From researching fine-dining restaurants to following the food media and industry for the latest trends, Nick Graff, vice president of culinary at Noodles World Kitchen, is striving to offer guests exciting global flavors in a comfortable presentation. Thus, the menu offers four categories of noodles: World Famous Macs, like the classic Wisconsin Mac & Cheese or innovative Zucchini Truffle Mac; Classic Noodles like the Penne Rosa; Asian Noodles like the popular Japanese Pan Noodles; and Zoodles & Other Noodles, featuring healthy and dietary restriction–friendly items like Cauliflower Rigatoni in a Light Onion Cream Sauce and Zuchetti in a garlic and wine sauce with grilled chicken. QSR spoke with Graff about the brand’s evolution and menu innovation efforts.
How has Noodles’ menu evolved over the years?
We have four categories on our menu today that have just really come out of ongoing development and looking at trends. Once a year, I put together a trend report for the executive team and we talk about what will be attractive to our guests, what we think will draw more people to us. That really dictates what we do. At one point, I think Noodles was a little more of a trendsetter. Now, I think we’re still a leader in creating items with new global flavors, but we ride what’s current more now than maybe setting a trend—which I think is a good thing. As you get bigger and you’re trying to get mass appeal from a broader audience, you want to be more on the trends that are more widely known.
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We’re trying to create interesting flavors that we can put on the noodles, because they’re really just the carrier of flavor, right? The sauces and spices are what bring everything to life.
Can you give me some examples of how the brand sets itself apart with global flavors?
I’ll start with something that’s actually on the menu today, which is our Spicy Korean Beef. It has that gochujang, fermented soy and chile paste, alongside toasted sesame and ginger. We added some dried apricot to get some sweet fruitiness. That dish has really resonated with our guests. They like that it is approachable.
The one thing we don’t try to do is be authentic. We try to bring authentic ingredients and give you those flavors, but we don’t drive the authenticity of the overall dish. The Spicy Korean Beef is a great dish because it’s got some spice to it. It’s got that gochujang, fermented background note in it. It has a little bit of authentic feel, but it doesn’t feel over the top.
We did a Pork Adobo where we created this rustic tomato sauce that had chipotles in it, toasted cumin, and lime juice. Really, it was trying to bring a Latin approach to the noodle. That was a fairly popular dish.
Right now, we’re testing what’s called Zha Jiang Mian, which is a very interesting dish. You take ground pork and cook it down with ginger, bean paste, and hoisin. All these flavors come together to create this really unique Asian bolognese. That’s a test right now for next year.
What seasonings and spices do you think will take off in the next few seasons?
We’re all trying to figure out what’s next. Middle Eastern, I think, is going to really start to surface with seasonings like turmeric, cumin, and sumac. We keep talking about harissa, but it never really catches fire. I think it actually will soon. We ran a test on a harissa dish about a year and a half ago, but it just never really resonated with the guests. I think people are probably ready for it now, however.
Another is togarashi. It’s a Japanese spice blend made with chile peppers, orange peel, and ginger. I’m seeing lots of people talk about that one right now, as well as a dried version of gochujang, called gochugaru. Basically, it’s a fermented red chile powder that’s been dried and powdered. With gochujang, you can put that in sauces; now you have a dried version that you can use as a seasoning or rub. We’ve been playing with it ourselves.