How chefs drive research and development

by Christopher Tanner, CEC, AAC, Director of the Columbus Culinary Institute at Bradford School

When a consumer picks up a commercial food product in a grocery store they are picking up potentially 12 to 48 months’ worth of research and development. The team often consists of marketers, sales people, product developers, food scientists, culinologists and chefs.

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Christopher Tanner, CEC, AAC

Product development starts first with ideation and consumer demand. Much like a restaurant menu, your guests and consumers must want to purchase your product, otherwise it will sit on a shelf collecting dust. One of the best initiators of demand is researching trends. Trends have a myriad of ways of expressing themselves. Media such as magazines and food television, restaurants from fine-dining to casual quick service and trade shows like the Fancy Food Shows, ACF National Convention and Show or the National Restaurant Association’s annual show are all sources for trend research. Researching all of these avenues through a culinary lens leads to discovering trends like regional American barbecue, which has become popular.

Once the chef has identified the trend, next he or she has to translate it into something tangible for the rest of the team to understand. The next step is to actually taste and/or cook all the styles of barbecue to understand what it is that makes barbecue appealing. Our culinary team attended the ACF National Convention in Kansas City in 2014, where we took a tour of all the city’s popular barbecue establishments. Additionally, we mail-ordered barbecue from all over the country from the most popular restaurants in America, and finally we prepared many traditional recipes from barbecue restaurants and cookbooks.

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Smoke, spices, molasses and a hint of tangy sweetness of Kansas City barbecue still reigns supreme nationwide. There are many regional varieties of barbecue, such as mustard sauce in the Carolinas and mutton in Kentucky. However, one must know their audience and consumer. Especially for a nationwide brand, it is important to appeal to the national palate, not just our developed chef palates.

The next step brings the chef into the kitchen to create what we call a culinary gold standard. Knowing the desired flavor profile, the chef looks to translate that into the brands he or she creates products for. One can translate it in different ways for different brands. Some examples include Swanson canned pulled pork, Chunky BBQ Seasoned Pork soup, Southern BBQ flavored Campbell’s Slow Cooker sauce, Pace Bourbon & Apple Salsa and Campbell’s Chunky BBQ Flavored Baked Beans and Pulled Pork.

Once the chef creates the gold standard, often that product is put in front of consumers to taste and give feedback. This may be done as an in-home test where product is sent to consumers to give feedback, or we might bring in consumers to taste the products in a consumer panel. Sometimes this is done individually or consumers may taste together and discuss ideas openly. Everyone takes notes, adjusts based on feedback and then moves onto the next step.

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The recipe then moves into the hands of a product developer who works with a myriad of commercial ingredients and special processes to ensure that the recipe tastes the same when it goes into a can, bottle or other package. This step requires partnerships with ingredient vendors. For instance, chefs at Mizkan will provide bourbon, while chefs at Givaudan (a flavor and fragrance company) develop apple flavors, bourbon flavors or other barbecue flavors. One may even consider Tabasco’s chipotle sauce to get some smoky notes.

The product developer will create a number of kitchen batches that they will taste with the chef and other team members. Tweaks are made along the way until they are able to take the original culinary gold standard to contrast with what is coined the commercial gold standard. The recipe from that commercial gold standard is then sent to a commercial plant to be manufactured. The first run may be sent to consumers again for feedback.

Sometimes the team is confident in the product. Chefs will accompany marketing and sales teams for trips to present to retailers before the last step which ends with the product purchased and brought home to enjoy.

Chefs are a key element to the product development process from ideation to sales presentations. This up to 24-month process can seem like a long time but when a chef moving through the process, it can actually be quite quick — especially when he or she is working on multiple brands.

In the end, though, what matters most is that a chef can create something delicious for consumers to enjoy again and again.

 

Chef Christopher Tanner, CEC, AAC, spent five years with Campbell Soup Company as executive chef of research and development. During that time, he led teams that developed hundreds of concepts for the company’s many brands.

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