The ins and outs of a research chef career


any of us have heard of research chefs, but do we really know what they do on a day-to-day basis?

In a nutshell, a research chef is a chef that works closely with or serves on the research and development (R&D) team at a food manufacturer, commodity board or other company or organization. Many are tasked with developing new products based on their culinary and food science experience, and may travel often to educate the industry about these new products.

The horizon for jobs as a research chef looks bright. The Research Chef’s Association (RCA) estimates a 6.9 percent increase in members listing themselves as research chefs over the next three years, and it projects a 31 percent growth in job openings over the next six years.

Not to mention the pay can be great. Research chefs make an average of $99,507 a year, according to ACF research, with a top-end potential of $112,097 or more. Research chefs work long hours (48 to 57 hours a week, according to the ACF’s survey), but most say they’re guaranteed weekends and holidays off and that they get full benefits.

Many research chefs report that their days offer a lot of variety. They can be found doing anything from conducting research on the newest food trends, attending industry trade shows, developing ingredients and dishes in R&D kitchens, and engaging with customers and focus groups, according to the RCA.

There is no one-size-fits-all set of requirements for becoming a research chef, but most companies favor a culinary school degree and some line cooking experience. Taking food science courses is also a plus.

Sizzle caught up with research chefs from different companies to learn more about a day in their lives.

Nick Landry, CSC

Culinary development chef, Southeastern Mills, LLC
Member, ACF Atlanta Chefs Association

A research chef for the past two and a half years, Landry came to Southeastern Mills in Rome, Ga., from Bruce Foods in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he served as corporate chef for five and a half years.

“I highly recommend getting some good restaurant work,” Landry says when asked about the requirements for becoming a research chef. After graduating with a bachelor of science degree from Nicholls State University/Chef John Folse Culinary Institute in Louisiana, Landry clocked time as a line cook at The Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and later moved his way up from line cook to head chef at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York.

Landry travels regularly, but says he enjoys the experience of working hands-on with chefs of national chains to demo his products and provide education and training.

“Often we’ll get asked by chefs from national chains to brainstorm and develop ideas for limited-time-offers (LTOs) and specials, like fried chicken and biscuits,” he says. “It’s so exciting to see something I created serving millions of people a day when the dish hits their menu board.”

For culinary students exploring research chef careers, Landry recommends networking extensively and keeping up with ACF certifications, which many food companies value. Consider taking science classes, too. “I took chemistry not thinking I would actually use it as a chef and now I use it every day,” he says.

Jason Ziobrowski, CEC

Corporate chef, InHarvest (Eastern Region, Charlotte, N.C.)
Charlotte Chapter president and board member, ACF

Being a research chef is the best job Chef “Jay Z” Ziobrowski says he’s had in all of his years cooking. A graduate of Johnson & Wales University and current ACF Charlotte Chapter president, Ziobrowski has been with InHarvest for more than 10 years.

“Being a research chef is still tough and there can be long hours, but it’s a different demand,” he says.

When he’s not traveling, a typical day might involve checking emails in the morning and helping a chef at a local school district figure out ways to get ancient grains on the menu. He might have an afternoon meeting at a nearby healthcare facility demoing products, followed by an ACF meeting at night.

“Really pay attention in your nutrition and baking and pastry classes because it will help you later,” says Ziobrowski, who is often knee-deep in recipe development and testing using strict measurements and calculations.

Networking — through industry shows and conferences, events and social media — helped him learn about the opening at InHarvest. “If you see an R&D job that you want, get your name out there by competing in cooking competitions, getting involved in your local ACF chapter and being more active on social media,” he says.

Gerrie Bouchard

Founder and product development chef, Culinary Contents
Board member, RCA

Gerrie Bouchard founded her own culinary consulting company this year after three years of working as the director of product operations for Love The Wild, a sustainable seafood supplier, and after nearly five years as the marketing director for Archer Daniels Midland Company in Vineland, New Jersey.

At all of her jobs, Bouchard has helped companies bring their products to market. She also develops recipes for marketing and product development purposes.

“Having a marketing background is unique in my field because it helped me understand costs and consumer preferences, and how to fill in gaps in the marketplace,” she says.

Bouchard highly recommends getting involved in organizations like ACF and RCA early to make connections and to take continuing food science classes.

“You need to apply your culinary skills and creativity to a research chef job,” she says, “but also know science in order to develop a product that can go through different temperatures, sit on shelves or otherwise take some abuse when going from production to the marketplace.”

Michael Thrash

Corporate executive chef, GA Foods
Member, ACF and RCA

Chef Michael Thrash came to GA Foods from New England’s Ale House Grill, where he served as the corporate chef.

Thrash recommends becoming “well-rounded” as a chef in order to land a research chef job, rather than focusing on one cuisine. Prior to his current job, Thrash worked the line at everything from a top seafood restaurant company in Boston to country clubs and hotels across the country. To “stay in the game” and on top of trends, he teaches at the Art Institute of Tampa.

“In a restaurant you get to create great recipes, but you have a limited audience,” he says. “As a research chef, I get to create products that will reach hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis.”

Thrash has studied sensory analysis on his own to understand brain behavior as it relates to taste and smell, which has helped him come up with more successful products.

Lately, Thrash has been tasked with removing ingredients to create “cleaner” labels, and he’s been working on incorporating more Mediterranean, Latin, Southeast Asian and other global flavors into his products.

5 Ways to Become a Research Chef

Earn your bachelor’s and culinary degree first. Extra credit for earning a Bachelor of Science degree.

Take classes in food science and related topics.

Network, network network with other research chefs and food companies through associations, events and more.

Consider internships or shadowing opportunities in R&D.

Work hard and be patient; jobs in this field take more experience than most.