Similar to potato marketing efforts in the U.S., a trade delegation representing Washington and Oregon potato growers targeted chefs in November on their third trip to Southeast Asia.
“Our focus this time was on showing high-end restaurants and casinos what they can do with potatoes,” said Bill Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Potato Commission.
“Having a chef on our commission and on the trip really made an impact. A chef-to-chef talk is very different than an ag commissioner trying to talk to chefs.”
The Oregon commission recruited chef Leif Eric Benson with that strategy in mind. State law requires all public commissions in Oregon to include at least one at-large member of the public, and Brewer said it was a no brainer decision to seek out Benson for that role.
As executive chef for Mt. Hood’s Timberline Lodge ski resort for 31 years, Benson had the resume the commission wanted. He has more than 25 years as a board member for the Cordon Bleu culinary program and was the 2010 Oregon Chef of the Year.
Benson took two suitcases of cooking tools for demonstrations at restaurants, grocery stores and cooking schools.
Karen Bonaudi, assistant executive director for the Washington State Potato Commission, said part of the challenge of marketing fresh U.S. potatoes for exports is to introduce other cultures to their versatility. She said Benson focused on sharing techniques, rather than specific recipes.
The 16-member trade mission included four growers, two each from Washington and Oregon, as well as officials from the two state’s agriculture departments and members of the potato commissions.
They visited Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau in China and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
“This wasn’t a business writing trip,” said Bonaudi. “We targeted areas where we had previous relationships we wanted to build on.”
Brewer said potatoes are not a particularly hard sell in Southeast Asia, but business relationships there do take time to develop.
“That’s how the Asians work,” Brewer said. “They have to get to know you and know that you value them as business partners.
“Southeast Asia has a good perception of the U.S. and its food safety efforts. And they like the variety and flavors of potatoes we can provide.”