If you’ve bitten into a hot dog while attending a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston, you’ve dined on a Fenway Frank, a product produced by Kayem Foods, Inc., Chelsea, Mass., the largest meat processor in New England.The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Washington, DC, estimates that 1.33 million franks were sold at Fenway Park during the past baseball season — in the Top 5 for the most sold at any ballpark in the nation.

It is no surprise, then, to learn that Kayem’s top-selling products are its natural-casing pork and beef franks, and they're not only sold in the presence of Fenway’s famed Green Monster. The best-selling hot dog and Kayem’s all-beef skinless franks make an appearance at several other sports venues throughout the US, including the home stadiums of the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars, to name just a couple for fans of football.

Kayem also sees green, as in dollar signs, with its popular al fresco line of chicken sausages, the best-selling chicken sausage in the US, according to the company. Susanna Tolini, product development chef for Kayem for the past four years, is a member of the Research Chefs Association (RCA) and a recipient of the association’s recent CuliNex CRC scholarship. She said that Kayem, with annual sales of about $150 million, has found market success with the gluten-free, low-fat, low-sodium, flavorful sausages.

“Our most popular flavors are sweet apple and sweet Italian,” Tolini said.

Kayem’s products are sold in retail locations in the Northeast, in select markets around the country, and in Hong Kong and Kuwait.

Sporting a new look
The al fresco line of chicken sausages, named one of Family Circle magazine’s best products of 2010 and one of Men’s Health magazine’s 125 best foods for men for the seventh year in a row, recently unveiled a new look and feel including a new logo, redesigned product packaging and a refreshed website with numerous recipes featuring its products. And the company’s tomato and basil chicken meatballs just received Health magazine’s Best New Eats of 2011 award as one of America’s healthiest foods.

Tolini became inspired to become a chef while attending Johnson and Wales University for culinary arts. She emphasized she chose this career path “bcc” — before celebrity chefs.

“When I first attended Johnson and Wales, my goal was to become a caterer,” she said. “In those years, we didn’t read a lot about celebrity chefs, so other than Julia Child, there weren’t really many chef role models out there. I was inspired to become one because I felt that my ability to cook was innate and something I learned at the side of my mother’s apron.”

When asked about her earliest food memory and most memorable meal, she responded, “Besides Cheerios?” Then she added, “But a great food memory was making breaded, pan-browned fried green tomatoes with my mom. Today, I would probably embellish that with goat cheese, extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil. Also, one of my favorite meals was roasted leg of veal at my wedding dinner [to Whole Foods chef Edward Tolini] at the former Café Budapest in Boston.”

Tolini and her husband owned an upscale, highly rated French restaurant called Le Bocage in the ’90s because, along with many chefs, it was a dream of theirs. The restaurant was described by the Boston Globe as “one of a handful of places that changed the way Bostonians thought about restaurants and about food.”

Tolini also worked for six years as an R&D chef at Hans Kissle, a private label manufacturer, prior to joining Kayem.

“I wanted to transfer to a company with a more focused, branded product, so when the opportunity arose to work for Kayem, I was happy to join the company,” she said.

Blending art and science
What Tolini said she enjoys about her position at Kayem and development of the al fresco line is its duality, the blend of art and science. It is also this blending of the two within the RCA that Tolini finds rewarding.

“What inspires me about the RCA is that many members are chefs working in product development,” she said. “The association focuses on chefs who are exploring food science and its relationship with the culinary side of production and preparation. One of my first jobs in the ’80s was at Stop and Shop Manufacturing to develop premium salads, and this was a huge cultural shock for me because at first I had a hard time relating to the technical and to large-scale production, which didn’t blend with my creative side. The RCA helped me because it demonstrated you can blend the two as both art and science.”

Maintaining that balance between the art and science of the discipline of Culinology is not her only challenge. She added that her biggest R&D drive is to keep her skills and interests current.

“I find there is more technical than creative when it comes to product development, but that is why the gold-plate standard approach is so critical,” she said. “It can be difficult to maintain that creativity with artistic expression in the forefront.”

What she values most about the RCA, she said, is keeping in touch with other research chefs when she has the opportunity.

“This connection we make is why the association is so important,” she said. “Plus, the RCA offers many educational opportunities, including scholarships such as the one I have received, and seminars and the annual conference. Even if one can’t attend any of the seminars, they are offered on the RCA’s website.”

The RCA, she said, is instrumental to raising the professionalism for research chefs.

“Culinology has become a curriculum in colleges around the country now,” she said. “This is forefront and center in our industry. I have been involved in many roles with the RCA, and I would at some point like to be on the association’s board of directors.”

Tolini doesn’t rest on her laurels. In fact, she is still a student at heart. She is taking an online course through the RCA, and her CuliNex scholarship from the association covers the cost of her CRC exam to become a certified research chef.

“My pursuit of the goal of the CRC is like a lifetime achievement award for me, and this will be personally very satisfying,” she said. “Once I achieve this goal, I will find another goal. Just wait."

The Research Chefs Association Annual Conference and Culinology Expo will be held March 21-24 in San Antonio, Texas.