McCormick's Aebi aids global sales


April 26, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Kurt J. Aebi, the corporate chef at McCormick & Co. Inc., has a thing about sheep.

In his office at the company's research and development in Hunt Valley you will see pictures of flocks; in the middle of his work area is a gelatinous substance in the form of a lamb; in his pockets, he carries pictures of the sheep that he keeps at his Hunt Valley farm.

And one of his favorite stories is about how a field of parsley, painstakingly grown in Ireland, was wiped out by marauding sheep that devoured the entire crop.

Why this fixation on sheep?

He leans over, as if to impart some deep dark secret, and whispers, "I like lamb chops."

Mr. Aebi's playfulness about sheep reflects his creative instincts that have led to his job as McCormick's first professionally trained chef -- a position where he shepherds McCormick's worldwide product development.

A plump, exuberant man with a handlebar mustache, the 50-year-old native of Switzerland has been McCormick's corporate development chef for the last five years after spending more than a decade at Nestle S.A., the giant Swiss food company.

While many of the 68 workers in McCormick's corporate research and development operation are involved in more arcane matters such as dehydration and food preservation, Mr. Aebi is assigned to experiment with new product ideas and to encourage experimentation in McCormick's far-flung global operation.

"He's extremely creative, but he also knows how to make commercially viable products, and that's the unique thing about Kurt," said Marshall Myers, McCormick's vice president of research and development. "There are a lot of creative chefs, but they wouldn't have the foggest idea how you make it in a plant and how much you sell it for."

One of Mr. Aebi's most notable achievements so far has been the introduction of a new pepper steak sauce, which is being sold in Britain, Finland, Canada and Australia, and in test markets in seven U.S. cities.

Showing his whimsical side, Mr. Aebi first introduced the sauce to company executives in 1989 at a 100th anniversary dinner in a bottle sporting the likeness of then-corporate Chairman Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr.

Mr. Aebi is also working on something else that should be recognized as a milestone 10 years from now -- but it's too secret to talk about, Mr. Myers said.

Besides coming up with his creations, Mr. Aebi is responsible for the cross-fertilization of ideas among McCormick's 12 divisions. He does this each year by sending the company's new products to McCormick's foreign outposts, which put their particular twists on the items.

When he began this five years ago, he sent out 45 products. Now he sends a package with 165 products weighing 78 pounds. "It makes me so proud," Mr. Aebi said.

He got his start in the chef business in the early 1960s when he became an apprentice in a ritzy restaurant in his hometown of Zurich. He chose to follow in his mother's footsteps, who operated a working-class restaurant, rather than his father, who was a building contractor. "The last thing I wanted to do was going around building," he said.

After working his way through various hotels, restaurants and a cruise line, he and his brother bought and operated a hotel and restaurant on top of a Swiss mountain in 1973, where he stayed for five years.

"I made a load of money, but the problem was I just didn't want to die on top of a mountain," he said. "I felt there must be other things in life than this."

In 1978 he joined Nestle, and during the next 10 years spent time in Ireland -- where he met up with the parsley-eating sheep -- Australia, Chicago and finally in Newcastle, England.

While in Australia in the mid-1980s, he caught McCormick's eye for his various cream and caramel mixes that are used in some of the finer restaurants, Mr. Aebi said.

When McCormick first approached him, he turned the company down, saying he had a good job in sunny Australia. But then he was transferred to Newcastle, and things weren't quite so pleasant. "You only had sunshine there three times during the year," he said.

When McCormick came around again in 1988, he was more receptive and decided to leave Nestle after visiting Hunt Valley. "McCormick is more like a family," Mr. Aebi said. "A person can make a difference at McCormick."

This informal atmosphere was evident when McCormick Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bailey A. Thomas took up Mr. Aebi's offhand invitation to come down to his kitchen for a cooking session recently. "We cooked up a storm," he said.

After decades of moving around, Mr. Aebi said he has put roots down at his 10-acre farm in Hunt Valley with his wife Marge, their 180-pound Rottweiler/St. Bernard -- and, of course, his flock of sheep.

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