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Lou Direito interview: KFC's development chef on the challenge of chicken, and the Colonel's heavily-guarded secret recipe

Direito has worked in the food industry for 17 years and oversees the development of products including dipped bites, the Godfather burger and pulled chicken

Oscar Quine
Friday 17 April 2015 14:14 BST
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Direito says: 'The secret recipe is in a vault in Kentucky. Only two people know the combination and they're never allowed to go on a plane together'
Direito says: 'The secret recipe is in a vault in Kentucky. Only two people know the combination and they're never allowed to go on a plane together' (Travis Hodges)

What does your role entail?

I'm not a trained chef by background. I come up with initial concept ideas of what a product could be and then I work with the team here to make that real and come up with the actual finished product. We do quite a lot of prototyping, so we'll start with an initial idea, say pulled chicken, and then spend time with suppliers and consumers fleshing that out. I think a development role in a food organisation is a great place to be – you get to clean the ideas up and then create them and taste them along the way. It's a really nice job to have.

But surely there are only so many things you can do with fried chicken?

To be honest, that's why I joined KFC. If you think with a supermarket, you have maybe 20,000 products on the shelf and someone, somewhere, is going to come in and pick up your product – it's not that difficult really. Whereas at KFC, we deal with chicken. That's much more of a challenge – how do you keep being relevant to customers?

Where do you look for inspiration? Do you find yourself watching Jamie Oliver thinking, 'Ohh, we could do that...'?

I think the great thing about being in the UK is that there's such a love affair with food and it's not necessarily gourmet food. It's accessible food – a lot of street food – so we spend time going out and about. We constantly look for what's coming up from the grassroots in terms of those big trends. It's always good to watch what the big chefs are doing – the Delias, the Jamies – because they're relevant to a lot of our customers. But what we increasingly do is look for smaller operators who are doing really interesting things and just watch and learn. We're thinking about doing a gourmet burger at the moment.

It's essentially an American product. How do you adapt things for Brits?

The UK palate is more into spice. We have the zinger chicken on our menu and the hot wings do phenomenally well. There's not such a love affair [with spice] in the US but if you put something spicy on our menu it absolutely flies out.

What do you make of so-called posh fried chicken? There's a place round the corner from me that does half a fried chicken for £25...

It's incredible, isn't it? There's such a trend for American-style foods in the UK, and particularly in London. Lots of people at the moment are doing buttermilk-fried chicken. What it shows is that people really love fried chicken – you can't get away from that. When it's done well, there's nothing like it. I've eaten in a lot of these places and, as far as I'm concerned, KFC is still the benchmark.

So apparently there are 11 ingredients in the Colonel's secret seasoning. Do you know what they are?

No, it is a real secret. I think you can identify some of the elements – there's lovely dairy notes and different herbs. But it's interesting when you go and Google it and see what people are guessing. The recipe is in a vault in Kentucky. Only two people know the combination and they're never allowed to go on a plane together. As much as people try to replicate it, they can't.

But McDonald's recently revealed what goes into their special sauce...

I honestly don't know why you'd give such a good secret away. Some things should be kept secret.

What's your favourite thing on the KFC menu?

I'd probably say the classic chicken on the bones.

And at the end of a big night on the town?

Probably a fillet burger. It's a classic. Occasionally a tower-up version with a hash brown in it. Sometimes carbs on carbs has to be done.

Biography

Lou Direito, aged 40, has worked in the food industry for 17 years. Joining KFC in 2008 as their Innovation Manager, she has overseen the development of products including dipped bites, the Godfather burger and pulled chicken. She lives in Surrey with her husband and two daughters

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