A Day in the Life of a Research Chef

More than a toque, their hats include sales, marketing, production and R&D.

By Rachel Zemser, CCS, Contributing Editor

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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?

Shane Maack

Shane Maack
Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings

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.”

Jody Slater

Jody Slater
HB Specialty Foods Inc.

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.”

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