The incorporation of professional chefs in the product development process is a strong industry trend. This article looks at the tasks and roles of corporate chefs through the eyes of five professionals in the industry. The food and beverage manufacturers represented are ConAgra Foods, Hormel Foods, Kraft Foods, Peer Foods and Unilever/Bestfoods Foodservice. The comments shed light on the evolving role of chefs in food companies including how their expertise helps food companies satisfy increasingly sophisticated consumer palates, their professional challenges, and food trends they have observed.

As the benchmark rises for foods that consumers find enticing and pleasing to the senses, food companies are turning to corporate chefs for their expertise in giving foods a “made from scratch” perception with superior taste and appearance. Today's chefs are expected to work in partnership with other departments, such as R&D and marketing, to help ensure new product success.

Chefs bridge the gap between “the gold standard” and the food scientist's often technical approach to formulating products. The results are products that meet customer expectations for truly good-tasting foods that are still within the parameters of a cost efficient manufacturing process.

Q: What are your current duties?

Chef Dan Burrows: I work with sales, marketing and product development to service Unilever/Bestfoods Foodservice's national account customers on any culinary solution they need, be it new products, operations, and recipe and menu development.

Chef Thomas Dickhans: A large part of my responsibilities revolves around Hormel Food's foodservice products, especially ethnic meats and formulations for frozen applications. In addition, I am involved with our international group, developing shelf-stable and refrigerated foods for export to Europe, Asia and Latin America. Also, I do some work associated with pureed vegetables and fruits for individuals suffering from dysphagia for Hormel HealthLabs, and projects for our grocery products division involving shelf-stable products.

Chef Linda Hall: I currently manage the culinary support Kraft Food Service provides for its customers. I make sure that the recipes and menu ideas that we provide are a good fit for our customers both from a trend and an operational perspective. We also track food trends on an annual basis.

Chef Timothy Murray: I am responsible for a product from conception to commercial replication at Peer Foods. I interact with customers directly to conceptualize a product, match a product for their needs, or present a new product I have developed. Bench-top work, plant scale-up and initial production are key components of my duties, along with customer interaction, regulator interaction, etc.

Chef Catherine Proper: My responsibilities touch on new product development, research (including troubleshooting with customers to “tweak” flavors to consumer preference), product ideation (utilization of culinary expertise to showcase ConAgra products), customer presentations and culinary trends. Keeping on top of culinary trends is foremost, allowing me to present ConAgra products in a current, timely manner while educating customers on how they might apply to their business.

Q: What has most prepared you for your current duties?

Chef Burrows: I think what has most helped me in my career is my broad range of experience. By having a classical, fine dining background and also an understanding of quick-casual or family dining operational and cost hurdles, I have been able to stay on top of trends and help chain restaurants keep in tune with the more food savvy consumer of now and the future.

Chef Dickhans: I am able to work as part of a multifunctional team, and face changing responsibilities—from providing assistance to fully designing new items and concepts. This team approach, and sharing ideas, gives me the edge needed in today's demanding environment.

Chef Hall: I ran a restaurant in Chicago with my husband, which gave me invaluable insights in my current job. It really helped me to appreciate what it's like to be out there providing food day after day.

Chef Murray: The combination of my experience and educational background has given me the ability to see something on a plate and then be able to make millions of pounds of that product.

Chef Proper: The creative influence and backdrop of menu ideas that I amassed during my time in foodservice. This industry experience is indispensable in product ideation and utilization.

Q: Do you think the role of chef executives today will be different from their role during the next five years or so? How?

Chef Burrows: I think it will keep evolving, growing in importance in food processing as consumers get more food savvy through a better understanding of food. With the Food Channel, celebrity chefs, and the world becoming a smaller place due to the Internet, traveling, etc., the general population is demanding different, more wholesome food than in the past.

Chef Dickhans: The role of the executive chef in foodservice will become much more administrative and focus more on training and implementing changes mandated by state and federal government.

For executive chefs, the change will be more dramatic: from someone who can prepare great meals to someone who combines that culinary ability with scientific knowledge and works as part of a team. A team approach, bringing both scientists and chefs together, and each understanding the other's training and knowledge, will be the wave of the future.

Chef Hall: Where I see the changes are in the amount of paperwork and planning the chefs will need to do. There has been an increased level of scrutiny in the industry with regards to food safety, immigration laws, liquor laws and other regulations. In addition, chefs have to manage to the bottom line more than ever before and they need to deal with a workforce that includes many with limited or no foodservice education and/or training. It will leave them with less time for creativity at a time where the general public is becoming more food savvy and demanding. Great chefs will need to be great at juggling many roles.

Chef Murray: From the product development/manufacturing arena, the chef will continue to advance into the food science and production arena to narrow the gap between gold standard and production quality—with a culinary focus. Business disciplines, such as costing, will become part of the R&D chef's repertoire.

Chef Proper: I have seen that corporate/industry chefs are receiving a greater amount of responsibility. They are being given decision-making power and have become a pinnacle to the way that many manufacturers look at their products and processes. Additionally, chefs are being consulted much more frequently concerning bureaucratic processes and decisions.

Q: Food trends often start at high-end restaurants and eventually make their way into commercial food products. What do you see as emerging trends?

Chef Burrows: The average consumer is learning about fine dining and demanding some basic principles from chain restaurants that are, in turn, demanding them from their manufacturers who are demanding them from their suppliers (the source). There are many ingredients available to processors that were not even available two years ago.

Recently, I have been working with fire roasted tomatillos, edamame, true IQF caramelized onions, mango puree, peeled crawfish tails, etc. They all are available with good quality and price, and food processing-friendly packaging and quantities.

Chef Dickhans: Emerging trends we see for the next few years are Caribbean and South American flavors. Comfort foods with a twist and some regional Mexican foods also are going very well at this time.

A trend toward African foods and preparations, as well as some Indian foods, is coming on slowly, but the struggle is over what Americans will accept. That has not yet been defined. Other trends involve revamping existing cuisines like Italian, breaking them out of their mold of spaghetti, lasagna, etc., and giving them a fresher approach.

Chef Hall: Bolder flavors. This doesn't necessarily mean spicier but, with the population aging, there will be more emphasis on bringing up the flavor punch so that people with older taste buds will get a fuller flavor hit.

Cross-cultural ingredients being used in cross-cultural dishes. Certain ingredients show up around the world. Cilantro is an example of this. It's everywhere. People always are going to be more likely to try new dishes that have elements they recognize. If a patron knows enough to recognize cilantro from a Mexican or Tex-Mex dish, he'll be more likely to try something Thai that has the same flavors in it. It helps to broaden the boundaries.

Citrus. Upgraded citrus also is being seen a lot. This includes Meyer Lemon, Blood Orange, Key Lime, Ruby Red Grapefruit. It's great because it says clean and healthy and can translate to any part of the menu.

Chef Murray: I see the trend of flavor-based foods, as opposed to cultural-based trends (Mexican, Asian and Caribbean). Chipotle, for instance, is not necessarily connected directly to Mexican cuisine; however, people perceive it as a bold flavor, a flavor they want to discover. Consumer preferencing indicates that Americans desire and will pay more for flavor that does not appear, taste, or feel fake/over manufactured. There is a growing demand for increased flavor and quality in a food product when compared to traditional consumer needs such as convenience.

Chef Proper: I believe that high-end foods will become much more literally translated in flavor. For example, a high-end restaurant might utilize more exotic or obscure ingredients with which the typical consumer isn't familiar or comfortable. A manufacturing chef will be able to take those flavors (i.e., lemon grass), put them into a commercial product flavorwise, and yet not mention them in the final product name. The product wouldn't be called “Beef Tournedos with Lemon Grass Béchamel”; instead, it would be called “Asian Lemon Beef.” The product can carry the high-end flavor profile, without scaring the consumer with fancy names and uncommon descriptors.

Other trends: more products fit for elderly consumption, products with high fiber, foods in smaller portions with maximum nutritional value and a fuller flavor burst profile, and low-sodium items.

Q: What are the challenges in turning restaurant products into commercial products?

Chef Burrows: I think the biggest challenge is the execution in the back-of-the-house at the restaurants. Food processors are able to give great “speed scratch quality,” and the corporate culinary teams are using them to make great menu items. The ball drops at the operations level, in trying to execute the dish.

Instead of food processing chefs trying to create “ready-to-use” products, there needs to be more emphasis on quality, speed scratch products. The operations teams need to train their employees on basic cooking techniques and the importance of the food. Give them just enough to do to ensure good, consistent quality while maintaining some pride in their job. If they are just re-heating frozen bags, it doesn't matter what the quality is, there will be no pride in the job and the food will end up tasting mediocre on the diner's plate.

Chef Dickhans: One of the biggest challenges is to create a proper atmosphere for our ethnic offerings in foodservice. Consumers are discriminatory in their flavors, and many are not eager to embrace true authentic ethnic cuisine. Often, the mistake of being too authentic is made.

As an example, mole sauce is thick, spicy and bitter when prepared traditionally. For the American market, it needs to be thinner, like a Demi glace, sweeter and a little less spicy. These few changes will make the product acceptable to most.

Once a fine dining trend is established, it usually takes two years before it makes it to mainstream venues.

Chef Hall: The biggest challenges would be maintaining product quality while still making the product affordable and operationally feasible. One of the ways to overcome some of these challenges may be to work on new products on a component basis instead of as a finished dish. This could allow for higher product quality without requiring a lot of extra work in the back-of-house.

Chef Murray: Having the freshest/finest ingredients and the appropriate equipment like a restaurant is essential; however, the crucial part of translating a trend is to have great people in the plant and be able to communicate and work with them. My suggestion is to earn their respect by working with them during a typical shift from start to finish (not only when a new product is running, but during normal production, before you ask for their help on a new product.)

Chef Proper: I think one of the biggest challenges lies in duplicating specific cooking techniques and converting them into manufacturing processes. A commercially prepared French onion soup rarely mimics a house-made version because the mass-produced item generally doesn't incorporate the caramelization of the onions, which enhances flavor and color development.

Q: What changes do you foresee during the next few years and how will technology affect the job of corporate chefs?

Chef Burrows: I think the food will become cleaner, have more flavor from good quality ingredients, and manufacturers' plants will become more like giant kitchens with flavor coming from proper cooking techniques. Fire roasting, giant “wok-like machines” and packaging in individual portion packs will help operations maintain food safety, costs and quality.

Chef Dickhans: The most significant change I see is embracing food science as part of a research and development chef's responsibility, and working in a team environment of chefs, food scientists, etc. Only the combined effort will enable us to deliver what consumers demand in a fast, efficient, safe and economical way. For the chef, that also means staying ahead of trends and being informed of what's new.

I also see our internal and external customers demanding more of our services, faster turnaround times and wanting a better understanding of heating/cooking capabilities.

Chef Hall: More emphasis on health and healthy eating. People are eating out more. They can't afford to ignore the ramifications of what they consume versus their activity level.

There have been so many advances in technology that it only stands to reason that food venues—from c-stores to QSRs to sit down restaurants—will try to take advantage of fast cooking times to be able to prepare foods more quickly. Managed correctly, this technology should cut down on waste as well as improve food quality, without slowing down delivery.

Chef Murray: The challenge to meet the rising level of quality demanded by the customer at an immediate pace, while fighting the continual hurdles of raw material supply, labor supply, regulatory advancements, etc., will continue.

In the 70's, cost was a driving factor in manufacturing. Today, it is flavor. The R&D chef has a great group of professionals (food scientists, manufacturers, vendors/suppliers, and educators) with which to team up to meet customer's needs.

Chef Proper: The current trend in restaurants (casual, QSR and fast food) is an emphasis on “fresh.” I believe the manufacturing industry will follow suit. For example, retail foods that usually are sold in a frozen state will be available in a refrigerated form. Deli concepts generally don't have the capability to get products with consistent quality to cater to this field, but the manufacturing industry does.

Packaging technologies have had a major impact on how the consumer buys his food. Research chefs will be challenged to produce the same quality products with an emphasis on appearance (products will be displayed more visually) and extended shelf life (lower pHs, added acidulates without negatively affecting flavor). Chefs will have to become more educated from the technology standpoint to work with technologists to manufacture a finished masterpiece that the consumer interprets as an affordable, high-quality, value-added product.

Website Resources— Research Chefs Association— American Culinary Federation— Professional Chef's Association— Self-described as a food lover's link to professional chefs

Sidebar: Chefs Make a Difference

With the advent of executive chefs and food formulators working together more often, the forecast for an increased number of tasty, high-end foods at a convenient price looks positive.

The quality of prepared foods continues to improve, a trend our interviewees believe will continue. “Instead of becoming giant manufacturing plants that might as well be churning out nuts and bolts, manufacturers will find efficient ways to produce processed foods in a way that will bring higher quality and more wholesome foods to the ultimate consumer,” states Unilever's Chef Dan Burrows.

A chef's creative abilities allow him (or her) to “think outside the box,” and to offer food scientists additional tools with which to unlock true, satisfying flavor. Chefs who are in “executive” or “research” positions often bring technical know-how to the product development table, better preparing them to work with food scientists. “Although often deemed temperamental, I believe, with a little patience and mutual understanding, chefs will aid in paving the way for manufacturers to reach consumers and better understand their ultimate food fantasy,” says ConAgra's Chef Catherine Proper.

The contributions of a chef result in more sophisticated products, falling in line with a “general public that is more food aware and food savvy than ever before,” but that has “less cooking skill than it has ever had. The challenge will be to keep up with food trends while still providing simple, easy to use food items at an affordable price,” predicts Kraft Foods Inc.'s Chef Linda Hall.

Dan Burrows

Executive Chef-
National Accounts
Unilever/Bestfoods Foodservice
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

History of restaurant experience spans 30 years, including Charlie Trotter's

A Research Chef since 1991

Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA)

Thomas Dickhans

Senior Product Development Chef
Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn.

Apprenticeship in Germany included technical training; worked as journeyman in Italy, Sweden and other countries

Experience includes Hyatt Hotels, W.R. Grace, El Torito and Chi-Chi's

Also works with Hormel Foods International on foods exported to Europe, Asia and Latin America

Linda Hall

Corporate Chef
Kraft Food Service,
Glenview, Ill.

Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America

Experience includes Le Francais and other small, independent restaurants

Former restaurant owner

Timothy Murray

Corporate Executive Chef-
Culinary Development
Peer Foods, Chicago

Résumé lists as graduate of the American Culinary Federation (3-year apprenticeship program)

Degrees in both foodservice management and hospitality management

Experienced in the foodservice industry

Catherine Proper

Research Chef
ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb.

Certified Executive Chef (through the American Culinary Federation)

A wide span of foodservice experience, including catering, fine dining, chain restaurants and QSR

Holds degrees in food science and nutrition, as well as culinary arts