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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Over the past 20 years, food companies have experienced increasing pressure to be more flavor-competitive, especially now that Food TV-savvy Americans are demanding authentic ethnic cuisine. Food processors recognize the need to bring on culinary expertise to meet the demands of this more culinary educated consumer.

Stephen Kalil
Stephen Kalil
Harry Crane
Harry Crane
Lorenzo Boni
Lorenzo Boni

So companies began bringing in chefs to create gold standards and to help the food scientists understand how the final product should taste. While chefs brought great ideas, they didn't always understand the food scientists' requirements. But as the two types worked together, a new kind of food developer emerged: the Research Chef.

While the roles of research chefs in the different arenas of food product development are relatively similar, processes (and stresses) will differ depending on the area of industry focused on. Kit Kefir, corporate executive chef for Schwan's Food Service Inc., Marshall, Minn., which has foodservice at its core, notes that his team works both proactively and reactively with its clients — predominantly developers for the foodservice industry.

Regardless of whether the client comes to Schwan's seeking new ideas or Schwan's is taking the initiative to update clients on the latest menu trends or promoting products on their client's own customers' radar, the research chefs are always the first point of contact with the client. The chefs will "bench" with their client to create initial rudimentary prototypes. Once approval takes place, it is handed off to the food scientists to finalize the commercialization, although the chef remains involved to ensure the concept stays as close to the gold standard as technically possible.

Joe Ascoli, research chef at soup-maker Kettle Cuisine Inc., Chelsea, Mass., and Eric Sparks research chef for Park 100 Foods Inc., Tipton, Ind., relate similar roles in their operation.

"I'm actively involved in bringing new product concepts from my research, dining experiences or from experimenting in the test kitchen," says Ascoli. "I then take the lead in shaping those concepts into bench-top prototypes for testing and evaluating, and am an active participant in gathering operator and consumer feedback." Ascoli also works closely with the company's product engineers to ensure they scale up formulations correctly and that batches are properly monitored for consistency.

"The first step is to identify gold standard targets and all of the product attributes," adds Sparks. "Then you formulate to those specific goals and targets." The research chef role continues even after the first production run, with the chefs typically taking the responsibility for making sure quality targets are consistently met.

The focus of the research chef developing retail products is defined almost exclusively on consumer trend information provided by internal marketing departments. "As a food scientist with culinary training, my role is to work closely with the marketing and R&D teams to ensure we are creating foods that consumers will not only crave but that are also good for them," says Andrew Moltz, corporate executive chef for Quaker Oats Co., Chicago. "This means closely following consumer eating trends going on in and outside of the home, and ensuring we're incorporating these concepts into great tasting, oat-inspired products that are easy to make."

Stephen Kalil, corporate executive chef for Frito-Lay North America Inc., Dallas, describes the Frito-Lay approach to product development, as a "collaborative culinology effort" that includes both food scientists and chefs. The team consists of four food scientists and four research chefs working together in the culinary center reviewing consumer research and then translating it to a culinary execution that is meaningful to that particular consumer demographic. The ideas can involve a new type of snack product or a new flavor profile for an existing product.

The culinology team will identify trending tastes, such as hot wings and cheeseburgers, and render a culinary execution by creating a seasoning blend that goes onto the chip. The food scientist and the chef work together to evaluate the blend and make sure they deliver that profile.

"Our culinary team is part of the 'Strategic Technology and Innovation' internal consulting group, which includes food safety, marketing and food scientists," says Harry Crane, executive chef at Kraft's Culinary Center of Excellence in Madison, Wis. Sometimes the research chefs in Crane's team are not the developers per se, but they work with the R&D and marketing teams as the "fuzzy" front and back end of the process.

For example, they will explore meat concepts such as "braised" or "encrusted" and work with the developers to create the gold standards. At that point, the product moves into commercialization and Crane steps out of the process, only to step back in to assist with recipes for the back of the package and website once the product is complete.

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.

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