Most chefs — unless they have written cookbooks or they create gourmet delicacies in the dining spots of the elite — remain behind the kitchen doors and nameless to the general public. And since reputation correlates with dollars earned, many chefs — unless they are in a strong union — suffer with low pay, long hours, few benefits, and, consequently, a low standard of living. But there are corporate positions where chefs can earn a decent living, probably twice what they make in the restaurant world.
Jeffrey Cousminer, director of the savory flavor laboratories at Firmenich as well as founder, former president, and education chair for the 10-year-old Research Chefs Association, has worked on both sides of the fence. He has always been interested in cooking — so much so that he dropped out of City College of New York after two years and in 1974 enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, graduating the next year. Then in 1983, after nearly a decade and a half in the restaurant industry, Cousminer was selected to open the kitchen at the Frog and the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick.
But in 1984 he decided to move into industry, went back to school a second time, and began a thriving career in what has now been dubbed “culinology.” According to an article Cousminer wrote in the January, 2001, Food Product Design, the term “culinology,” coined by Winston Riley, former president and a founder of the Research Chefs Association (RCA), describes the fusion of two disciplines — culinary art and food technology. Cousminer defines this expertise as “the ability to efficiently and economically manufacture restaurant-quality ‘convenience foods’ that actually look and taste like food served in a restaurant.”
Cousminer is enthusiastic about his field, and shares the basics in the first of a four-segment class, “Culinology 101, Art and Science of New Food Development,” on Friday through Sunday, June 16 through 18, at Mercer County Community College. The class is offered to chefs and others involved in food product development who would like to learn food science and technology they may have missed during their education and training. Cost: $700. For more information, call 609-586-4800.
Culinology opens a whole new career path for chefs, and the RCA has been active in developing the educational infrastructure behind it. Today integrated programs in culinary arts and food science and technology are offering degrees in seven universities, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Clemson. In addition, Mercer Community College has been approved as the culinary provider toward a bachelor’s degree now being developed in Rutgers’ food science department.
Industrial culinologists from these programs make good wages. “Kids out of college with a culinology degree start at $45,000 and up,” says Cousminer. That is nearly $10,000 more than liberal arts graduates are being offered this year, according to the Wall Street Journal, and is on a par with the starting salaries for new graduates with degrees in finance.
The first step for a culinologist-to-be is to learn the basic components of food — carbs, fats, and proteins — and understand how they interact with each other and behave under food processing conditions. They also learn about the dozens of ingredients used to stabilize products through processing, and they learn how to control viscosity, moisture management, freeze-thaw stability, and browning. The goal, he explains, is for chefs to understand why certain things happen and to predict how to control any negative effects and enhance the positive ones.
Whereas in the past chefs typically created foods that were served immediately in the restaurants where they work, the products developed by research chefs will wind up on supermarket shelves or will be served at hundreds, if not thousands, of multi-unit food chains and quick-serve restaurants. When research chefs devise packaged or convenience foods, their original concept faces a number of challenges before it reaches the consumer:
Processing for shelf stability. These foods need to be shelf stable in either the aisles of supermarkets or the refrigerators of stores and restaurants. The chefs, therefore, “need to create foods that are going to survive standard commercial food production methods,” says Cousminer.
Maintaining quality and authenticity. The standard processing techniques — canning and freezing — preserve the food and extend shelf life, but the industrial chef must also maintain the quality and authenticity of the food products. “When you go out to eat and something on the menu has a certain description and name,” explains Cousminer, “you have a picture in your head and you want that food to deliver what it promises on the menu.”
For grocery products, the label on the food serves as the “menu,” he continues, “and you want to feel confident that the product delivers on the message you got on the label, whether it is a flavor, taste, ethnic identity, or a quality issue. You want a tomato to look like a tomato and not a soup — unless it says it’s a soup.”
Probably the biggest processing challenge is the loss of flavor. “The more you heat, the more the flavors are affected,” says Cousminer, “and they are typically lost.” In fact, after processing, the foods are usually pretty neutral. “If a food has a flavor,” he says, “in almost every case the flavor was added.” Flavors either put back the native taste that was lost or create an ethnic taste.
“Cajun, Chinese, Italian all involve some kind of flavor to give the food an ethnic identity,” he says. “Putting tomatoes off the vine in a can doesn’t make it taste like marinara.”
Making sure the food is safe to eat. The final issue is health, safety, and sanitation, and it’s a biggie. The government mandates that any food manufacturer must have an HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) plan in place. “The plan highlights the entire production process, from the arrival of the raw material to the departure of the finished product,” says Cousminer.
The plan must specify the points at which each individual food product is at greatest risk for a problem. In a plant that processes meats and vegetables, for example, critical control points would include whether each item is stored separately, at what specific temperature, and for how long. “Every raw material has its own specifications,” says Cousminer.
Detailed documentation is also a requirement; for meat, this might include what type of muscle, what type of meat, and where it came from.
“It’s all about maintaining the safety of the food supply,” he says. Potential hazards can be both naturally occurring and manmade. They include microbes in the food as well as wood, metal shavings, or glass that might fall into it. “If you’re using glass jars,” says Cousminer, “it goes without saying that you will wind up with glass in a jar at some point.”
Because agricultural products are harvested by huge pieces of equipment that are not very discriminating about what they pick up, broken bottles and pieces of plastic may come up with the corn cobs. “The idea in a food plant is that you’re trying to separate out all non-food material,” he says. The plant, therefore, is designed with protections that help prevent such hazards; for example, canners always puts metal detectors in the line to detect items like staples before the food gets to the can.
During his restaurant career, New York-born Cousminer gradually became more interested in science and decided to return to school in the early 1980s for a degree in nutrition, with the idea of becoming a dietitian. When a class in food science caught his interest, he switched his major and got a bachelor’s degree in food science from the University of New Haven and then a master’s from Rutgers.
His first job was at General Foods in Cranbury, where he was hired as the company’s first “technicoculinary specialist.” Recalls Cousminer: “My start in corporate food product development included Stove Top stuffing, Good Seasons, and Shake’N Bake. I also had a lot of experience with things that came to market and didn’t make it.”
His then took a job with Horizon Foods, a Massachusetts manufacturer of microwaveable frozen snack food s. In 1998 he joined Firmenich, the largest privately owned flavor and fragrance maker in the world. As director of the company’s savory flavor labs, Cousminer supervises people who create flavors that wind up in meats, poultry, cheese, and dairy, side dishes, sauces, soups, and gravies, pizza, and tacos.
In the early history of the food development business, says Cousminer, “the role of chefs was limited to creating the ‘gold standard product.’” Today this product is often the target for food scientists trying to reproduce it in a more commercially processible form.
“If you are in business, you want to create a product that you can manufacture and get out to market quickly,” he says. “If we can shortcut the process of changing the chef’s creation to a supermarket creation, everyone benefits.”