Students find themselves in culinary school having come from many different backgrounds and having traveled down many paths. Some are cooks that are ready to move into a more challenging role in the kitchen; others want to learn new skills in baking by becoming a pastry chef; and others are building on years of cooking experience, having had no formal training. I found my way to Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School by way of music.
I knew I would eventually work in a kitchen as a chef. I grew up watching and learning from my grandmother in her kitchen, as she created wonderful meals using the ingredients from her northern Minnesota farm. Without formal training, she taught me through her examples and her artistry was evident as she showed me how to make and prepare food. It fed my desire to fun my own kitchen someday. Many years later, I’m a corporate culinary executive chef. It’s a title I wasn’t aware existed when I was a young boy in that hot Midwestern kitchen.
Now there are a number of job titles assigned to professional development chefs that work for food manufacturers. These include corporate chef, executive chef, corporate executive chef, culinary executive chef, culinary operations chef, or even director of culinary development. Although each title may have its own meaning within each company, the role is primarily the same: It’s all about making great food items for the firm’s customers.
Solving Problems, Working with Others
While many of us in the food business came from divergent paths, one of the most critical skills every chef must have is the understanding of how business and creativity work together.
I learned early on in my career from a mentor and successful restauranteur that a creative meal must also be repeatable in terms of resources. If it takes too long to reproduce at volume, or the ingredients are cost-prohibitive, it won’t stay on the menu for long. But he told me wisely, without training my career wouldn’t go to the next level. Professional culinary training, in my case, at Le Cordon Bleu helped expose me to advanced techniques and global cuisines.
This formal training also prepared me to become the number one problem solver in my kitchen. I take this approach developing new concepts for our global clients at the OSI Group. We continuously strive for excellence while being innovative and using available ingredients, selecting the best ones based on seasonality and quality.
I love a good challenge, and helping our clients and adding value can be just that. Our global customer partners usually have a vision of what a dish should be, how they want it to look and taste. It’s my job (and those on my team in the development kitchen) to meet their needs, by reimagining traditional dishes. We use innovative approaches and set extremely high standards, expecting every dish to be the same quality if it’s created for a small group or produced for millions.
I utilize all of my culinary skills, and more, in this position, where I am responsible for not only concept development and ingredient selection, but also for working with other teams to ensure each item can be made successfully on a larger scale. Maintaining food quality, consistency and texture when producing food at this volume requires innovation as well as culinary intelligence.
Because of my early introduction to cooking, I was drawn to study culinary arts. The education opened many doors, and led to my current position as Culinary Executive Chef at OSI Group, a global food processor. Every day I’m challenged creatively and use this to motivate me to continue developing products that meet the needs of our clients and their consumers.
What You Need to Succeed
From both my personal and professional point of view, chefs should have an interest in food science to understand the complexities of how ingredients, flavorings and preparation methods interact. Ensuring a concept will translate into a large volume of food requires understanding of research and development, as well as market insights, to create successful recipes.
As a professional development chef, I rely on my artistic culinary side, too. It’s a delicate balance (not unlike cooking) to manage food science considerations with culinary expertise, and a lot of it is learned on the job. To be successful, it’s important to understand concepts on paper, and be able to apply a business background when concepting, ordering and producing.
When I interview aspiring chefs looking to join my team at OSI Group, I ask about what drives them. I value a culinary school education, along with industry and manufacturing experience. Having a hospitality industry background, a commitment to serving, learning and working in kitchens, strong customer service acumen, and the ability to develop partnerships—are all keys to success. Whether you are starting out or changing careers, maintaining the highest standards for continuous improvement will always set you apart.
I’m currently working on publishing a cookbook based on my grandmother’s recipes. The farm-to-table movement started in many homes like ours and I continually strive to build this heritage into my own work. Being a professional development chef allows me to pull many tools from the kitchens of my past and I try to instill this appetite for creativity in others as well.
Christopher Hansen is the Assistant Vice President, Culinary Executive Chef, OSI Group and is a highly accomplished culinary professional with over 20 years of extensive and diverse experience across all aspects of the food industry. Knowledgeable in fine-dining, retail, club stores and global QSR operations, Mr. Hansen is recognized as a leader in innovation and concept development around Food Sensory Experience, Ingredient Selection and Industrial Food Processing. In his role as Culinary Executive Chef, Mr. Hansen acts as the liaison between OSI Group’s Research & Development Teams and customers, adding value through his expertise in product development that drives profitable relationships.