Serious Eats

Chef Michael Symon Talks to Us About Lay's New Chips Flavors

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[Photographs: Lay's]

I recently reviewed the new Lay's chips flavors (Sriracha, Chicken & Waffles, and Cheesy Garlic Bread) and have to reiterate that they are some pretty interesting chips. To get the inside scoop on how three flavors emerged as finalists, I contacted one of the Lay's competition judges, chef Michael Symon. The man needs no introduction, so I won't do one.

Before we star the interview, here's some fun infographics featuring stats about contest submission trends. This one shows general submission stats:

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I find two factoids quite interesting. One is that women out-submitted men nearly 2.5 to 1, suggesting that they will likely decide the future of this nation's chipscape. The second? Many Americans want their potato chips to taste like potato.

In this second infographic we get to see popular ingredient submissions by state:

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Please note that sea coast-less Michigan is really keen on sea salt potato chips, while New Yorkers wish for their chips to taste like arguably the blandest cheese available to humankind (I'm not hating on mozzarella, I just don't think it's got the chops to successfully coat a chip).

Infographics aside, I had a really enjoyable conversation with the always amiable Symon about the competition, his snacking habits, America, and cooking with Doritos. Enjoy!

Have you always been a big fan of chips, or did this experience bring you a little of outside of your comfort zone? My Dad is the biggest snacker of all time. So as a kid, and because of him still to this day, Salt & Vinegar chips and French Onion dip are my guilty pleasure, for lack of other terms. I blame it all on my father. Or, thank my father, however you want to look at that.

So, if you could enter the "Do Us a Flavor" contest, what would your flavor creation be? Mine would have been something in the realm of pickles. I'm a total pickle geek. I probably would have done Sweet Hot Pickle.

Would you say that you learned anything about chips, or maybe more importantly, yourself, during judging? What you tend to learn the most when doing this kind of thing is what America loves. Which I think, as a chef, is a cool thing. It really gives you a sense of what Americans love to eat.

Given that you had millions of entries, you must have seen some really questionable ones. Give us the top 3 grossest chip ideas! There were a lot of weird ones. That's the other thing as a chef; nothing is really too crazy. When you eat around the world you eat some weird stuff. And what is perfectly normal to one person is very different to somebody else. So, I never really get too weirded out by a flavor idea. But what Lay's did is they got it down to 20 flavors and started making those chips to taste. And that was the grouping of chips that we got to taste.

Were you able to visit the magical Lay's flavor labs to see what they do? I didn't get to during this process but I know that what they did is taste the chips next to the dish so they could mimic those flavors. Which is very cool to me. And then, when the chips got to me, I tasted them all blind so I could make a judgement and then go, "Oh, that does taste like whatever". I didn't want to be influenced by what the bag said.

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Given Sriracha's current status as next generation ketchup—people put it on absolutely everything—do you really think there's a chance it's not going to win?

I think my son has been eating it since he was 8 years old. On everything from a sandwich to eggs to noodles to all those kinds of things. Being a chef, I've always been around it and I think if you're in New York or San Francisco or LA, you know bigger market cities, you're very very aware of it. But I'd be curious to see how America as a whole, how familiar they are with it. I think that's what's going to decide these things. And depending on where in the country you were raised, obviously different flavors really stimulate the palate. I'm a Midwestern kid but I love spicy food, which isn't a very Midwestern thing. I think the Chicken & Waffles flavor with its sweetness will play very big throughout the Midwest and even the South.

So it's basically like the elections all over again, these chips are just going to split this country up. Exactly, but now we have three candidates!

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Based on the fact that you a self-professed carnivore (it's even the title of one of your books) are you leaning towards the Chicken & Waffles as the only meaty chip in the running? It was hard to get to the final three, but I like all three very much. I tried to not get too attached to any one of them. I've actually been eating the Chicken & Waffles chips with the Sriracha chips together, which is a lot of fun. The last time I did that was when Lay's came out with that Pickle chip and I would eat it with the Salt & Vinegars.

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OK, so this one is a bit tangential, but still about chips. I'm a pretty big Nacho Cheese Doritos fan... Oh you and my dad would be pals forever!

I'd love to hang out and get chip-faced with him sometime. But, so if Nacho Cheese Doritos popped up as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef, what would your first course potentially look like? Hmm, first course...I would have to work the chips into a crust somehow, maybe pulverize them with some cornmeal because I think they go very naturally with cornmeal, then lightly bread some chicken livers. Then I'd crisp up the chicken livers over some soft polenta with some pickled cherries.

Just one more question that I know is on everybody's mind. I don't know if you remember the M&Ms contest years ago when customers chose to add the blue M&M to mix, but it was in that contest that we lost the beloved light brown M&M. It was a huge debacle in my humble opinion. Is there any chance that Lay's is going to be ditching an established flavor when one of these finalists comes out on top? Not to my knowledge, but if they do it better not be Salt & Vinegar.

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