Ben Pasternak, CEO and president of Defiant Food Group, reveals all about his business, which offers culinary innovation and precision food products for the foodservice and retail industries
I spent the better part of two decades studying the process of sous-vide – a method of cooking food in an air-tight container in temperature-controlled water – studying it from a food development, packaging development, and distribution standpoint within the US.
Along with my business partner, we built the largest sous-vide operation in North America outside of Cincinnati and ran that operation for about six years. We then determined that we needed to develop regional food operations, and service up-and-coming store chains that were focused on making major changes in the ways they serve their customers.
We wanted to stay true to the real fundamentals of sous-vide, which are to keep the cell structure of the protein or vegetable intact to maintain its nutritional value. A lot of businesses today claim to cook sous-vide but are simply cooking foods under pressure using vacuum packaging. In doing so, they overcook their products and release the food’s nutritional value.
Most proteins, after being cooked sous-vide, maintain about four times the nutritional impact versus those prepared using a traditional cooking method. We wanted to keep that intact as health was a significant part of our foundational block.
We launched in 2019, right before COVID-19, and had a challenging first year. We were initially focused on the food service market but then had to pivot to e-commerce because of the pandemic. Fortunately, we pivoted successfully. Food service is now coming back, and we are experiencing fantastic growth. We will soon branch out into retail.
We provide fully cooked sous-vide proteins that are customized to a client’s operation. For example, we will prepare a chicken breast according to specifications, whether it be used for a salad or sandwich. We’ll cook the chicken breast to a specific temperature for salads, and we’ll customize the seasonings to the flavor profile requested. We will cook that same chicken breast slightly differently if it’s going to be used in a sandwich.
Anyone in e-commerce, food service, and retail can benefit from our products. Even the convenience store market is starting to look to us, as healthy fast food grows in popularity. From an e-commerce perspective, most of our clients are focused on grass-fed beef or antibiotic-free chicken and have claims on how the animals were raised. They’re also conscious of how the product is cooked.
Our business strives to help those who are busy but want to provide healthy, nutritious meals for their families. Our focus is specifically on health; people gravitate towards us for the nutritional simplicity.
There are three major steps that happen in the manufacturing facility: we prepare the products, cook the products, and then we manage the cold chain of the products. On the prepping side, we do everything from a tumbler marinade to thermodynamically bringing down the temperature of the product and thermoforming it to a very specific millibar pressure.
We can even sear a product, making it look like it just came off a grill or flat top, and give it that grilled flavor.
And then we move into the sous-vide system, which circulates water around the packages and controls temperatures within about a 10th of a degree of accuracy. This system also chills the products. After this, we go through a series of high-speed freezing processes to bring the temperature down and manage the products into the cold chain.
We get asked to do vegetables and plant-based products very often. However, the economics of using sous-vide in the traditional cooking of vegetables is difficult. This is because the shelf-life of a frozen vegetable is not very long. If you were to freeze the product, it would break down rather quickly. Because of Europe’s regionality, the distribution of vegetables works well in the retail and vegetarian space, but it doesn't work that well in the United States in any of the large supply categories.
I own another company called AuraPea, which produces plant-based proteins. We use sous-vide to make a fat replacement and flavor carrier that we use in our burgers, pepperoni, bacon, and other products. We’re getting ready to launch those products in the fall.
Our proteins come from all over the world. We get most of our poultry and pork domestically, but our beef comes from Australia and New Zealand. We bring in some products from South America, too. When sourcing our proteins, we highly scrutinize animal welfare – it’s a top priority for us. Between 35 and 40% of our proteins are organic.