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As if skillfully using a paring knife, today’s research chefs are carving out a place in the flavor and ingredient supplier’s organization. They can be highly influential in terms of product development and customer service.
In the past, culinary chefs joined these organizations without a clear brief. However, integration of these culinary skills into technical organizations has now improved their ability to develop foods of the highest quality and excellent manufacturability.
The research chef ’s unique skill set has a vital role in the development and testing process. Joining these culinary skills with those of product developers, flavor creationists, R&D teams, and analytical and sensory experts achieves a synergism between art and science.
• Raising the Bar in Product Development. The chef ’s contribution to the creation of “gold standard” concepts is well known to the food industry today.But there are many additional ways in which chefs can contribute:
They can share their culinary knowledge by providing cooking classes for food scientists. Honing the cooking skills of scientists promotes positive interaction. Demonstrating and teaching genuine culinary techniques, be they home style or fine dining, helps the product developer to apply flavors and ingredients in a more authentic way.
They can share their knowledge of world cuisines. A thorough understanding of ethnic cuisines with respect to indigenous ingredients, typical cooking techniques, and staple dishes allows the product developer to create true ethnic concepts.
They can translate culinary jargon into meaningful terms for the food scientist. When a food manufacturer requests a “braised beef ” concept, who better to describe and demonstrate this terminology than a chef? And how does bouillon differ from consommé? Chefs can identify and demonstrate these subtle differences.
They can also help in translating restaurant trends into retail products. Chefs stay attuned to fine dining trends. Sharing this knowledge with the product developer allows new concept development to target the latest food trends.
In addition, research chefs assist throughout the rest of the development process. As the food scientist creates revisions, the chef is available to taste with his or her trained palate, suggesting improvements that give authenticity to the concept.
The paramount challenge in concept development is creating foods that “taste” hand-crafted and from traditional recipes while producing them on manufacturing lines that are concerned with efficiency, speed, throughput, and cost. A chef ’s contribution is in making this a reality.
• Interacting with Flavorists. By challenging the flavorist to develop authentic flavor profiles, chefs help provide the consumer with foods that taste “less processed.” The chefs first interact in this flavor development process by developing gold standards that are produced by normal kitchen methods. Consider a brown mirepoix, consisting of sweated onion, celery, and carrots, that is subsequently sautéed in butter. The flavorist can taste and profile the attributes of the gold standard. The magnitude of each attribute can be plotted on a spidergram created by the sensory staff. The flavorist then can create a flavor that closely duplicates the ingredients and time-consuming processes. The chef ’s second role in the flavor development process is to verify the flavor’s authenticity after testing under various application conditions, such as freeze/thaw, pH, steamtable, and retort.
• Boosting the R&D Focus. Throughout the concept development process, chefs constantly evaluate products and identify gaps in the portfolio. Through suggesting new flavors and ingredients based on required product attributes, the chefs assist in generating innovations. For example, perhaps a new texturizing ingredient is necessary to alter the flow characteristics of a gravy for a frozen entree. The chefs’ input assists the organization in developing a product portfolio that is valuable, as well as creating products that, again, taste “less processed” and more authentic.
Interaction between the culinary arts and scientists is increasing. Ingredient suppliers are increasingly adding research chefs to their staff. In the future, we will also see companies creating fully equipped facilities, such as our recently created Chef ’s Innovation Center, where chefs can work side by side with customers to conceptualize concepts and create manufacture-ready products and consumer-preferred foods.
As organizations utilize research chefs further, a more defined role will develop. In the meantime, it is critical to embrace chefs’ strengths and give them wide scope to complement and extend the innovation process.
by CHRISTOPHER HANSEN
Executive Corporate Chef
Hoffman Estates, Ill.