A Day With the Willy Wonka of Crisps, Kettle Chips Head Chef Chris Barnard

By Gerald Lynch on at

As a crisp connoisseur, one name in the potato snack industry stands above all others. Kettle Chips. While Walkers go in your lunchbox, and Pringles come out for parties, Kettle Chips are a luxury. They are the Rolls Royce of crisps, the “posh” option for when you’re pushing the boat out, treating yourself, saved for that quiet special moment on a Sunday afternoon when the car’s been washed, the football’s on and Monday morning still seems far, far away.

Much to the disgust of my girlfriend, crisps are my favourite food. I devour the things: thin cut; crinkle cut; hoops; shapes and puffs. Spicy; meaty; salty; cheesy — it doesn’t matter. Put a packet of crisps in front of me and you’ve just made an offering to Gerald the Devourer.

So when offered a trip to the Kettle Chips factory in Norwich, I felt like Charlie Bucket finding his Golden Ticket. This was my Wonka Tour, and I was going to Augustus Gloop it for all it was worth.

Kettle Chips’ own Willy Wonka is Chris Barnard. If you’ve ever salivated over a serving of Sea Salt and Balsamic Vinegar crisps, you’ve him to thank. The Kettle Chips head chef since 1989, he’s responsible for conjuring the refined flavours that sets Kettle Chips apart from the pack.

“It’s been a whirlwind for 25 years,” says Barnard as I meet him at Kettle Chips’ UK HQ.

“Not only have we changed the base product in terms of potato crisps with hand cooking (we were first), we think we’re the best too. We’ve got a premium feel to us now; we’re seen as ‘the chip of choice’. Seasoning, the cooking process, I’m very passionate about it all.”

Barnard acts as my guide through the inner workings of the Kettle Chips factory, a (excuse the pun) well-oiled machine. Working through roughly 60,000 tonnes of potatoes annually, it can take a soil-covered potato and have it cleaned, chopped, cooked, seasoned and packaged in 15 minutes. The company’s focus on “real foods” means it will only work with potatoes that have not been exposed to pesticides; its warehouses are instead temperature and air-flow controlled to reduce the likelihood of perishing or sprouting occurring. Remember that a November potato harvest may need to stay in storage several months before being prepared.

Pressure washed to clean (but not fully remove) the potatoes’ skins, the spuds are carried along the production line on water — like a log flume ride for vegetables, preventing bruising. Chopped by an eight-arm rotary blade tuned to specific thicknesses, 60-kilo potato slice batches are dropped into one tonne of sunflower oil (preferred as it is low in saturates) for frying. Barnard is keen to stress that Kettle Chips don’t wash the potato slices before cooking them, as washed slices lose the starch and sugars that make them so flavoursome. Though machinery assists the production line workers, the crisps remain hand-cooked, with the frying chips manually turned by a team of cooks, raking the crisps like savoury autumnal leaf fall.

The quality control standard at Kettle Chips is vigorous. Not only does it refuse to use potatoes that are too small (“We send the little ones off to Walkers,” jokes Barnard — in reality they are returned to the farmers), the factory also rejects 25 per cent of the crisps it makes. Automatic crisp inspecting machines known as “Raptors” use sensitively tuned camera equipment to identify burnt or bruised crisps, blasting them off the production line with a jet of air. Human inspectors give the crisps one final vetting after cooking before moving on to the seasoning stage.

But where possible, as much of the unsold product as can be is recycled: low-quality crisp batches are sold to farmers for animal feed, while the oils used in the cooking process are used in the manufacture of biodiesel.

Barnard’s enthusiasm for his work is palpable; he springs around the factory floor with an infectious energy. Having been with Kettle Chips almost since its creation, he seems to know every factory worker by name, sharing jokes and high-fives with the team throughout the tour.

“Try one of these,” he says, naughtily offering me a handful of piping-hot crisps plucked straight from the conveyor belt. “Aren’t they wonderful warm?” he asks. And they are — I may have to pop all crisps into the oven briefly before munching down on them from now on.

“What we’re really trying to do is put real food into snack food,” Barnard tells me as we enter his kitchen-come-workshop, the place where he perfects the flavour combinations that give Kettle Chips its edge, as well as carrying out top-secret tasting tests.

“If you go back to 1989 when I joined, the likes of Walkers were using flavour enhancers, chemistry, acids, unnatural ‘flavourings’, monosodium glutamate, palm oil in their crisps. They were standard things that we’d had in our products for years.

“It just upset me, as a chef and as somebody who is keen on people eating good food. I’m not saying that any of that would do you any harm, but what we say is if it doesn’t need to be there, why the hell is it there?”

But getting “real food” inside a packet of Kettle Chips requires its own sort of inventive trickery — you can’t simply put some stilton cheese in a blender then shake it over the fried potatoes.

To achieve its “real foods” goal, Kettle Chips has a secret weapon — its “flavour atomiser”, which turns any conceivable food into a powdered form.

“You take any consumable product, and you make sure it’s in solution,” explains Barnard.

“If you were doing a cheese flavour, you’d approach it like you would a fondue, and melt it down into a liquid. Then you put it under pressure, and force it through some very fine holes. This goes into a warm drum, and you atomise it, again under pressure.

“Those fine particles in the drum then become the flavoured powder. There’s no need to add anything that way -- we know exactly what’s going in to start with.”

Kettle Chips uses this process on an industrial scale of course – for its classic Sea Salt and Balsamic Vinegar flavour, literal tankers full of the very best Italian Modena (“You could drink the stuff, it’s got these lovely notes,” enthuses Barnard) are atomised.

It is a mind-blowing taste sensation. Barnard passes me a small glass of rich-tasting Port, deeply coloured, fruity and warming. He then offers me a spoonful of the pink powder the atomising process the taste is nearly identical. But “near” isn’t good enough for Barnard: if he feels that even a hint of flavour texture is lost in the process, he’ll look to supplement the powder with another atomised food. In the case of the Port, for instance, that may be a pepper or chilli to add to the feeling of alcohol’s heating sensation.

This year, Barnard’s put together a range of seasonal flavours, including Cheshire Cheese Red Wine & Cranberry, Salsa & Mesquite, and Stilton & Port, inventive combinations that are richly detailed with flavour, tickling different parts of the palate with each bite. All flavours go through hundreds of revisions before finally making their way to the production line, and the list of shelved flavours is as long as it is at times barmy: as well as more standard tandoori and Thai green curry flavours that didn’t make the cut, Barnard has developed champagne crisps and even lemon meringue and white chocolate raspberry savoury snacks.

Kettle Chips’ daring when it comes flavour experiments has inspired some wacky suggestions from wannabe crisps chefs too, who regularly send the culinary-equivalent of fan mail in the post — their own flavour ideas. How does “Beans on Toast” or “Hollandaise Egg” flavour crisps sound to you? Unsurprisingly, none have yet to make the cut with Barnard’s finely tuned taste buds.

But there are some ludicrously good new flavours on the way. I’m sworn to secrecy and offered a selection of soon-to-hit-stores new flavours, one of which may well be the finest crisp I’ve ever tasted. While you’ll have to wait for Kettle Chips itself to reveal the details of that particular taste sensation, I can give a tease on another upcoming launch from the brand: next year, Kettle Chips will introduce its first meat-flavoured crisp, hitting shelves in May.

“It’s like all creativity, because cooking is creative; sitting in a darkened room, thinking, putting ideas down, reading magazines, cookbooks, looking for new ingredients,” says Barnard.

“You’re just trying to get all that knowledge, to be innovative rather than standard. It’s out-of-the-box thinking. How I can I challenge the norm, what can I do differently, better?”

Wonka would be proud.

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