How one New Zealander transformed the way a generation of chefs cook

When it comes to gastronomy, ‘fresh is best’ is a motto any chef worth their while adheres to. So imagine convincing some of the world’s top chefs to use freeze-dried fruit over fresh ingredients – and better yet, imagine actually pulling it off. 

Tommy Roff.

Freeze-dried fruits, herbs and vegetables is an obscure line of business to get into, but an even more inspiring feat is convincing chefs the world over to become advocates for it.

But Fresh As founder Tommy Roff is typically Kiwi, brushing it off as a bit of luck.

“A smarter person would’ve bailed earlier. The adage I say to myself every day is, ‘You’re not smart, you’re lucky.’” He says.

The idea for Fresh As, an Auckland-based freeze dried ingredients company, came to Roff after he worked in the food service sector selling high-quality fruit and vegetables to chefs for 20 years.

He was having trouble delivering certain herbs year round, so a thought occurred to him: Why not just freeze dry the herbs into a concentrated powder?

But instead of selling the product to chefs, Roff decided to try something different and leap head first into retail.

“I was almost a bit arrogant,” he says. “I knew nothing about retail and I thought, if you’ve got a good product, that’s all you need - just do some edgy packaging and people will see it.”

However, the combination of the unique packaging and the out-there product was too much for consumers. Sales didn’t bode well, and Roff was back to square one.

“It didn’t work at all. Sales for the first five years were probably $6000 a month. I basically lost in five years or so all the money I’d made in the previous 20.”

Luckily for him, he says, he works best under a bit of pressure. And there’s nothing quite like the pressure of being served papers by the bank saying they’ll sell your house in 30 days.

He went back to the industry he knew well – food service – with an array of products on offer for chefs, including freeze-dried fruit, herbs and vegetables. 

Freeze dried mandarins.

Athough Fresh As products can technically be classed as raw, the products created a mental hurdle for chefs who had lived by ‘fresh is best’ mentality for so long.

As well as this, the freeze-dried ingredients were breaking such new ground with chefs that they initially created more questions than answers.

Namely, how on earth do you use them?

“It’s dried, so it goes in the face of fresh, which is most chefs’ adage,” Roff explains.

“We’d have people in the early days saying, ‘This is amazing!’ Then you’d call them up and they’d say, ‘I love your stuff, I just don’t know what to do with it.’”

Thankfully, a few chefs accepted the challenge Roff set and created entirely new dishes with Fresh As ingredients.

Unexpectedly, it was the freeze-dried fruit that took off with chefs – Roff had predicted the herb powders to be the winners.

“I was sceptical. It wasn’t until I was at Attica at Melbourne being served terroir by [head chef and co-owner] Ben Shewry and the penny dropped. As soon as the spoon hit my mouth I was like, ‘I get it now.’”

The soft ice cream and the crunchy, intensely flavoured freeze-dried berries proved a winning combination.

Sherry offered to go around to Australian restaurants and promote the product for free, and that was when Fresh As took off. 

The terroir dish at Attica made with Fresh As berries.

Other notable chefs such as the UK-based Claire Clark and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York helped propel the business forward by showing other chefs what was possible, as did a feature on the Today Show.

The Fresh As products help chefs innovate by adding texture as another component to a dish, as well as intensity of flavour, Roff says.

Currently, mandarins are their best selling product at the moment and it’s easy to see why: The crunchy fruit shatters in your mouth with an intensely sweet flavour, completely transforming the usual mandarin-eating experience.

“We have changed the way a generation of chefs cook,” Roff says. “We’re the first people in the people to have our niche as high-end food. Nobody’s produced a range [of freeze-dried food] then gone out to chefs, going, ‘What do you think of this?’”

Fresh As now has over 200 products and has since expanded to servicing hotels, caterers, retail stores and even supplying manufacturers like Whittaker’s and Hubbards.

For the past five years, Roff says revenue has grown at an average of 40 percent a year – although last year was a particularly big year, with almost 80 percent growth.

Two of the Fresh As freeze-drying machines, affectionately named 'Willow' and 'Susan'.
What Red Bull looks like when it's been freeze dried.

He recently invested in another one-tonne freeze-drying machine which will increase capacity by 50 percent. It set him back a cool $1.5 million.

“In seven years you have to repay it, but if they’re working they’re affordable,” Roff says.

This year, he wants to push into retail stores in Australia, as well as focus on the New Zealand market.

That’s where he makes better margin and has less competition, he says, as there’s freeze-drying companies all over the world.

However, not many can claim to have freeze-dried such a variety of products – vinegar and soy sauce are available for purchase as flakes, while previously Roff has freeze dried Red Bull and flat white coffee into a solid, edible item.

His creation methods may seem a bit unconventional to most, but he says it’s all trial and error.

“There’s no food technologists here. We have meetings with people like Griffins and Hubbards and sit in a room with five food technologists who ask me about the process and I say, ‘We just wing it’,” he says.

But breaking such new ground means there’s a lot of unforeseen problems.

For example, each product is unique in the way it handles being freeze dried, even from season to season.

Recently, a batch of blueberries went brown after being dried, despite it working perfectly the year previous.

Roff says it’s a constant process of refinement, but at least it keeps interesting.

“If we keep doing [freeze drying] long enough, by the time I die, I’ll probably be pretty good at it. That’s my goal,” he says.