Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In the ninth-floor conference room of a nondescript Rockville office building, a group of Whole Foods chefs are geeking out about their newest toy.

“I don’t know if we’re the first store that has a Pacojet, but we might be,” says Mid-Atlantic Culinary Coordinator Alan Morgan of the appliance that purées deep-frozen foods.

“We’re definitely the coolest,” says Colleen Conrad, who works with Morgan as Mid-Atlantic associate culinary coordinator.

The team is planning to use the gadget for a new line of vegetable and fruit “freezes,” similar to gelato, that will be sold at the juice and coffee bar at Whole Foods’ forthcoming Pentagon City store. It will be the 50th store in the region when it opens later this month. On this Wednesday afternoon, Morgan and Conrad are joined by prepared foods team member Benjamin Nola and his boss Jesse Morgans for the latest round of recipe testing.

Conrad scoops a frozen mix of strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, lime, basil, mint, and beet into Allegro Coffee cups and passes them around.

“I’m not a crazy fan of all the herbs in here,” she says. 

“Was it hydroponic basil?” Jesse Morgans asks. “We can get something cooler. Some Thai basil or… purple basil.” 

“Or less basil,” Conrad says. “Or no basil.” 

They go on to debate the mint: spearmint? Chocolate mint? Pineapple mint? The conversation then turns to the texture and how it compares to a previous freeze sample made of peanut butter, banana, jicama, and dates.

“I love the texture of that one. It’s like ice cream,” says Nola of the peanut butter concoction. He declares the berry version too grainy with too many seeds.

“That one’s trying too hard to be ice cream,” Conrad retorts. 

In many ways, conversations like these aren’t so different from the ones the chefs would have had in their previous jobs. Conrad came to Whole Foods last fall from Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, where she was executive chef, while Nola is a recent recruit from Rose’s Luxury. In the past year, Whole Foods has been building up its in-house culinary team, hiring from some of D.C.’s trendiest restaurants. Next month, Andrew Adams, also an alum of Rose’s Luxury who’s currently at The Dabney, will join the crew at their Landover, Md. commissary. He’ll focus on product development.

Whole Foods isn’t just hiring pedigreed chefs in the Mid-Atlantic region. Six months ago, the company brought on Tien Ho, who’s worked for David Chang’s Momofuku group, as its VP of culinary and hospitality, a new position. For the grocery store chain, it’s a way to further build up its culinary cred. And for the chefs, it’s a way to cook professionally without the crazy schedule. 

“After about a year at Rose’s, I was coming up on getting married and looking to have kids, and the idea of getting home at 3 in the morning wasn’t as appealing anymore,” says Nola, who’s also worked at Daikaya, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and Rogue 24. Nola was also interested in reaching more people. “As great as Rose’s is, it’s still one single restaurant in a city as opposed to 49 stores over six or seven states.”

Conrad, on the other hand, was not initially looking to leave the restaurant industry, but applied for the job anyway. Now,“I don’t think I could go back,” says the alum of Republic in Takoma Park. “It’s a really unsustainable lifestyle, and if you want to continue to have family and friends that aren’t only in that industry, then you can’t do it when you’re working 14 hours a day, six days a week.” When new stores are opening, she still might have to work from sun up to sun down, but overall, the job is much more 9-to-5.

For chefs, jobs like that are rare. “I didn’t know it existed,” Conrad says. 

The chefs have their own desks in the Rockville office—something they never expected out of a culinary career. But for the most part, they split their time between individual stores and testing recipes at the commissary kitchen in Landover. They also spend some time cooking in the makeshift kitchen in their office conference room, which primarily consists of a griddle, a sink, and a fridge. Co-workers continuously pop in to see what they’re making and to sneak bites.

Beyond the Pacojet taste test, Conrad, Nola, Morgan, and Morgans have a spread of vegetables, breads, and condiments crowded onto the kitchen island. Earlier, Nola had topped puff pastries with honey and sage ricotta, apricots, arugula, and Portuguese olive oil. For every new grocery store, the team tries to come up with one unique thing that’s not in other stores. In the Allentown, Penn., Whole Foods, the pizza bar abuts the coffee bar, so Nola was developing a grab-and-go breakfast item that could be cooked in the pizza oven. Thus the puff pastry. 

On the other end of the kitchen island, Conrad tested out lobster rolls for a seafood bar that’s coming to the store in Pentagon City. Whole Foods doesn’t have a split-top roll, so they had to look elsewhere for the bread; they ultimately settled on one from LeoNora Gourmet Bakery in Arlington. This is just one of many details that have to be worked out before the store opens. In some ways, opening a Whole Foods isn’t too different from opening a restaurant.

“A lot of those things translated that I never expected to translate,” Conrad says. “Looking at plates, looking at forks. You don’t think about those kinds of things. Building a specific menu even. When I first thought Whole Foods, I didn’t think these little venues that they have set menus. I pictured the salad bar and the hot bars.”

Not that they don’t work on the hot bars, too. After their recipe testing at the office is done, Nola and Conrad head next door to the Rockville Whole Foods store to show me what they’ve been working on. This particular Whole Foods has a room the size of a large closet that houses a serious smoker, and one of Nola’s next big projects is figuring out how to add more variety to the smoked foods bar, like smoked beets, zucchini, or turnips.

That’s another benefit Conrad and Nola have found to working for a big company with lots of resources: They have access to a lot more equipment than they would have at most restaurants. “I could never go into any restaurant and be like, ‘Let me get a tandoori [oven],’” Conrad says.

The grocery store is also looking to restaurants for inspiration on what’s popular or trendy. And with standard daytime hours, the team actually has time to check out the dining scene. 

“When we were working in restaurants, people would always be like, ‘Oh, where do you go out to eat?’” Conrad says. “I didn’t. I was working, and when I wasn’t working, I was sleeping.”

Every now and then, the team will take field trips—which Whole Foods pays for—for research. For example, Conrad, Morgan, and another colleague recently took a two-day trip to New York to scope out Korean fried chicken and all-day-breakfast spots. “I think we ate at like 16 places,” Alan Morgan says. They’ve done similar tours for pizza, burgers, and milkshakes. (“Franklin Fountain, Philadelphia, hands down, that’s the only place you need to go,” Morgan says of shakes.)

Morgan also proudly points out that they started serving Nashville hot chicken just before KFC introduced it early last year. “Now everyone’s doing that,” he says. Next, “we’re going to do Nashville cauliflower.”

The way the chefs approach recipes for Whole Foods, however, is a little different than the way they might do things in a restaurant kitchen. For starters, the skill level of cooks at each store typically isn’t the same as it would be at a restaurant like Rose’s Luxury. Cooks are also working fewer hours, which equals less prep time. That means every recipe has to be translated for someone who might not know what, say, a brunoise is. “You don’t have a team of prep cooks. You have one team member working on this one spot,” Conrad says. “How much can they get done? What can you do to make a good product that can be made in a reasonable amount of time?” 

Nola adds that, in a restaurant, the chef can have a one-on-one relationship with the cooks. “I can say to someone, ‘Put me together something with shallots and asparagus, and dice this and julienne that, and I know they’ll go take care of it.” But with so many stores, he can’t go in and show every employee exactly what he’s looking for. Instead, he relies on step-by-step photos or simplified recipes. “Maybe instead of whipping cream cheese and goat cheese together, maybe that’s already prepared for them and then it’s brought in,” Nola says. 

The volume of food produced is also on a completely different scale. Nola recently helped change up the sauce for the pizza at the grocery’s pizza station. Not only do they have to find a recipe they like, but the team has to find a farmer who can supply 50,000 pounds of tomatoes per month. “It’s not like I can just call my farmer and be like, ‘I need a case of tomatoes,’” Nola says. 

In fact, chefs come to Whole Foods when they don’t have time to get that case of tomatoes from a farmer. “Sunday morning, you ran out of something, and it’s like, ‘Oh crap, what am I going to do?’ And our first reaction was, ‘Who’s running to Whole Foods?’” Conrad says of her restaurant days. “A lot of chefs shop at Whole Foods… so of course why wouldn’t people come work here?”