How to become a commodity board chef

by Jody Shee

Throughout Dave Woolley’s culinary life — from his three-year ACF apprenticeship at Disney World in the early 1990s through his seven-year stint in menu development with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers — he applied himself to developing relationships. He believes that is one of the most important things he did to pave the way for his current business, CD Culinary Approach, Denver, a culinary consultancy with commodity boards as his clients. He shares the type of work he does and how he got the opportunity to work with his commodity clients.

Dave Woolley photo
Chef Dave Woolley

How did you begin consulting for commodity boards?
I didn’t start with a plan to focus on commodity boards. As I began my consulting business, someone working with the California Avocado Commission encouraged me to figure out what I could do with my experience gained throughout my whole career, including my relationships with Red Robin, and turn it into doing things for the commission in foodservice. So, I began working with them to inspire other chain restaurants to think of California avocados in ways they hadn’t thought of before.

What other commodity boards and commissions have you worked for?
I have done work for the California Strawberry Commission and the National Pork Board. And currently I’m working with the California Avocado Commission, National Mango Board, National Watermelon Promotion Board and the Idaho Potato Commission.

What type of work do commodity groups want you to do for them?
Besides recipe development for their websites, almost all of them involve menu and recipe development for restaurant chains. A lot of people don’t know that commodity boards are a resource for restaurant chains to help with menu development for limited-time offers or operational how-tos. For example, a chain can’t operationally figure out how to make avocados work in-house. Well, let us come with some ideas, menu concepts and our how-to expertise.

What would you say prepared you to be effective in your position?
With my background as corporate chef for Red Robin, I come to chains with the ability to look at things from an operational point of view, not just a creative point of view. So, when I’m asked to come to a chain headquarters to present an ideation session, I ask to spend some time in the back of the house to help brand-immerse myself with chain representatives beforehand. There I look for their methods for doing things and try to develop ideas that work within their parameters. For example, they may have cooked bacon the same way forever. I try to keep steps the way they do them.

Watermelon varieties, courtesy of Watermelon Board
Watermelon varieties, courtesy of Watermelon Board

Where are some good places to develop relationships that can lead to this type of work?
Commodity boards often sponsor industry events. I got to know a lot of key people at The Flavor Experience conference and at events put on by the International Corporate Chefs Association when I was on the board. That was how I got to know the vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. Five years later, I’m doing work for them. Don’t take anyone or any conversation for granted, and make yourself available at these events.

What are the contractual nuances of working with a commodity board? Do they pay a per diem, regular salary, per event, etc.?
Every commodity board is different. You can’t say that you need to do it this way or that way. You have to be flexible to the client. But I love what I do. I get to work from home, travel and be around cool people and food all the time. I get to inspire and be inspired. I consider myself a culinary hype man.