all these studies that show there is nothing negative about potatoes from a nutrition perspective, that they’re a nutrient-dense vegetable. … We also showcase the versatility and cost-effectiveness of potatoes. The reality is having more potatoes on your menu is good business sense and also gets more vegetables on your menu.