As more than a thousand research chefs and culinologists from all over the world descend on Dallas March 4-8 for the annual Research Chef Assn. (RCA) conference, few observers will be able to deny the phenomenal growth and expanding relevance of the discipline of culinology.
RCA president Stephen Kalil, CEC, CRC, executive chef of the Plano, Texas-based Frito Lay Culinary Innovation Center, sees the root of culinology’s importance in that it “inspires collaboration between professionals in culinary arts with professional in food science and technology. And it does so unconditionally, with the single goal of developing innovative, healthy and great tasting foods.”
That’s not an understatement. In the past, we’ve documented how research chefs have changed the paradigm of how food trends come to be, specifically by changing the flow of ideas — previously a one-way trickle down from white-table restaurants to chains to food processing — to a two-way torrent that spurs creativity and interaction between restaurant chefs and food industry R&D.
With the field of culinology growing and more restaurant chefs embracing food technology. They’re driven as much by a need to develop their own retail products as a hedge against an economic downturn for high-end restaurants as to slake their archetypal curiosity by delving into the mysteries of molecular gastronomy. With this, a clearer picture of the central role of the research chef is emerging.
Michelle Ludtke, senior food technologist for Grande Custom Ingredients Group, Lomira, Wis., predicts culinology will “continue to grow in importance as consumers become more demanding and rely more on food service, processed and convenience foods, while still desiring high quality foods that taste good at a reasonable price.”
Furthermore, Ludtke sees the growth of culinology as a “healthy part of the natural evolution of food processing.” She explains that processors are “always looking to gain new insights into satisfying consumers and improving products” and believes the art and science of culinology allows an “enhanced element of creativity to fill those needs.”
“Chef J” —a.k.a. J. Hugh McEvoy, CRC, CEC, Cd.R — backs this up by pointing to the strong base culinology and the position of research chef has been built on. “Culinology has come to be defined as the blending of culinary art and food science and this is the most important advance in food product development in the second half of the 20th century,” he exclaims. The owner of product development services company Chicago Research Chefs LLC, emphasizes that “consumers are now buying and serving food that would not exist were it not for culinology.”
Bringing the two together
Chris Koetke, who was both a research chef and a restaurant chef on his way to becoming dean of Chicago’s School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, teaches culinology to his bachelor students. “Food Scientists and chefs traditionally received radically different training,” he says.
“Chefs are trained that they are engaging in art, focusing on flavor and concept,” Koetke adds. “The food scientist is more analytical, and think of food more in terms of molecules and reaction. The focus on food is its physical properties, with the end game of getting to some kind of product that’s been described ahead of time. The research chef has aspects to consider such as shelf life, nutrition and production: ‘How can I execute this on a line and make 10,000 of it?’”
Koetke describes the recent reverse flow from research chefs to restaurant chefs. “Now that the synthesis of science and art is taken to its extreme at the level of molecular gastronomy, we’re getting to a point where everyone in these fields understand there’s a blending of both that’s very beneficial — and very do-able,” he says. He also notices that, more and more, food scientists possess some culinary training while chefs are attaining a level of food science training.
“We’re getting to the point where those fields, once so separate, now exercise a mutual appreciation for each other.” The brilliance of the research chef position, according to Koetke, is the way it pulls the two disciplines together. “It teaches that, yes, food is a science; but at the same time, it’s all about flavor.”
Beyond the bench
Stephen Kalil has been paying special attention to how culinology extends beyond food processing. “It plays a role in all areas of the food service industry,” he says. “You see it in action at large scale manufactures, chain restaurants, independent fine dining and mom and pop establishments. In order to develop successful products, tomorrow's product development expert must have a knowledge of both the culinary arts and the science of food product development.”
But the reach of a research chef has of late been extending beyond kitchen and bench. “The blending of new production methods and new equipment to produce high quality foods with less labor will be of growing importance,” says Jay Valley, corporate chef of Dallas-based Eatzies. Valley sees a much more intense involvement of the research chef in non-food issues. “Culinology extends beyond food processing to the point of sale for a product. The packaging, appearance and proper storage for food products is (now) all a part of it.”
Grande Ingredient’s Ludtke agrees. “Companies that specialize in foods prepared for food service are seeing some of the technical issues formerly faced by food processors,” she says. “The food science side of culinology helps maintain such consumer requirements as the ‘made from scratch’ quality as products grow into needing larger volumes involving shelf-life and distribution concerns.”