April 05, 2024  

How a PepsiCo research chef turns food trends into inventive flavors

Using his culinary talents and skills for discovering unexpected ingredients, Pat Clifford helps cook up surprising new foods for consumers around the world.

Pat Clifford has cooked in rarefied locations such as a Michelin-starred restaurant and a British Royal Navy ship, but the PepsiCo Principal R&D Chef prefers sharing his creations with a broader audience. “What makes this job wonderful,” he says, “is that the food I cook could be enjoyed by millions of people around the world.” Plus, he says, at 6-foot-2, he’s much too tall for a ship’s galley.

So, after more than a decade working in the restaurant industry across three continents, Pat is using his skill as a chef to innovate with food for PepsiCo. That can mean developing inventive flavors for iconic brands or dreaming up entirely new chips made from plant proteins such as chickpeas. “We’re trying to see how we can bring a little more joy to the consumer experience,” says Pat, who is based in Leicester, United Kingdom.

The desire to build those experiences has taken Pat all over the world. He’s traveled to Scotland’s Hebrides islands to dive for seaweed for Off The Eaten Path and Monterrey, Mexico, to develop a chile and lime spice for Walkers Sensations. He’s worked with global food chain YO! Sushi to create a Doritos-crusted version of a traditional Japanese onigiri. More recently, he partnered with famed Spanish chef Quique Dacosta to make a new line of flavors for Lay’s Gourmet inspired by some of his most well-known dishes, like truffled egg with potato cream.

Pat Clifford cooking in one of PepsiCo's kitchens

Pat Clifford cooking in one of PepsiCo's kitchens. 

“With clever technique and technology, we can take the food trends that are capturing people’s attention and incorporate them into our brands,” Pat says. He taps into his culinary expertise to prepare new recipes, deconstruct dishes to build flavor profiles and collaborate with PepsiCo’s R&D teams to craft seasoning blends. “We do a lot of tasting, too,” Pat says. “We're always trying to figure out, what are the key elements of flavor we’re trying to capture? It’s a very time-intensive process, but through it, we've been able to develop some really wonderful food that you can find around the world.”

And Pat and his colleagues aren’t just focused on flavor; they pay close attention to nutritional content, as well. They’re using their proficiency in the kitchen to evolve PepsiCo’s recipes so they are lower in sodium and added sugar. “Responding to the consumer demand for more positive choices is at the forefront,” Pat says, and he’s finding creative ways to offer them.

With clever technique and technology, we can take the food trends that are capturing people’s attention and incorporate them into our brands.

Take sodium reduction, for example. Pat is exploring ways he can lower the amount of salt in a recipe without losing that savory flavor. “Adjusting when we add ingredients during the cooking process, ramping up other taste components like sweet and umami, and incorporating preparation methods such as smoking and grilling are all ways we can change the perception of salt in food,” Pat says. “So by applying these techniques, we can lower sodium content without compromising taste, which we know is something consumers want.”

That consumer-centric mentality sits at the core of what Pat and his colleagues do. “The consumer is our guiding light,” he says. “We’re really trying to get into their heads and understand: What is it that you want, from a snacking point of view?”

Pat even considers this question in his own home, where he experiments with dishes such as potato chip-infused mac and cheese for his kids. But no matter who Pat is cooking for, the objective is always the same: “To make something in the kitchen that when people eat it, they smile and they keep smiling,” he says. “When you get to see people taste a dish you helped conceive or a crisp flavor you helped imagine, and they’re enjoying it — it really doesn’t get much better than that.”