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.”
“The career marketplace is fertile for students graduating with a degree in culinology, as well as the chefs that have achieved comprehensive knowledge in food science and the scientists that have done the same with culinary arts,” says Kalil. “It is a tremendous competitive advantage for the food service professional as well as the company they work for.”
Kalil sees more growth in “great-tasting food products that provide tremendous health benefits.” He sees increased emphasis on such foods being “made with real food ingredients that are inherently good for you,” citing as example “fruits high in antioxidants, combinations of legumes and grains resulting in a complete protein, spices that have health benefits and at the same time contribute to the flavor experience.”
“Asia and Latin fusion with classic French and European techniques are not going away,” Chef J stresses. “They will become part of everyday cuisine.” Although he sees the “truly weird stuff” as “just a fad,” Chef J notes that star chefs such Charlie Trotter, Homaro Cantu, Grant Achatz and others involved in use of such research-chef techniques as sous vide and molecular gastronomy equipment along the lines of cryogenic “cookers” and lasers all are a direct result of the research chefs and culinology.
Valley points to a combination of trends, with ethnic flavors and comfort foods still piquing consumer interest. “Indian food is hot now,” he says, “but I think we also will see an increase in familiar foods as home meal replacements. A lot of people just don't cook anymore, and with the economy down people will opt out of restaurant meals and choose more prepared meals — comfort foods, foods they know, such as lasagna, meatloaf, roast turkey…foods mom used to make.”
According to Dean Koetke, the future of culinology is pointing nowhere but up. “When you teach the principles of science as they pertain to food — if you understand those — you’re empowered to be a better chef. It doesn’t reduce the power of artistry in food, it enhances it; it gives you more tools in your bag to do a better job. You’ll never find yourself scratching your head at a disaster wondering why something went wrong. I’m a huge proponent of chefs having knowledge of food science.”
In a particularly frightening economic era of tightened belts, drastically declining spending power and shaky security, the technical end of food processing offers a ray of optimism. After all, the food business is still a near-trillion dollar one, and good times or bad, people have to eat. But more that that, with people working more hours and double-incomes a necessity for survival, consumer food dollars are still being spent on foods made outside the home.
Add to this the fact that during the giddy times of plenty we all got used to a sophisticated level of flavors and varieties in what we eat and the optimism seems well founded. Chef J probably puts it best: “The future is so bright we gotta wear shades!”