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.”