During the opening remarks at a recent meeting of the St. Louis chapter of The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), the following question was put to the audience.

“For your 50th wedding anniversary, you will be given a once-in-a-lifetime dinner honoring you and your spouse. You are asked to choose who will prepare the meal: a team of America's greatest chefs or a team of America's best food scientists?”

In a room of over 100 professional product developers and food scientists, you could have heard a pin drop. Of course, it was only a rhetorical question beginning the presentation, but it brought to mind an age-old debate. Is a food item best developed in a food science lab? Or, perhaps it is best created in a traditional culinary kitchen? What are the advantages of each, and what are the disadvantages? This month, Prepared Foods talked with some of America's most prominent food developers to ask their opinion on this hot food topic.

Steve Schimolier, President, Research Chefs Association, Owner, Mist Grill Restaurant (Waterbury, Vt.)

“You truly need both a chef's kitchen and food lab, but first and last comes the chef's kitchen.”

“The test kitchen provides the initial arena for creativity. It is from this place that the passionate chef can flex his creative muscle. From here come original, wonderful new ideas. Then, a foodservice item must go to the lab for development and scale-up. All the many technical issues must be worked out. This could never be accomplished in a true culinary kitchen. From there, a final product must go back to the kitchen, for operational validation. Of course, it must be delicious, beautiful and priced correctly. But at the end of the day, it has to work in a real kitchen situation.

“In our restaurant, The Mist Grill, we created a fabulous menu item, Cherry Bombs. These consist of ripe plum tomatoes filled with gourmet cheeses, chorizo sausage and corn. They are covered in a won ton wrapper and deep fried. They are served on a bed of corn puree with a burning herb twig inserted into them. Real fire. They really do look like a firecracker, with a fuse burning. We decided to commercialize the item and offer it to foodservice customers. Of course, many changes had to be made, and many issues had to be overcome. To be addressed, these issues required a fully equipped lab but, in the end, we succeeded. And the product even went back to our chef's kitchen to be validated in a real restaurant environment.

“Our past successes in developing great foodservice products modeled on successful new restaurant menu items prove you truly need both a chef's kitchen and a food lab. But, the chef's kitchen comes first and last.”

Margaret A. Lawson, President, Institute of Food Technologists

“Specialized skills and equipment are vital to identifying the critical points of the process for scale-up.”

“The ideal situation is to have a team consisting of food scientists, process engineers, nutritionists, sensory scientists, packaging scientists and research chefs, as well as fundamental scientists such as protein chemists, rheologists, microbiologists and, of course, flavor chemists. This is not to say that wonderful retail products have not been created in a kitchen setting.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to both kitchens and labs. Simply stated, the facility should fit the type of product that is being developed. If the product is for foodservice, then a professional kitchen facility is necessary to ensure the food and package is suitable for storage, handling, preparation and serving in the foodservice environment.

“The product development team will need the capabilities of food science laboratories to ensure that quality and safety parameters are identified and measured. A pilot plant facility is critical to work out the difficulties of scale-up for production.

“The culinary kitchen does augment product development and allow 'culinarians' to test the robustness of the product in a home cooking environment.

“Sophisticated equipment such as a GC-MS, along with a pilot facility to mimic production reaction, extraction, blending and/or drying operations are necessary. Precise analytical instruments are compulsory to measure critical parameters for the flavor specification (such as refractive index, specific gravity, moisture, acidity, salt, etc.).

“Specialized skills and equipment are vital to identifying the critical points of the process for scale-up, not only for the flavor industry but to ensure the safety of any final product. The critical control points could include monitoring the process time, essential temperatures (storage as well as processing or shipping), moisture, metal detection, foreign object control and sanitation validation--all of which require the support of a laboratory and accurately calibrated equipment. This level of sophisticated new product development would be impossible and simply could not be done using a chef's kitchen alone.”

Ian Bell, Director, Product development, J.D. Sweid Ltd. (Vancouver)

“The chef enjoys rates and methods of heat transfer that the food product designer

does not have (and would kill for).”

“Food technologists and engineers often do not have the same culinary skills or artistic expertise as the chef. Yet, food design labs have the same objective as a test kitchen: To prepare and present a food product that delivers satisfaction to the consumer every time. To do it in a safe and wholesome way, and to do it at prices consumers are willing to pay. However, for the food scientist, it is a much more serious-minded task. The product must be finished in such a way that it can be distributed locally, across the state or nationally at volumes that would cause local restaurant kitchens to implode. There are very real problems faced by technologists that are best dealt with by a lab:

1. Food is chemically and organoleptically perishable. Microbiological organisms love it as much as we do. The food product designer has to get the products into a stable format appropriate for distribution and marketing.

2. Because of the nature of large-scale manufacturing, it often is not possible to achieve the bistro-style meal in the same way the restaurant prepared it. Rectifying the situation often involves some compromises.

3. Like the bistro, there has to be a profit at the end of the day. However, unlike a gourmet restaurant, final product price often is a far more serious consideration.

“Chefs in kitchens prepare meals for consumption in the short-term to a local audience. Often, that experience is a special occasion, so it is not repeated daily. The kitchen has control of the product and its preparation until a server sets it down in front of a customer. The chef enjoys rates and methods of heat transfer that the food product designer does not have (and would kill for). A chef also enjoys the luxury of serving preparations that are fundamentally unstable, such as gourmet emulsions and foams. Robust, objective reproducibility is not normally a key criterion. The local bistro has flexibility in ingredient supply and suppliers. It also can customize raw materials in-house, and develop outlets for the trimmings. The local restaurant chef does not often have to worry about packaging the product and distributing for foodservice or retail sale.

“In the food product design world, chef's kitchens are great vehicles for working out 'blue sky' ideas and gold standard development. They are centers of creativity; however, they often are not amenable or appropriate for all the engineering-type tasks that product development demands.”

Steve Ells, Founder, Chipotle Grill Restaurants (Denver)

“Our dedication to…making the small details better has contributed to Chipotle's lasting success.”

A classically trained chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, N.Y.), Steve Ells put his culinary skills to use in conceiving and creating both the Chipotle Grill restaurant concept and its original menu. The majority of those very successful items are still on the menu. And the majority of those items were created not in a food lab but in a chef's kitchen. Ells writes:

“We used basic building blocks such as rice, beans and meat, but it's the use of great cooking techniques and fresh herbs and citrus that elevates these ingredients to something extraordinary. The menu today is basically the same as that used to open the original Chipotle Restaurant in Denver. A tiny place of less than 850 sq. ft., the menu is basically burritos, tacos and bowls. The only two differences from the original menu to today would be the new Burrito Bol and the salad. But the customer can get any combination of ingredients they want. There are a lot of rapidly changing diets and tastes out there. Our focus on immediate product customization (on request) allows people to get exactly what they need. The backdrop is all set against the open kitchen. People get to see the fresh herbs being chopped, the fresh meats being grilled. Fresh avocados are being mashed. When you have a dinner party in your house, everyone wants to be in the kitchen. We have stayed focused on this simple operating system along the way. And we have stayed focused on products created using this system. Our dedication to that focus--and to making the small details better--has contributed to Chipotle's lasting success.”

Chipotle Grill continually optimizes its service and systems while, at the same time, remains true to its core philosophy of using fresh ingredients, prepared on-site, in front of the customer. Clearly chef Steve Ells believes that great food always begins…in the kitchen.

Chef Ray Sierengowski, CCE/CCC, Lead scientist/Corporate chef, Kellogg Co. (Battle Creek, Mich.)

“Great test kitchens are designed to give you real-world, working environments.”

“Culinary kitchens are the ideal arenas for the food manufacturing developer, or chain restaurant chef, to drill down, hone in, and ultimately refine their product.

“Having worked in both small labs as well as a large test kitchens, I am partial to the sounds and smells of 'on the line cooking.' In this line of work, we must be prepared to mimic all of the procedures that my customer will be performing in the back of a 'real-world' kitchen.

“Real-life development and testing conditions allow chefs or product developers to execute complex items and menus with a wide variety of preparation and cooking platforms. Great test kitchens are designed to give you real-world working environments. Kitchens are the ideal area for the food manufacturing developer, chain restaurant chef and food development industry to drill down, hone, and ultimately refine the product prior to field testing or market introduction.”

Teamwork Leads to Success

Chef Lucien Vendome, an executive chef at a leading ingredient company, says, “All too often, a new product follows an assembly line-like flow: From R&D to laboratory to industrial engineering and so on. Marketing injects itself at various stages during the flow. Like a pebble lost in the tide, the original product is shaped and polished and refined until--at the end--it no long resembles the gold standard created by the chef.”

In many cases this has happened to all of us. Chef Schimolier suggests what, perhaps, is a better way: art and science being equally important.

The only opinion that truly matters in this debate is that of the customers. The final end user makes what is truly the final judgment. Will your new product succeed? The consumer will decide. At the end of the day, no one has ever stopped buying a food item because it tasted “too good,” or because it looked “too appealing.” Who will prepare your anniversary dinner? You decide. But if the question is: “Who should design your next new food product?” the answer is clearly: “A team.” A new food product is best be designed by a well-educated, well-trained team of food scientists and culinary chefs. And if asked to choose between a food lab or test kitchen, take a stand…you need both.

Chef J, CEC, CRC (a.k.a. J. Hugh McEvoy), is a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Federation and a certified research chef with the Research Chefs Association. He has developed products for companies such as Marriott Corporation, Ritz Carlton, McDonald's and Au bon Pain, among others. He can be reached at chefj@chefj.info.

Sidebar: Equipment Checklist

  • 2-3 Compartment sinks
  • 2-50# Deep fryers
  • 25-ft. Hood ventilation system
  • 2-door, Reach-in refrigerators
  • 3-drawer (Chip) holding cabinet
  • 30 ft. of Stainless steel prep tables
  • 3-5 Multi-watt microwave ovens
  • 5-gal. Steam kettle
  • 6 Stovetop burners
  • 75# Deep fryer
  • Combination oven
  • Commercial grade slicer
  • Commercial ice machine
  • Convection oven
  • Conveyor & Platten toasters
  • Food staging review area
  • Full complement of foodservice pans
  • Full-rack commercial dishwasher
  • Full spice and food ingredient library
  • Gas-fired char-broiler
  • Holeman conveyor oven
  • Humidity-controlled holding cabinet
  • Inserts & Utensils
  • Laboratory-grade scales
  • Open hood space and utility hookups
  • Roller grill
  • Steam table & Coldwell chef's tables
  • Truck bay & Ramp access to kitchen
  • Vacuum marinade tumbler
  • Vacuum pouch sealer
  • Walk-in freezer
  • Walk-in refrigerator