In the kitchen, chefs are accustomed to both carefully devising the right balance of ingredients and sharing their knowledge with others around them. The same can be true outside of a foodservice setting: culinary professionals can help food scientists and product manufacturers create formulations that hold up to the highest standards—both literally and figuratively.
Much like a recipe, a final product depends on effective interactions. While food technologists work diligently on basic issues like a food’s functional properties, shelf stability, and safety, a chef looks at a product from the perspective of the ultimate end user, the consumer who is being served.
Many parties play a role in the food chain that leads from a supplier to a processor to a foodservice operator to a customer, and those groups naturally approach issues from different perspectives. Using a roast as an example, a food scientist might evaluate the physical properties of what is happening to a muscle of meat as it cooks, from an energy or microbial standpoint. A chef, meanwhile, appraises various techniques to make that roast as palatable as possible, whether it is the proper succulent tenderness or the perfect cling of a glaze.
Chefs’ perspectives are unique, and formulations and recipes vary from kitchen to kitchen. Therefore, food technologists should anticipate the different scenarios that could occur in preparation, cooking, and serving. An example might be a soup that will be thickened with a gum system in place of a traditional roux. To determine the best gum system to use, the food technologist should ask a few questions: Will this product be frozen and brought to temperature and reheated? Will it be held in a warming table or a water bath for a long period of time? Will it go back to the refrigerator to be heated again? In virtually every foodservice setting, a culinary professional is doing something different to that soup that will affect the stability of the product—and, even more important—its final flavor and quality. Not taking into account possible variations could result in an unstable and even unacceptable product.
Beyond merely asking questions or predicting any possible challenges, chefs and scientists can also work directly together. Using the gum example, a chef may find out through the distributor the name and contact information of the gum supplier and call that company’s food technologists to discuss various applications or preparation suggestions. Meanwhile, the supplier’s scientists, while evaluating formulations, would benefit from inviting culinary professionals to their test kitchen for observations and recommendations.
From the ingredient supplier to the prepared food manufacturer to the chef, it is important that all parties work together and understand one another as much as possible. The stakes are consumer satisfaction and, ultimately, profitability.
Here are some recommendations that everyone can keep in mind to guarantee that the end user is satisfied to the fullest:
• Hit the books. For food technologists, that may be a cookbook about preparation techniques and ingredient interaction. For chefs, it may be a technical manual or product backgrounder on key ingredients, which are typically available from suppliers upon request. Associations such as the Institute of Food Technologists, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), and the Research Chefs Association can provide suggestions for further reading and also offer educational Web sites.
• Get involved in industry forums and events. Many food scientists are interested in learning about cooking and preparing foods and have either attended professional culinary events or become members of epicurean organizations, such as IACP or the American Institute of Wine and Food. Chefs, in turn, can learn the latest food technology advances by attending an IFT conference or other technical trade show, or obtaining a summary account of such events.
• Think outside the box. Food function is different in a lab setting than in the preparation and presentation stage. Once a product is put into a box and shipped to a restaurant or store, it still has to be put through several rigorous steps until it reaches the consumer’s mouth. A food scientist can learn about the supply chain that carries its products and how different variables may affect the final product, from the refrigerated transportation to the storage type and time to the probable cooking method.
• Make it personal. A food scientist may enjoy trying his or her hand in the kitchen, whether it’s a basic Julia Child recipe for potato-leek soup or a from-scratch chocolate pudding. A foodservice operator or culinary professional can tour an ingredient supplier’s manufacturing facility or a state-of-the-art food production pilot plant.
by WALTER ZUROMSKI
Chef, TIC Gums