The Right Recipe
By Tom Wray, associate editor
Corporate chefs bring the creativity to develop new products for processors and restaurants alike.
While some dishes on American tables have been around for years, there are always new recipes coming out to tantalize consumers’ palates. Those new dishes need to come from somewhere, and often it’s from the minds of corporate chefs.
The term “corporate chef” can cover a range of territory. At its most basic, it means the person in charge of developing the new recipes for restaurant chains or processors wanting to show how their products can be used. Corporate chefs can be found in the headquarters of restaurant chains, large processors and even at ingredient suppliers.
Judson McLester, corporate chef at Wixon Inc. St. Francis, Wis., falls into that last category. “What I’m trying to do is bridge the gap between culinary and food science,” he says. McLester works with the technical group at his company and suppliers, incorporating what they develop into products that Wixon can take out and show customers. If, for example, McLester is working on a marinade system, he would work with them over time to help use the product to solve a problem in current processes or develop a new concept.
Robert Schafer, president of Mission Viejo, Calif.-based Creative Culinary Solutions, has worked as a corporate chef at a couple of different chains. His company acts as a culinary consultant for some processors and small chains, sometimes serving as a contracted corporate chef. Schafer is the lead creative guy who is there to create the products his customer wants, he says, adding that he uses as much information he can acquire through marketing, surveys or actually going out and talking to customers.
The right ingredients
Depending on the part of the industry a particular company is in, the focus of a corporate chef can differ. The focus of a corporate chef differs depending on the part of the industry a particular company is in. For a large meat processor, the corporate chef would be focused strictly on the meat species the company processes. Schafer says that the chef would work on creating dishes to show potential customers the product's many possibilities.
With a restaurant-chain corporate chef, the job would cover a much wider range of possibilities. With a national casual dining chain, all ingredients are on the table. The chef in this case would be putting himself in the mindset of the local restaurant chef and seeing what new recipes could be developed to bring in consumers.
McLester’s job is even wider in scope. “I get to try all kinds of good food,” he says. “I would approach a wide variety of ingredients, with each focus depending on the consumer. I could develop a breading mix that my company could offer to a chicken processor. That processor could then show a casual dining chain a product that would work well with the menu mix for that particular chain. The process can go in the other direction with a restaurant developing a recipe and looking for particular ingredients from the processor and supplier.”
Outside the kitchen
No matter what part of the industry, a corporate chef’s work will take them outside of the kitchen. Schafer says his work takes him to marketing to sell the product, operations to make the product, training for both line workers and kitchen staff, purchasing for the ingredients and even accounting for the costs.
“There’s really not a department that the corporate chef, the head of R&D, would not interact with,” he says.
The presence of a corporate chef can also make a difference outside the company.
“It brings credibility to a corporation,” says McLester. “You develop a reputation for making really good tasting products. The chef understands food on the palate a bit better than a food scientist.”
Schafer adds that it can be an additional resource for the company and customers. The chef can show how the product can be used.
“Years before we started this type of concept, it was more the commodity approach,” he explains. “It was more ‘here’s my product, here’s the price.’ Now it’s looking at the menu and saying “we feel these products would fit in this and this category.’ ”
In a restaurant, the chef would be the creative light for the company, steering the menu and setting the standards and quality.
Ahead of the curve
A corporate chef takes research and development beyond just the ingredients. McLester gets a view of both the food science side and culinary side. “It’s the job of the chef to stay ahead of trends and watch how flavors come together for a product,” he says. “I am also responsible for the presentation of the product.”
The chef is a little more creative, and less scientific, says Schafer. “R&D is more science oriented,” he says. “Food scientists are more task oriented. The chef looks at it more as art.”
Trends do form the biggest challenge for many corporate chefs.
“The consumer out there today is so much more educated than ten years ago,” Schafer says. “The Food Network has done a great, great job in opening up the masses to the foods of the world.” But that also means having to step faster to keep ahead of the trends and adapt menus and products as tastes grow and develop.
McLester says that costs are another consideration, and therefore focuses on keeping new products cost effective.
“Everyone is pulling back and things are going up in price,” he says. Keeping foods healthy, like low-sodium product, but keeping them flavorful are another challenge.
A bigger pot
In a constantly changing kitchen and marketplace, corporate chefs work together to find the best solutions. A variety of industry groups exist for the different segments of corporate culinary arts.
The American Culinary Federation (ACF) works with chefs for the nation’s restaurants and chains. On the other side of the equation is the Institute of Food Technology (IFT), which counts food scientists as its memberships. The Research Chefs Association (RCA) fills the gap between the two.
“We bridge the gap between the culinary and food science so there is a common language used,” says McLester, who is a founding member of the RCA. “So everyone will be on the same page.” All three groups work together on training and education to cover all aspects of recipe and product development.
Schafer says that interaction is how industry associations help the most, especially in a creative field such as product development.
“I might have an idea for something but needs some help with it,” he says. “You try to be an expert in everything, but you can’t be.”