This Freshly Chef Is Inspired by a Good Challenge, Jalapeños and…The Muppets

Craig Emmons, a Culinary Development Chef at Freshly. | Credit: Craig Emmons
Craig Emmons, a Culinary Development Chef at Freshly | Credit: Craig Emmons

“You have to eat so why not enjoy what you’re eating? Why not have a great experience with your food?”

This is Craig Emmons’ motto and he’s stayed true to it throughout his 15-year (and counting) career in food, which has taken him from culinary school to working in production kitchens and setting up award-winning restaurants.

We caught up with Emmons in our Arizona facility, where he’s been a Culinary Development Chef since 2016, and chatted about why he always keeps jalapeños in his fridge and the impact he’s making at Freshly:

Q: Who, growing up, encouraged your love of cooking?

A: The Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show.” He was always so happy and made cooking look like a lot of fun. My parents were also good cooks and encouraged me to help them in the kitchen.

Q: Where do you find culinary inspiration?

A: Everywhere—various cultures and cuisines that I have been exposed to, talking to people, and reading about trends. I’ll get on the Internet and search for random ingredients to see what people are doing with them, and also explore different foods and cooking methods. I don’t follow a lot of famous chefs, but Steven Raichlen and Bobby Flay have definitely influenced me over the years. 

Q: What’s one thing you always keep in your fridge?

A: Jalapeños. I like all kinds of chiles, but I always have jalapeños on hand. I make a lot of salsas and put jalapeños on everything. I even grow them in my garden so they are always fresh and ready. 

My love of salsas led me to develop an al pastor sauce with guajillo and ancho chiles at Freshly. The chiles are mixed with lime, orange, grapefruit, and pineapple juice, resulting in a flavor that’s bright, earthy, salty, and sweet all at the same time.

Jalapeños | Credit: Shutterstock
Jalapeños | Credit: Shutterstock

Q: What’s your favorite cuisine?

A:  Latin American cuisine is one of the loves of my life. It has a very bright and happy tone to it, which I like. But, more than that, I like that it’s flavorful and versatile. This passion for Latin American cuisine inspired Freshly’s Chicken Chimichurri. Chimichurri is one of my favorite salsas—it’s bright and full of flavor. It also embodies a lot of what we like here at Freshly in that it’s healthy, fresh, and made from natural ingredients.

Q: What do you think are the most overrated and underrated ingredients? 

A: Kobe or Wagyu beef are definitely overrated. People go crazy for it and they don’t even realize most of the time that they aren’t eating the genuine article. It’s super expensive, but tastes just like a mouthful of butter or fat.

Underrated, I would say salt. People don’t understand its health benefits. The essential minerals in salt act as important electrolytes in the body, and help with fluid balance, nerve transmission, and muscle function. Most people just throw salt on food without trying it first and end up ruining their meal. But, when used properly, salt can help the flavors of a dish come alive. Salt can be your best friend or your worst enemy when cookingit’s all in how you use it. When used properly, it can help the flavors of a dish come alive—it’s an important culinary tool for changing food texture, too. 

Different types of salt | Credit: Freshly
Different types of salt | Credit: Shutterstock

Q: Has eating healthy always been important to you or has it been something that evolved?

A: I’ve been associated with healthy eating throughout my career because I loved proving people wrong when they said that healthy food can’t taste good or be fun. Being in the culinary industry, eating is a big part of the fun and you are trying everything. But what we do at Freshly has taught me a lot about the effects of food on the body. Having injured myself repeatedly over the years, I’ve found that the removal of inflammatory ingredients has improved my quality of life. Learning that from Carter when I first joined Freshly really blew me away!

Q: What led you to Freshly?

A: My path to Freshly came by way of my love of the concept. It was an opportunity to work in my favorite area of the food industry and join a fast-growing company with great values that was reaching a large audience. I love the health aspect of what we do and it provides me with constant challenges. Being here pushes my limits and forces me to think in new, creative ways so I can provide our customers with a great culinary experience, while maintaining Freshly’s health and wellness goals.

Q: You’ve been credited with creating some of Freshly’s most popular meals. What inspired a couple of them?

A: The customer experience is behind everything I do. I want to give people a great experience around their dinner table the way I’ve always had—that’s essential to me.

The Chicken & Rice Pilaf was one of my first dishes. We wanted to create a meal that had broad appeal. So, for me, a chicken pilaf was the way to go. It was a dish I remembered from my childhood—my grandfather introduced me to it and I always found it to be comforting. But we put a Freshly twist on it by using almond butter instead of butter and flour in the sauce. It’s been on the menu for about two years, which speaks to the way it connects with our customers, and I’m very proud of that.  

Chicken and Rice Pilaf | Credit: Freshly
Chicken and Rice Pilaf | Credit: Freshly

The other dish I’m really pleased with is our Cod Cakes. I used to make different versions of it in my restaurants and it was always a good seller. Until we introduced this meal, Freshly had a hard time getting traction with fish because it doesn’t always microwave well. Not only is this dish fun to eat, but it’s also flavorful and approachable for both fish lovers and people who are trying to introduce more fish into their diet. 

Q: How do you ensure that Freshly meals are healthy while remaining tasty?

A: I start out by making the meal however I want to, while keeping Freshly’s values in mind. Usually, that gets me close. Then I examine the nutritional information and overall appearance and flavor of the dish, after which I chip away at it until I find a happy medium. It’s like sculpting: you start with a block and chip away the pieces until the sculpture reveals itself. Sometimes you are more successful than other times, but that’s how it works. You have to be persistent and keep at it until you end up where you want.

Q: What’s your favorite Freshly meal and why? 

A: The Cauliflower-Shell Bolognese and Chicken & Rice Pilaf are two dishes I never get sick of. I love Italian food and the Bolognese is really filling when you are hungry. It’s also very warm, comforting and flavorful, all of which I like in my food. The pilaf strikes me as a very wholesome meal, with the right balance of protein, veggies, and complex carbohydrates in the form of a wild, red and brown rice blend. 

Cauliflower-Shell Bolognese | Credit: Freshly
Cauliflower-Shell Bolognese | Credit: Freshly

Q: Why do you think it’s important to make healthy eating easy and accessible to all people?

A: There is so much information out there and it can be hard to decipher what’s best for you. A lot of people also don’t know how to cook in healthy ways for themselves or they’re not willing to take the time to learn how to do it. When you create convenience, you increase your chances of reaching more people. That’s why I love being a part of Freshly: We are doing something that is special and can help a lot of people.