Catching up with Chef Mark Petchenik

Hemp, It’s What’s For Dinner: Why Chef Mark Petchenik Sees Hemp as the Super-ingredient of the Future

From running his own restaurant in Mexico City to serving as Corporate Executive Chef for some of the biggest names in packaged food, Chef Mark Petchenik’s impressive career has been dedicated to understanding and driving trends in food service. Now he’s turning his talented eye (and taste buds) to hemp foods here at Manitoba Harvest. We sat down with him to talk about how his journey led him here, and why he’s so excited about the growing popularity of hemp with both home cooks and restaurant menu-crafters alike.

You’ve had quite an impressive career in the food and dining industry. Can you give us a brief rundown?

I got interested in cooking after my first year at college, when I realized my passion for staying in school wasn’t nearly as great as my passion for doing anything else. Cooking was something that kept calling me back. I got a great job at a restaurant in Chicago for a couple of years, and eventually the owner/chef said there was no more room for me to be promoted in his kitchen. Considering how young I was, he suggested I look into culinary school. I applied and got accepted at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

After culinary school, I worked at a couple of different restaurant groups for about 16 years. I started vacationing in Mexico during that time and fell in love with the country and culture. When I was ready to start my own restaurant business, I moved to Mexico City and started a restaurant and construction company, helping others open restaurants. Eventually the thrill started to wear off and I went back to Chicago. After that I served as the first corporate chef for Land O’Lakes for 16 years, focusing on innovation and new product development. Now I’m working as a food service consultant with Manitoba Harvest.

What drew you to Manitoba Harvest?

At first it was primarily the people. Everyone at the company who I spoke with gave me a good feeling. I got the feeling like this is a group of people and a company that works in a manner that I can be very comfortable and successful in.

Then as a chef, going into my kitchen here at home and starting to work with their ingredients, within the first day of diving in I understood why Manitoba Harvest is so excited about what they do. We couldn’t ask for a better time in the timeline of food to be introducing people to these ingredients. Even before the pandemic, but especially now, many of us are looking for healthier ways to live. And you just have to put a spoonful of hemp hearts in your mouth to realize they taste really good.

For a chef to get a new ingredient that’s so easy to work with and offers differentiation, which is as valuable as the quality of the food itself, is exciting. People in the restaurant and food service industry like having something different or unique that may be new to people. It gives people a reason to be excited about what you’re doing at your restaurant.

What does your role look like at Manitoba Harvest?

I cover the broad category of all the culinary questions: How do we get this idea into a finished recipe, teach people how to use the ingredients, and internally teach our sales staff how to share it with a food service audience? My role includes being a part of training sessions and designing something that chefs want to work with. There’s something to be said for being able to speak chef-speak. We use a vocabulary specific to our industry.

Chefs aren’t always asking for a recipe, it’s more like, “give me an idea and I’ll take it from there.” I try to break those barriers down and offer a different approach of looking at hemp hearts.

What do you want chefs to know about hemp hearts as an ingredient?

I talk about how they have a nutty flavor, and if you toast them right out the bag they become even nuttier. One thing I recommend to chefs and home cooks is to think about where you use nuts in your recipes. You can easily replace nuts with hemp hearts, and take something that might be an allergen for some people and make it an allergy-free option on the menu.

The other side of the coin that’s equally important and impressive is the nutritional value of hemp hearts. I’ve always been a fan of pancakes, both sweet and savory. My favorite new recipe is taking whatever buttermilk pancake recipe you usually make and adding hemp hearts (toasted or not) to it. Now, nutritionally, it’s like eating a pancake and a sunny-side-up egg. To be able to capture that much protein in items that historically have been low in protein or not had much nutritional standing is powerful. No one eats pancakes for their nutritional value, but now they can.

Any other favorite recipes or uses of hemp hearts?

Another recipe I like is pesto sauce with hemp hearts in place of the pine nuts. So again we replaced a common allergen. Pine nuts are also very expensive and with margins being as slim as they are in the restaurant industry, anytime a chef can create savings without sacrificing quality, that’s attractive. So there’s two motivating factors to do pesto with hemp hearts instead of nuts.

Grain bowls are also very popular right now, and we’re creating concepts where the grain isn’t a grain — it’s hemp hearts. Nutritionally, that far exceeds what a grain bowl could do.

Also, it’s not just vegetarians and vegans who are interested in a plant-forward diet. Many meat eaters are looking to scale back their meat consumption. There’s a fast-food chain that offers a a 30% mushroom, 70% beef burger, and that inspired us to develop a patty that’s part beef, part hemp hearts. Nutritionally it’s a much better offering than 100% beef, and unlike some of the other vegetarian add-ins people are using, there’s no moisture issue with hemp hearts. They’re not like mushrooms or spinach where you have all this water in your patty. Hemp hearts are perfect little pieces that resemble ground beef and whatever mix you decide on (we’ve gone as high as 50/50), it holds together well, and the cooking procedure is identical so there’s no new training required of the cooks.

On the baking side, there’s also a ton of opportunity for hemp hearts. Muffins, cookies, bars, energy bites — all of those end up nutritionally higher than the standard or traditional versions when you sub in hemp hearts for some of the flour.

Do you see hemp hearts catching on with more home cooks and chefs?

I do think it’s catching on. That was true before, but now Covid has pushed even more people into looking at how to have a healthier diet at home. Some trends start in food service and move to retail, and some go the other way. This is one of those. It started in retail and now it’s making the transition into restaurants. Chefs also go home and have families and live through consumer trends just like food service trends, and the popularity, ease of use and nutritional benefits of hemp hearts have restaurant operators thinking, “How can I bring this great ingredient to my menu?”

The sustainability story of hemp and how it interacts with the ground it’s growing in is also a pretty cool thing. There aren’t many new ingredients that make you realize how big the opportunity is for it to be incorporated into menus and home kitchens. All around, hemp is worth the hype.