As head chef for Panda Express, Jimmy Wang is tasked with creating dishes that will win over diners at more than 2,500 locations worldwide. All the while, the chain’s executive director of culinary innovation and his team follow Panda’s menu mantra: “Chinese Flavors with American Tastes.”
The Taiwan-born Wang talked to Restaurant Business on a recent episode of the Menu Feed podcast right before the start of Lunar New Year on Jan. 22—a holiday that holds special importance for his family and Panda Express. He shares the top takeaways from our conversation.
Don’t overlook opportunities to forge connections
After graduating from culinary school and working in several hotels and restaurants, Wang opened his own place in 2006 called Hot Stuff Cafe. It was located close to the headquarters of Panda Express in Rosemead, Calif., and “a number of quintessential Panda Express people were customers,” he said. They liked Wang’s food and cooking style and hired him as a consultant on several projects.
He impressed the higher-ups and eventually, the chef was asked to design the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, a restaurant location that serves as a test site for menu items. In 2014, he was hired on staff.
Develop every dish with a story that ties into Chinese and American culture
Wang has a strong commitment to his Chinese roots, and every Panda Express menu item can trace its story back to its origin to a region in China. On the American side, he and his team try to infuse the melting pot traditions of American culture into menu development. And they always make sure the dishes are approachable.
“People in Tennessee have to enjoy it as much as people in California,” Wang said.
Create a live laboratory to take an dish from idea to launch
The Panda Express Innovation Kitchen that Wang spearheaded is still going strong, and serves as a lab where ideas are sparked, developed, tested and scaled up.
“Once an idea is ready, we preview it with guests at the lab location,” said Wang. “It can be on the menu for as little as three weeks or up to three months. We solicit feedback, use our learnings to make it better and keep refining it until taste, texture, color and appeal are all on target.”
When a dish is ready “to leave the nest,” it is then tried out in multiple units to make sure it can be executed on a grand scale. Then it hits the menu chainwide.
Keep exploring to expand culinary horizons
Strong culinary team bonds are forged in the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen, but Wang sees top results when “innovation occurs at the 100% level.” And the best way to do that is offsite, away from the job. So he organized an offsite chef camp that he and his team will participate in this June.
“First, it inspires us with ideas and creativity. Then we translate that inspiration into innovation,” he said. “The goal is to create a library of dishes that we can bring back—some will get on the menu right away, and others can be kept close at hand.”
But even before the team heads to chef camp, Wang and three others are traveling to Taiwan at the end of February for a whirlwind tasting trip.
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