Meet Chili's culinary director who creates new dishes for a living and has the best 'secret menu' hack

Meet Chili's culinary director who creates new dishes for a living and has the best 'secret menu' hack
  • Brian Paquette develops new menu items as the director of culinary at Chili's.

  • Paquette owned a catering company before leading culinary innovation at Chili's.

  • He told us his favorite menu item and his secret ordering hack.

To many, coming up with new chain restaurant menu items might sound like a dream job.

For Brian Paquette, the director of culinary at Chili's, it's a reality.

Business Insider interviewed Paquette while visiting Chili's headquarters in Dallas. We were able to work alongside him in the company's test kitchen, where his ideas for new Chili's menu items go from simple ideas to full-fledged menu items.

He revealed how he comes up with menu ideas, shared the biggest challenges of the job, and gave us his best ordering hacks.

Before Chili's, Brian Paquette ran his own catering company.

Brian Paquette at Chili's headquarters in April 2024
Brian Paquette at Chili's headquarters in April 2024.Erin McDowell/Business Insider

Paquette ran a catering business for five years before becoming a managing partner at Chili's in 2007.

In 2014, he advanced in the company to become a senior culinary and beverage operations manager, before assuming his current role as director of culinary in 2020.

Paquette's day-to-day work involves everything from brainstorming new menu ideas to conducting quantitative and qualitative testing to get something on the menu.

Based on data and consumer feedback he collects through surveys or focus groups, he'll determine the best new ideas and present them to Chili's leadership team.

The best of the best ideas, like the chain's baby-back ribs and fajitas, can end up on the company timeline, which lines the walls of Chili's headquarters in Dallas.

"We're going to have thousands of ideas over our career, and if we get three right, we're probably in pretty good company," he told Business Insider.

His biggest advice for those wanting to become culinary directors is to work hard and care about the customer.

Two customers dine at a Chili's restaurant
Two customers dine at a Chili's restaurant.Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post/Getty Images

While Paquette's culinary background helped him get to where he is, he says a strong work ethic is still the most important trait.

"I've watched a number of people come through, many that did have a background in formal culinary education, and then many that just had worked their way through the ranks," he said.

"We just had our contingent of 65 managers here earlier today and every one of them in the room says, 'I want to do what you do someday.' That's aspirational.

"My response to that is, 'Work hard. Don't let people think that you have another aspiration. Give them clear direction. This is what I want to do with my career and how I want to grow.' That's what I did, and people believed in me."

He added, "I think the biggest thing is just having a heart for this client, this guest, this vein of business, and wanting to feed a lot of people every day."

One of the biggest parts of the job is being able to spot trends.

chili's restaurant
Chili's.Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

Paquette told BI that the biggest trends he's seeing — including at Chili's — are a sweet-and-spicy flavor combination and the popularity of appetizers among customers.

"Sweet and spicy is definitely something that's coming up. A lot more Asian [flavors] in food," he said.

"Then, it seems like appetizers, eating more off small bites, is getting more and more popular, and we're looking at appetizers now to see if we can answer that call as well," he continued.

Paquette said there will "always be a guest" who comes in and only wants to order appetizers. However, he doesn't want customers to see appetizers as a "replacement entrée."

"We want it to be incremental. It's something that people are really excited about, to come in and share and then have a meal post. But there'll always be that guest that wants that bar experience, potentially; sit down and have a couple of drinks and just have an appetizer," Paquette said.

He says even if a product is doing well, he always wants to find ways to make it better.

The first Chili's menu, as seen at the company's headquarters in Dallas.
The first Chili's menu, as seen at the company's headquarters in Dallas.Erin McDowell/Business Insider

"Tenacity is imperative. You've got to keep pushing. You've got to be willing to take a little bit of a leap sometimes," he said.

For example, customers enjoyed the chain's chicken crispers, "but I thought they needed to be bigger and I think they need to be juicier," he said, so he worked with his team to create the best version possible.

"I'm always reminding my team; I say, 'If you make a small change, it affects 50,000 people today.' It's a big deal. It's a responsibility," he said. "So I think, in the end, it's also having a heart for the responsibility of feeding a lot of people every day and getting it right."

His favorite Chili's menu item is the Big Mouth Burger Bites.

chilis big mouth burger bites
Chili's Big Mouth Burger Bites.Erin McDowell/Business Insider

The Big Mouth Burger Bites are Chili's version of sliders. They can be served as an entrée or as part of the Triple Dipper appetizer combo platter.

"Crispy bacon bits, sautéed onions, our burger, which is already amazing," Paquette said. "I personally think that piece of bread is the best piece of bread we have in the restaurant for those Burger Bites."

We tried the Burger Bites for ourselves as part of the Triple Dipper, and thought they were satisfying sliders, especially when dipped in the chain's ranch. The bacon bits were crispy and salty, and the cheese was melted over every inch of the bite-sized burger.

He's also created his own "secret menu" Chili's hacks over the years.

chilis ranch and salsa mixed
Chili's ranch and salsa mixed with tortilla chips.Erin McDowell/Business Insider

"Salsa and ranch mixed together is next level. We make them both in-house, you mix them together 50/50, and for chips, it's just out of this world," he told BI. "Dip your fries in it, dip your chips in it. It's awesome."

We were convinced to give it a go and had to agree — it was awesome.

The job does have its challenges — he says dessert is the hardest menu section to innovate.

chilis lava cake
Chili's lava cake.Erin McDowell/Business Insider

Paquette told BI that while he finds it easy to get creative on other areas of Chili's menu, desserts pose a challenge.

"We keep trying to come up with some unique ideas and things that'll fit the bill for our guests, and that the chocolate molten [lava cake] is a pretty big hit," he said.

Chili's chocolate molten cake, one of the chain's most popular desserts, is a chocolate cake with a molten chocolate lava center, topped with vanilla ice cream in a chocolate shell, and drizzled with caramel sauce.

Paquette said that coming up with new ideas isn't the only challenge — it can also be hard to get people to order more than one dessert per table.

"Getting people to think of an 'also' dessert, not just one, is hard,
he said. "So we're working on desserts, working on other platforms, not just chocolate, to see if we can get some more traction."

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