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November 19, 2009
by Jennifer Barnett Fox
Ten years ago, the traditional food industry career path went one of two directions — culinary arts or food science. For chefs interested in nutrition or food scientists wanting to cook and bake, it was up to the individual to educate themselves.
The line of demarcation between the two disciplines resulted in job titles and working languages that rarely translated to one another. In an effort to maximize productivity and knowledge among its members and the industry, the Research Chefs Association (RCA) integrated the two disciplines into Culinology more than a decade ago. The play on words blends culinary and technology in a joint initiative that’s directly responsible for a large part of the evolution of better-tasting products with improved shelf life and consistency. While the term Culinology, a registered trademark of the RCA, hasn’t saturated industry vernacular, its concepts have.
"Culinology helps to bridge the working language and technical skill gap that has existed, and still does to some extent, between R&D chefs and food scientists," said Janet Carver, RCA board member and senior Culinology group leader at National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ. "If you eat, you have consumed a food that has been influenced by this discipline."
EARLY ROOTS. In 2003, Ms. Carver developed the National Starch Food Innovation Culinology Team to support its North American business. The team develops food products with on-trend, high-quality concepts that use the company’s ingredients. "Someone truly using Culinology in their R&D kitchen would not only be translating the flavor profiles and techniques of a trained chef but also making sure the product is ‘manufacturable,’ safe and stable — shelf, refrigerator and freezer — for the consumers," she continued. The company plans to adopt Culinology globally, building capability in Latin America and Asia/Pacific. It currently has a European-based research chef.
This global approach not only applies to localities but also to members throughout the food industry looking to create the best products possible. "There’s no longer a need to choose between science or culinary anymore," said Harry Crane, RCA president and executive chef at the Kraft Culinary Center of Excellence. "Now it’s possible to enter a workplace with a foundation in both and as employers better understand the idea of Culinology, they’ll look for people with that training."
Mr. Crane stressed the importance of educating management and those higher up the chain of command on how Culinology can help food manufacturers maximize the flavor and nutrition of any food developed. "The idea of teamwork in Culinology includes nutritionists and dieticians, as well as food scientists and culinologists," he continued.
FINDING INFLUENCE. The first Culinology program began in 2001 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Today 10 US universities offer RCA-approved Culinology degrees with 300 students enrolled nationwide. California State University, Fresno currently has 40 students enrolled in its 4-year Culinology program. Typically, high schools serve as the primary recruitment market for students interested in Culinology.
Organizations such as RCA also visit high schools to expose students to Culinology. Rachel Zemser, certified culinary scientist, food industry consultant, serves as RCA’s regional contact for the Northwest Pacific region. "RCA can provide a built-in network," Ms. Zemser said. "People relate more to chefs than food scientists, and culinologists are a bridge to the real world experience."
Klaus Tenbergen, Culinology program director and assistant professor at Fresno State, uses food as a medium to explain science — how metal knives can oxidize food or why using a wood-topped table is superior to a metal surface for crafting bread dough. "Every chef needs to know how to bake, and every baker must know how to cook," said Mr. Tenbergen, a European-trained baker. "It’s important students understand both aspects."
With more than 30 years in the baking industry, Mr. Tenbergen views the evolution of Culinology as a reflection of the ever-changing industry and a way for those involved to remain viable and profitable. "As soon as a new trend emerges, culinologists are at the forefront of the trend," he said. "Culinologists help eliminate problems and fill the gap between people in the offices and people on the line, much like the
mechanic that keeps an operation running."
Michael Cheng, director and associate professor, Culinology and hospitality management, Southwest Minnesota State University, has 54 students enrolled this fall. The 4-year degree teaches sensory analysis as well as the functional properties of food. "Culinology drives awareness and has made huge additions to the snack food industry," said Mr. Cheng, a member of the RCA board of directors. "When looking at consumer packaged goods over the past 10 years, there’s been a shift to more authenticity and a greater range of regional and ethnic flavors." Mr. Cheng offered RiceWorks Snacks, a Snack Alliance, Inc. brand, as an example that combined ethnic influences and better-for-you ingredients.
CULINOLOGY 101. Baking may be one of the most primary examples of Culinology with its inherent emphasis on science. Danny Bruns, certified research chef and certified culinary administrator, offered St. Louis, MO-based Panera Bread as an excellent example of Culinology in action. In an effort to create better bread, the company returned to classical breadmaking. The success was then translated across all of Panera’s units and has since resulted in strong sales and rising stock prices. Tom Gumple, vice-president of Panera, shared the company’s vision of Culinology with attendees at this year’s RCA annual conference and Culinology expo.
On the wholesale side, Highland Baking, Northbrook, IL, employs Culinology to speed new product production, prevent loss and customize for consumer needs. For those new to the concept, Steve Barnhart, Highland Baking’s R&D director, suggested companies fully analyze what they look to accomplish in regards to their products.
"If they are seeking higher quality, they need to look at all aspects of their processing," said Mr. Barnhart, certified master baker, AIB certified baker, master certified foodservice executive, foodservice management professional, certified culinarian. "It’s not only ingredients that make the difference, especially in the baking industry. Processing plays a major role and every step of the process must be to the benefit of the product."
He cited cost-effective products, microwave-friendly foods and the switch to frozen, mass-manufactured products as successful examples of Culinology, but cautioned that testing is not an automatic guarantee of success. "Awareness of the cost investments of lost product, time, energy and labor must always be a consideration," he said.
NEW APPROACH. The success of Culinology is largely dependant on individuals proving what they are capable of, along with the ability to interact with food scientists from the beginning, according to Mr. Cheng. Company leadership, support for Culinology and an understanding of what a culinologist can provide to the company is critical. "By investing in employees, it will result in better products for the consumer," he said. "Culinology was never intended to take the place of food science."
Mr. Crane echoed this sentiment. "Companies recognize the advantage of people trained in both areas, and it makes sense to maximize," he said. While collaboration between chefs and food scientists is nothing new, the idea of cross-training leads to better ideas and more powerful results, he concluded.
Frito-Lay, Plano, TX, recently opened a state-of-the-art Culinary Innovation Center where chefs, scientists and engineers develop innovative food products and enabling technologies. "Frito-Lay recognized this was a leadership opportunity," said Stephen A. Kahil, certified research chef, certified executive chef and corporate executive research chef, Culinary Innovation Center, Frito-Lay. "We believe our culinologists will help shape the future of our offerings." The use of Culinology has enabled Frito-Lay to be more adept and responsive to evolving trends and consumer behaviors, according to Mr. Kahil.
For chefs like Mr. Bruns, Culinology is a vehicle for using culinary talent in a nontraditional environment. Mr. Bruns serves as corporate chef at Kerry Ingredients in Beloit, WI. For an increasing number of snack food companies, research chefs like Mr. Bruns help manufacturers transfer functional ingredients into a manufacturing environment. He has played a role with the company’s snack group in translating the flavors, seasonings and visual appeal of classically prepared dishes onto corn tortillas and finished dough products.
"When you understand the science and the culinary principles behind what you are preparing, you will be able to better present and intellectually speak about the finished creation," Mr. Bruns said. "You’re just another chef unless you understand how it translates into relevance to the customer and the market."
Pastry and baking chef Jean-Yves Charon of Galaxy Desserts, Richmond, CA, relied on Culinology to improve the taste of its thaw-and-serve frozen products. The company strives to avoid crystallization and make desserts as foolproof as possible for consumers who might not follow baking/warming instructions. Mr. Charon summed up the principles of Culinology. "Chefs generally speak a different language than food scientists and it’s nice to have Culinology as a translator between the two." By working together, chefs and food scientists will be able to provide better-tasting foods made with natural ingredients that have a normal shelf life. Both disciplines can provide something to each other that one by itself cannot."