Corporate Research Chefs Combine Health and Science With a Dash of Culinary Genius

With frozen meal options like Shitake mushroom risotto and Lean Cuisine butternut squash ravioli, food companies are employing chefs to keep their products innovative and interesting.

By Rachel Zemser, CCS, Contributing Editor

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They have to make sure the cooking instructions are accurate and suggest visuals during the photo shoots. As with other retail companies, the chefs at Kraft work closely with the marketing brand teams and one of their main roles is to bring food trend and restaurant information to the team and to be the culinary resource.

Lorenzo Boni, executive chef for Barilla America Inc., Bannockburn, Ill., makes products for both foodservice and retail, but his approach is highly similar to Crane's team at Oscar Mayer. "The culinary team and I are involved at the outset of retail product development, creating the gold standard recipe our food scientists and engineers will emulate as they scale it for mass production," he explains.

"As production samples come out throughout the process, we taste and test them. Once a product is in the box, we create recipes that go on the package and on our website." Boni also supports their foodservice team at trade shows, events and menu development, and works with PR and marketing using social media to promote to media and consumers.

Inside influence

Foodservice chefs have more influence in finished product concepts versus their retail research chef counterparts, whose influence leans more toward working with the marketing team and internal product developers to ensure authenticity in the finished product.

"In foodservice product development, the culinary team has a lot of influence in the early inception stages and in driving the project to the stage-gate process," Schwan's Kiefer explains. "However, as the project progresses and involves capital expense and equipment adjustments, there are others in the process that could change the direction or even put a halt to the project."

Park 100's Sparks concurs, expanding, "The chefs have major influence in how the project is approached and it is always culinary first and food science second. It all starts with knowing the culinary attributes and techniques of the product, and then later enhancing those techniques with food science and industrial ingredients."

Kettle Cuisine's Ascoli describes his team's approach more generically: "In our company, we don't really think about influencing things; we view [our position] more as contributing wherever and whenever we can to advance our mission." Ascoli is responsible for leading product-development efforts, supporting the marketing team in educating their consumers about the products, attending trade shows and calling on their customers. He also works with the operations group selecting ingredients and training employees on best cooking practices.

The retail product development chefs also have influence, but more internally with their own marketing and development teams. "Anytime there is a question about culinary issues, they come to me and I am expected to know trends and flavor profiles," Crane explains. He visits flavor suppliers and decides which flavors make the most sense for the prototype in progress.

Kalil describes the process at Frito-Lay as "a productive collaborative environment, with marketing, R&D and the chefs all working together to make sure the message is relative and the product can be commercialized." The chefs bring their view and perspective to the food products and they work with R&D to come up with solutions.

The role of the research chef is to bring their culinary knowledge to the manufacturer's table while still taking into consideration the technical challenges of the manufacturing process. Products must be heated, dehydrated and preserved in order gain shelf stability and this can affect the finished product flavor. Research chefs work together with the food scientists to ensure their companies continue to bring flavorful and functional products to the market.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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