In the world of food manufacturing and R&D, there are chefs and there are food scientists. Both sets of skills are needed to create food products that are delicious and shelf-stable.
But a relatively new, hybrid discipline has inserted itself into the food industry: “Research Chef.” Sometimes called a “culinary scientist” or a “corporate R&D chef,” these experts are well-versed in both food science and the culinary arts.
Research chefs work in all sectors of the food industry, helping optimize finished products such as soups, seafood and dressings for the foodservice groups, as well as ingredient systems like sauces, spices and breading for food manufacturers to use in their finished products.
There are specific job responsibilities, such as customer presentations, attending trade shows, trend research and creating gold standard prototypes -- all are part of the research chef’s job. But the most important thing a research chef must relate to is how to create a formula or recipe on the bench that can be mass-produced. They need to have a good understanding of their manufacturing equipment and how to work with brix, pH, viscosity and a wealth of other parameters both chemical and culinary to ensure the final products are always consistent.
Looking in on a typical day for a research chef gives a more comprehensive view of that role within a company, highlighting the types of skills these chefs need to develop safe, consistent quality products.
What’s in a name?
Often, the titles research chefs wear are creative, confusing and purposely vague because it’s such a new field. It’s difficult to encompass the breadth of what they do onto a business card.
Nick Pajor, manager of culinary innovation at King and Prince Seafood Co., Brunswick, Ga., wears lots of hats in his job. “One day, we’re getting on a plane to fly to a customer presentation; the next, we’re setting up photo shoots,” he says. “I spend a lot of time bouncing between sales, marketing, production and R&D.”
Chris Hansen, corporate executive chef for OSI Group, an Aurora, Ill.-based maker of custom meat products, describes his chef role as “educator, visionary and strategic thinker.” “My staff and I work with other team members to create the benchmark and expectations of what a formulation should be in theory, and then help guide the rest of the team through our development phase from a culinary perspective,” he explains.
Shane Maack, senior executive chef for Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, a ConAgra unit, notes, “While the science side of my job isn’t the primary focus, it plays a very big part in my daily activities — it’s important to be able to understand the relevancy and functionality of commercial ingredients, and then to be able to apply that knowledge to the development process."
Senior product development chef John Bartel, at CTI Foods Inc., a Wilder, Idaho, maker of value-added protein products, describes his role: “I am the interface between the chain restaurant R&D function and the scientists who ensure a consistent and delicious product. I represent the company to chain customers with our sales force, help develop products with our scientists and present the end results to our customers.”
A day in the life
Most R&D chefs agree there is no such thing as a typical workday, but there are many typical activities that are common. Most research chefs start the day by checking communications and reviewing the day’s work plan.
There might be cuttings or bench work needed, or the writing of a summary on the latest flavor trends. Other times, the chef could be on the road, visiting customers or attending industry trade shows.
“My day always starts out with checking emails and reviewing the calendar for the day,” says Maack. “Depending on frequency or timing of meetings and conference calls for the day, the decision will be made to focus primarily on desk work, such as paper ideation and trends research, or to focus on bench-top work, such as ‘gold standard’ creation or product reviews.”
“The customer is always the No. 1 priority, so customer deadlines will always take precedence over everything else,” declares Bartel. “The beginning of my day starts with a cutting of bench-top samples made the previous day. We then gather the feedback and either continue making adjustments or, if everyone likes it, prepare to show it to the customer.” The rest of Bartel’s day is broken up into meetings with vendors, visits to customers, ideation sessions or making bench-top samples.
Jody Slater, corporate executive chef at HB Specialty Foods Inc., Nampa, Idaho, describes her day as a combination of “developing prototypes for national companies, project meetings to discuss priorities for the week, production meetings to talk about upcoming test runs, meetings with purchasing, researching trends and overseeing documentation work related to organic, gluten-free, and other industry certifications.”
Slater also works on developing gold standards and assisting the regulatory department with nutritional analysis, specification sheets and ingredient declarations.
Pajor, at King and Prince Seafood, starts his day with a quick walk through the production floor to see what is being made that day. “I try to get on the bench by 7:45 a.m. to prepare customer samples or work on their innovation pipeline products,” he adds. Pajor then works on more recipe development and ends his day studying industry trade journals and staying up to date on the latest trends.
Jenny Rosoff, executive chef and owner of Village Green Foods Inc., Irvine, Calif., says, “Being a small company, we don’t have lots of structure — we do cuttings when required; we’re in sales mode whenever the phone rings and we do a team update every Monday at 11 o'clock. Otherwise, we just take it as it comes.”
OSI’s Hansen contributes, “I interact with several teams throughout the day — sales, R&D, processing and marketing — as well as the customers and their teams. It’s all about moving projects forward and meeting and managing the customers’ expectations.”
What does the research chef do when lunch time rolls around? Do they make gourmet food right there in their R&D test kitchen or head out on the town?
Sometimes chefs are busy and don’t have time to get away, but when they do, they like to check out what their restaurant chain clients and their competitors are up to. It’s all about getting inspired and seeing new culinary ideas in action by others in the food industry.
Hansen notes, “I eat what tastes good. Just like everyone else, I am flexible, and it often depends on my mood. I enjoy the effort it takes to prepare a good meal and I also appreciate the people that cook for me. A simple hamburger can be a great experience as long as it’s prepared right.”
Bartel sometimes snacks in-house, but also likes to head out for lunch. “I try to see what the latest limited-time only product introductions are. My favorite recent product line has been the Power menu at Panera,” he explains. His personal favorite is the Roasted Chicken Hummus Bowl.
Pajor also likes to go out and check the latest seafood offerings. “This time of year, I usually run out and try all of the new fish sandwich and shrimp items restaurants promote during Lent,” he says.
Sometimes chefs are too busy to get away or just want to go down the portion-control route. Slater prefers to reheat a gluten-free frozen meal during her busy day, and Rosoff will eat what is being produced that day or simply snack on an energy bar.
Tapping into both sides of the brain
In order to be a successful R&D chef it’s important to have a good understanding of both culinary arts, food science and food manufacturing. Rosoff uses her culinary experiences to develop recipes for clients, modify formulas, do cost reductions, change flavor profiles and adjust recipes based on ingredient availability.
But she also has to get scientific in her role. “The science part of my job involves determining what tests to do when sending a product to the lab for shelf life and spoilage testing — what to modify in a formula to achieve a different result; working with staff to run variations on a formula to find the right combination of ingredients; and [determining] processes to achieve the desired result.”
For chefs who work directly with the chains, there’s a need to “channel” their chain restaurant customers to ensure the products are what the chain requests. “My job is to interpret the menu direction as given to me by the R&D chefs at some of the best chain restaurants in the country," says Bartel. "I also try to ‘read’ the chain and suggest new product suggestions based on our core competencies and the menu demands posed to us by the clients — as well as the trend directions I observe in the industry.”
Working in a manufacturing environment means always keeping the technical aspects of the food in mind. “So much of product development these days revolves around the development of a clean label,” continues Bartel. “We try to provide the types of products made from an ingredient deck that conform to the values the chain has in regards to their guests’ requests.”
According to Bartel, many ingredients, such as MSG or “excessive salt,” are now frowned upon by customers. “I spend a considerable amount of time with our food scientists ensuring all ingredients fall within these specs so everyone is happy with what we develop,” he says.
“Starch systems also are very much top of mind in our process since we need to hold everything in suspension. Each portion served must have the proper contingent of ingredients. Proper viscosity also helps ensure the product is consistent from batch to batch.”
Pajor knows that his culinary experiences are equally crucial to his position. “In my position at King and Prince I work very closely with some of the largest restaurant groups in the world. From a culinary standpoint, our customer demands that value added products eat like a scratch-made gold standard. Without a culinary background and restaurant operational experience, it would be nearly impossible to develop products that perform like they are handmade.”
He finds his stimulus with competitors. “I am able to find inspiration in everything from fine dining to hole-in-the-wall restaurants,” he explains.
Pajor runs a lean R&D team, and while culinary is his main focus, he has his hands in everything from gold standard development to commercialization. “I have a hand in equipment selection and identifying new pieces that fit well into our growing portfolio of products. I also spend time researching new packaging technology.”
Spicetec’s Maack is responsible for culinary recipe development and customer guidance, but he also spends time supporting his own company’s internal customers and the marketing and sales departments through concept development and culinary presentations.
“I proactively support internal and external customers in developing concepts within current food trends to demonstrate company flavors, technology and strategic platforms,” he describes. “I provide technical guidance for the use of our flavors and seasoning blends with product development chefs and product developers. I also create culinary standards for benchmarking when needed, and provide culinary guidance in the form of concept development, preparation and presentation for in-house customer visits.”
Science is not a big part of Maack’s duties. He says, “For me, the most important part is being able to understand the relevancy and functionality of commercial ingredients, and then being able to apply that knowledge to the development process.”
HB's Slater uses her culinary background to ensure she presents their product to customers in the same way they plan to use it -- which means learning how to make their food items. “Everything is prepared just as the end user would prepare it: baked, fried, microwaved or steamed. We prepare presentation plates and demo booklets for the customers.” Demo booklets contain photos, formula numbers and processing instructions.
Before Slater entered into the world R&D world, she was, variously, a pastry chef, executive chef, personal chef and culinary instructor. “I can't forget about my first job: At 16, I was a crew trainer at Taco Bell. These positions helped me prepare for the research and development field, because I was able to build my love for food, enhance my palate, learn about the cooking process for various foods and learn the restaurant concepts that I work with today.”
She uses both her culinary arts experience and manufacturing expertise to provide recommendations on flavor, specifically balancing salt, sugar and acidity—all components that require a knowledgeable palate and the capability of using equipment like pH meters and a refractometer to measure exact levels.
Slater also explains the need for a strong working knowledge of functional ingredients to do her job well. “Starches, gums, flavors and colors all play a big role in R&D. Its’ important to know how to work with these ingredients to create chef-inspired flavors that can be reproduced in a manufacturing facility.”
She further notes how important it is to understand all the processing equipment, understanding how it will affect her product and ensuring she can replicate her lab product in the manufacturing plant.
As chefs continue to work in food manufacturing environments, their role becomes more clearly defined and their job descriptions are becoming more mainstream. The research chef position also becomes better understood by others interested in entering the field
Rachel Zemser is a certified culinary scientist, certified food scientist and food industry consultant with backgrounds and degrees in both culinary arts and food science.