Lifting the curtain on culinology

by Donna Berry
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Insert "Culinology" was designed to help professional chefs, culinary students and product developers approach the science behind the foods they are developing.
ATLANTA — Members of the Research Chefs Association (RCA), Atlanta, collaborated on a hot-off-the-press text book entitled “Culinology: The Intersection of Culinary Art and Food Science.” The book is designed to help professional chefs, as well as culinary students and product developers, approach the science behind the foods they are developing. Culinology helps food professionals understand how and why things happen to food during the preparation and cooking process, and once learned, how to manipulate them to one’s advantage.

The RCA was incorporated in 1996 by a small group of research chefs hoping to learn from and share with other like-minded professionals facing common challenges in the development of new food products at the commercial level. Many of the founding members contributed to the 19 chapters in the book, which range from food science topics such as understanding the chemistry of carbohydrate-, lipid- and protein-based foods, to the role of food additives, packaging and sensory evaluation in product development. Of course, nutrition, quality and safety have a presence throughout the text book.

Jeff Cousminer, past president of the RCA, research and development manager, Stonewall Kitchen, York, Maine, and editor of the book, wrote in the preface, “As chefs, the foods we handle everyday have deep scientific underpinnings. But approaching the whole subject of food science can be scary to people who equate it with long-forgotten and even intimidating high school chemistry.” This is where culinology can assist.

Along with Jim Pintner, consulting chef, Sandridge Food Corp., Medina, Ohio, the two wrote in the preface, “The public wants and expects their favorite foods to be available everywhere, from the finest restaurants to supermarket shelves.” With the assistance of culinology, today those shelves are lined with products carefully developed to satisfy the savvy tastes of our food-obsessed nation while maintaining high standards of quality, safety, stability and affordability.

Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY, spoke with some of the 56 culinary professionals who contributed knowledge and expertise to the book, which was released in March to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the RCA.

Food Business News: How did you become involved in culinology?

James Adams, director of process optimization, Tyson Foods, Springdale, Arkansas.: Although the term culinology has been accurately defined as the intersection of culinary art and food science, I personally tell others that it is in fact a marriage of these two very different aspects of food. It is my humble opinion that if this blending does take place, it is a merger of equals that can drive speed to market, innovation and enable a company to leapfrog the competition. During my 40-plus years of hiring candidates for positions in my research and development groups, I always tried to find such “blended” persons. I guess you would say I was hiring culinologists before I knew what they were.

 
James Adams, director of process optimization for Tyson Foods
Pinter: I knew when I came to Sandridge in 1985 that I would need a much broader understanding of food than I obtained through my apprenticeship, culinary school and my years in food service. I joined RCA in 1999 with the understanding that this group would help me find the path to that understanding. This was a whole different knowledge base than the culinary side. The scientists were the people in power, but they didn’t know how to do what I could do, and I didn’t know what they knew. I was serious about learning everything I could to broaden my scientific understanding and become a valued leader rather than a follower.

 

Mark Crowell, principal culinologist, CuliNex LLC, Seattle: I got involved with RCA almost 20 years ago when I was director of culinary development for Olive Garden. Being a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, I didn’t understand much about food science or food manufacturing. What RCA was doing was incredibly important to my personal success at the time and it still is that way today. Everyone at my company is a practicing culinologist. It’s what we do all day, every day. Because we specialize in clean label product development, all of our development is free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors and G.M.O.s. With a smaller development toolkit to work with, the fundamentals of culinology are vital.

Why is culinology paramount for “real food” product development?

Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor, The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State Univ., East Lansing: I always believed chefs could do so much more than cook. Who can better understand food quality than a culinary professional? It’s this tangible knowledge of food that enables the development of “real food.” Food has become exhibition. Food has become show. Food is identity. Food today really supports the adage “you are what you eat.”

Adams: In my lifetime I have seen the role of chef evolve from a hard worker sweating in a hot kitchen and receiving meager pay, to one of the most admired occupations. Interestingly, in the 1950s and 1960s, food companies hired chefs away from some of the best restaurants in the world and had them quietly working in the background to develop the gold standards of the foods we now enjoy every day that are  delivered in cans, bottles, jars, etc. Sometime in the 1990s, with all the attention to the bottom line, food companies decided that these extremely talented individuals had become obsolete. Thankfully, at the start of the 21st century, companies realized culinary innovation was necessary for survival and chefs were added back to the structure of food companies. In the past 10 years, the role of chef has become what it was earlier on. They are master creators of bold and exciting great-tasting foods. Today they are aligned with commercialization experts as part of a multifunctional team approach to creating the foods we will enjoy in the future. Hopefully they will have a “seat at the table” for years to come.

 
Jim Pintner, consulting chef of Sandridge Food Corp. 
Pinter: The RCA was formed around the time consumers started asking food companies for products that their food scientists weren’t qualified to make. Though much of the equipment used in food processing plants is different than that used in restaurants, there is still a familiarity and an understandable functionality to it that comes from similar scaled down equipment in the restaurant world. Chefs are hands-on people and are good at making that leap to much larger and more complex equipment from a comfort and confidence perspective. Their confidence is passed on in their use of the equipment to produce scaled up versions of products they’ve taught themselves how to make. That confidence is passed on to the people they help to train on that equipment.

 

What were some of the most fascinating facts you discovered when authoring the book?

Pinter: When I began writing the preface, I went into much greater detail about the origins of mayonnaise then appear in the edited published preface. During my research I learned how Duke de Richelieu’s chef accidentally invented mayo in 1756 through the substitution of olive oil for cream in a sauce because of a shortage of cream in the vanquished port of Mahon on the Spanish island of Minorca (Mahon-naise, get it?). This is just one of the many examples of how common foods today were created by culinary professionals many years ago.

Crowell: I co-authored chapter one — The business of new product development and the role of the culinology professional — with Barb Stuckey, executive vice-president, Mattson, Foster City, Calif. We went to great efforts to identify and describe the many career opportunities in food. Some of them were even new to us. Indeed, with so many career choices for young professionals, we worked hard to explain what product development is and how it fits among the myriad possibilities available to a young person just starting out today. Food has evolved into a very cool profession and we explained its many facets. Today there is an ethical element to food that didn’t always exist. Whether it is sustainability, buying organic or the social justice aspects of access to healthy food, these are issues that fire the passions of many young people today. These issues drive the business of food product development.

Mark Crowell, principal culinologist for CuliNex LLC
Adams: When conducting my research for the chapter on fermentation, I was astounded by the opportunities that exist in the area of fermented foods as a survival food. There are so many parts of foods that Americans would consider waste that can be fermented and made into edible food. Future culinologists have an opportunity to stem starvation and feed the world by using fermentation technology. Although it is surmised that fermentation is one of the oldest forms of food preservation, in today’s modern world, we have barely scratched the surface of developing new and exciting foods using fermentation, foods beyond the well-knowns such as sauerkraut, pickles, peppers, yogurt, cheese and dried sausage.

 

Dan Putnam, technical manager, Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, Iowa: There are many hurdles when scaling up culinary creations for mass production. Extended marketing channels require stability through refrigeration, freezing or even intensive heat processing. That’s where starch ingredients, which are discussed in great detail in the chapter on carbohydrate-based foods, can assist. For many chefs, their knowledge of starch is limited to adding flour to meat drippings and stirring over low heat until it thickens to serve as a base for gravy. Identifying and explaining the many roles of starch in food product development is mesmerizing, even for those of us who have made a career out of starch science. That’s because starch is not just starch. There are many options and each is designed for a particular function. They are not interchangeable.

Borchgrevink: When co-authoring the chapter on food processing, one of the final ones in the book and designed to bring all of the hands-on science into the manufacturing plant, it was an interesting process to translate culinary terminology into stainless steel. For example, from the perspective of the chef, size reduction, as in mincing, dicing and chopping, is essential to the preparation and delivery of high-quality food. Uniformity of size and shape lends itself to even cooking and desirable visual appeal. Commercial processing equipment can be used to reciprocate many of these precise cuts; however, the typical accelerated throughput of commercial operations can detract from precision in size and shape consistency. It was amazing how many situations there are when you must identify the compromise between the restaurant setting and high-volume production.

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