Last month, Waitrose launched its biggest own label range of 2021, with The Levantine Table made up of 120 food and drink products inspired by the diverse and vibrant culture of the Middle East.
Developed entirely during lockdown, from concept through to delivery; the range showcases traditional staples and ingredients from the cuisines of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus – with plenty of modern, innovative twists along the way.
These innovations include the vegetarian-friendly Shakshuka Egg (a Middle Eastern take on a Scotch egg with spiced tomato, pepper, bulgur and a soft poached egg), and a Turkish Delight Ice Cream.
Since the launch on April 12th, social media has been awash with praise, with Waitrose & Partner’s own-brand director Natalie Mitchell hailing The Levantine Table as one of their most exciting launches to date, and Zoe Simons – Waitrose senior brand and innovation development chef – revealing that it was one of her favourite projects to work on.
Zoe joined the Waitrose team in 2017 following a stint as a development chef at Greencore. Before that, she was at Bakkavor, where she first cut her teeth in the retail development world.
She spent two years at the latter manufacturer as a junior development chef, working primarily on Waitrose own-brand pizza NPD, innovation and EPD.
And, as I’m discovering with many other development chefs in UK retail, she had left behind the restaurant game to take the junior role with Bakkavor.
“That [pizza at Bakkavor] was actually my window in,” Zoe told me. “I had taken a pay cut to start in the kitchen at Bakkavor, and my whole family wondered why I’d gone from a sous chef in a beautiful restaurant [in Essex] to go and ‘collect ingredients in a factory’!
“At the time I didn’t really have an answer, other than I was sure it would pay off in time. I worked for Waitrose as my landing account there which put me in great stead for my position now.”
Zoe’s career choice has certainly paid off, with an appearance on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016 one of many highlights as she progressed to become a senior figure within the Waitrose food and drink development hierarchy.
I spoke to Zoe before the launch of The Levantine Table to discuss opportunities in UK food and drink trends (established and emerging), with the prospect of exploring the wider reaches of fermentation among her areas of interest going forward.
Zoe Simons on… Fermentation
“My job is to begin the innovation journey and point our product developers in the right direction in terms of new ingredients or new trends that we’ve seen – and bring them to life.
“[Fermentation] is definitely on our agenda. We’re already delving into the world of gut health, which is really exciting.
“We launched a new range of gut health-focused products in January – Waitrose Gut Health, with kefirs, granolas, yoghurts and juices – and there’s definitely stuff coming up, I’d say.
“I think people are coming to the table on it – you could see it on social media during lockdown. People are definitely starting to discover the art of fermentation and see the benefits.
“I remember starting to look at kimchi in 2013 and now we stock a fresh kimchi brand, which is fantastic!”
Zoe Simons on… Vegan
“From our perspective, when I work on vegan, I try not to make it too niche. From our research and from our analysts, customers don’t want to feel like they’re missing out.
“With vegan, we are very lucky we have a great nutritional team and technical team. It’s very easy I think with vegan products to forget about certain aspects because you are so intent on creating flavour. But that’s just not the case with our products – it’s all equally important.
“There’s no point giving a customer a really delicious product which is actually super high in salt, or super high in fat. Finding the right balance is absolutely top of my agenda when it comes to vegan.
Zoe Simons on… Plant-based fish
“It’s definitely something I think a lot of people have been looking at because there’s been so much focus on meat alternatives – it’s everywhere, you can’t get away from it!
“Our vegan crisp-crumbed fishless goujons have been made with jackfruit and banana blossom, giving it a great texture. We’ve got oyster mushrooms in there as well, and they’re awesome. It must be about a year ago that we launched them – COVID has messed up my perception of time completely!
Zoe Simons on… Shio koji
“It’s really amazing. If you look at it on a basic level, it’s gluten-free soy sauce – if you were really going to take it down to its core. But it’s got this incredible ability to soften meat proteins, you can add it to brines – it’s got this power where if you were to add it to something like chicken, it would make it more ‘chickeny’, so to speak.
“It’s really awesome and it’s right at the top of my list. It’s going to be a really cool ingredient and I can already see it playing a big part in the next few years.”
Zoe Simons on… Mushrooms
“People are really delving into the different textures and firmness you can get from different varieties of mushrooms. And they’re fantastic for absorbing flavour.
“You have to work really hard to inject flavour into ingredients that don’t want to absorb things, but mushrooms are one of those ingredients you can make a really big impact with. And 9/10 times it will deliver on the texture and mouthfeel you’re looking for as well.
“Martyn Lee, our executive chef, knows a lot about mushrooms. He’s worked extensively on vegan and he’s been introducing me to new varieties that I haven’t played around with before.
“I think it’s a really interesting area, especially for natural, vegetable-based vegan products.”
Zoe Simons on… Keto
“There have been talks about keto in the UK for so long. I just find customers are going less for strict diet regimes – we’ve seen a reduction in calorie-controlled diets. I think people are more likely to, for instance, go vegan rather than go directly for a calorie-controlled diet.
“I just think people are becoming more aware about integrating health into their daily diets rather than going to extremes such as doing something like keto.”
Zoe Simons on… Low & No
“I have heard of [Kin Euphorics] – I really like their packaging, I haven’t tried it, but it sounds really exciting.
“We do a fair amount of non-alcoholic drinks and beverages. We do an incredible low alcohol cider – it’s fantastic. It was my go-to pre-COVID, if I was driving or pacing myself, as it’s less than 1%. It’s delicious and tastes just like real cider.
“We also stock a non-alcoholic negroni, which is a really cool product and I haven’t seen any other supermarkets stock it.”