Research Chefs and the Development Process
Culinary professionals work in a wide variety of industries, from advertising and catering to grocery and hotels, but by far the largest number can be found in food manufacturing, foodservice operations, chain restaurants, education, and ingredient manufacturing. These industries, particularly food manufacturing, can offer a multitude of experiences that offer a rewarding and satisfying career experience.
At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that a research chef would have as interesting a career as, say, a top restaurant chef, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The role of a research chef is complicated, varied, and highly challenging. Bringing the culinary viewpoint into product development can have a tremendous impact on the company’s financial results. Chefs provide input into company success in numerous ways.
• Developing Gold Standards. The development of “gold standard” recipes/formulas prepared with fresh food, flavors, or a combination of both, is considered to be the means by which a product development team can learn what is considered the best. The chef plays an important role by being able to quickly identify the flavor profile, color, and texture for a project. This ability comes from the chef ’s knowledge of cooking methods and variations in seasonality. This work is extremely important to help the other team members understand the goal of the project and the technical hurdles involved, as well as helpful in guiding consumer testing and translating recipes for commercial use.
• Developing Menus. The idea of menu development from a research standpoint encompasses a variety of components—appetizers, salads, main courses, sides, and desserts—and challenges the chef to think beyond the immediate product in development. The chef can offer a quick understanding of flavor balance and presentation, as well as weave “themed” items into the mix of goods. For example, for quick-service restaurants, research chefs are looking for new products or new flavor ingredients to enhance menus. Another example would be a hamburger chain researching a grill-type flavor to put into its burgers. This ingredient could also enhance a sauce.
• Developing Formulas. Chefs have the opportunity to impart their knowledge of cooking techniques and their effect on ingredients, by adding ingredients that will match the flavor profiles being targeted. The development of formulas is parallel to writing recipes, except that accurate weight, order of addition, and manufacturing process are extremely important. This method of doing work is very different from that of a normal “line” chef. The chefs need to be exposed to the manufacturing process to understand what adjustments are needed to develop the new items; e.g., adding an ingredient/flavor that mimics a cooking process that cannot be used in commercial production.
• Interfacing with Customers. The chef must understand the business and have the ability to communicate concepts in simple, understandable language. Chefs can speak the language of food like no other person, but when interfacing with a customer, either internal or external, it’s important to understand the customer’s level of understanding. A common bond can be quickly established if the chef is able to read the situation and present information clearly; e.g., by clarifying questions early on in the project so flavors, ingredients, etc., can quickly be adjusted.
• Representing the Company at Trade Shows. Chefs bring professional presence and defined expertise when part of a trade show team. They are able to communicate with customers about flavors and may even prepare items to demonstrate the company’s product potential.
• Participating in Ideation Sessions. Chefs’ knowledge of food history, blended with awareness of current trends, enables them to impart numerous ideas about preparation and presentation of products. The driving concept of creativity is the ability to change a meal item into a stimulating new format. Chefs look for innovative new food ideas and food trends in a variety of ways—through consumer research and observation of shopping behaviors, as well as by watching the trends at fancy food shows, in magazines and newspapers, on the Internet, and even on television.
• Providing Continued Education. Chefs can offer educational programs to bring the knowledge of food preparation into the development process. They can educate team members about cooking techniques, spices and herbs, ethnic cuisines, plate presentation, and many other culinary applications. These classes can be specialized toward a project. For example, if the team is interested in biscuits, a course on the variety of biscuits can be taught with an assortment of recipes. Those recipes can then be translated into formulas using technology to achieve commercialization.
by NICK SPINELLI, JR.
Certified Executive Chef
Executive Chef, Culinary—Research and Development
Kraft Foods North America