Part 2 of 2: The Ultimate Taste Test
Chefs lead the way, but many others in and out of R&D kitchens have a hand in cooking up menu additions
When Don Perlyn joined founder Gus Boulis in launching Miami Subs Grill in 1989, creating new menu items was a family affair. All potential additions faced scrutiny from the chain’s distinguished tasting panel: Boulis’ parents, siblings and their children.
“It was extensive R&D back then,” jokes Perlyn, president and chief operating officer for the 100-plus-unit, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based chain.
|Harvard University Executive Chef Andy Allen draws on experience as a research chef to develop items such as burritos (top) and pico de gallo (above) for the menu.
Today Miami Subs, like most restaurant chains and noncommercial operations, employs a more complex research-and-development approach to deal with the wide-ranging considerations specific to new-product creation.
Forced to consider logistical concerns far beyond how an item tastes—ingredient cost and availability, labor requirements, operational considerations and food-safety issues among them—R&D chefs draw on a strategic mix of resources to ensure that quality will not be compromised on the path from test kitchen to table.
Begin at the beginning
All new products start with ideas, and ideas often start at the top. Company presidents as well as executives in food and beverage, R&D and even marketing departments frequently have a hand in initial brainstorming. Once decisions are made, R&D takes the wheel and starts on the logistical road of fitting a recipe into a large-scale production mold.
The ability to execute a product quickly and efficiently in the kitchen is key. R&D chefs must be aware of units’ equipment, layouts of various prep stations and work flows.
Jack Gilmore, executive chef for 12-unit casual chain Z’Tejas of Scottsdale, Ariz., says learning to simplify the production process has helped his concept evolve.
“Some of our food used to take three people to put on a plate: part grill, part fry, part pantry. Now what we try to do is streamline, so it comes off just one side and one person is responsible,” he says.
The research process also must address how customers will eat the new product, Gilmore adds, citing his recently created Grilled Shrimp Tostada Bites appetizer as an example. Because he wanted customers to be able to pop individual pieces into their mouths, he had to make sure the product contained enough shrimp but not too much tostada for an easy fit.
For many concepts, R&D staffs also take into account the fact that products often are cooked or assembled on site by a varied workforce without extensive training.
“We’re talking about fast food here. We have to work with a labor pool that is very diverse and with different levels of education,” says Eric Arthur of Back Yard Burgers. “[A new item] has to be able to work in 52 states, translate bilingually, and it’s got to be fast too.”
“ The approach these [R&D] chefs like to take is to create a dish with no boundaries, a dish that is truly a gold standard,” says Steve Schimoler, president of the Atlanta-based Research Chefs Association (RCA). “Then the challenge they’re faced with is deconstructing that dish and positioning it in massive production quantities. Not all those ingredients would make it through production and distribution, and you have to work backward.”
Some foodservice companies, generally large operations, find benefits in employing food scientists or chefs with food-science backgrounds.
“It gives us a comprehensive understanding of large-scale food manufacturing and everything that’s involved in taking a scratch-made product and having it mass produced,” says Stephen Kalil, who works closely with an on-staff food scientist as senior product development chef for Chili’s Grill & Bar.
While typically involved on the manufacturing side, food scientists are becoming more common in R&D kitchens for the valuable feedback they can provide, especially on the food-safety end. John Koch, vice president of product, menu and purchasing for Glendale, Calif.-based IHOP, turns to scientists when setting limits for acceptable levels of bacteria as well as on issues such as food quality and optimization. Burgerville’s Director of Food Safety Debe Nagy-Nero employs food professionals to do spot checks of bacteria levels in manufacturer products as well as menu items.
Andy Allen, executive chef for Harvard University Dining Services in Cambridge, Mass., frequently depends on the food-science knowledge he acquired as an RCA-certified research chef when creating items for the university’s 11 restaurants plus residential dining.
|Wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun, Back Yard Burgers' Low Carb Burger weighs in with 3 carb grams.
After learning that antioxidants can lower the possibility of E. coli and extend a product’s shelf life, he began testing use of an all-natural plum purée in ground meat products such as meatloaf and Salisbury steak. He also altered a standard breading recipe to eliminate potentially hazardous products such as eggs and milk and replace them with safe alternatives without compromising taste.
Healthy building blocks
The detailed knowledge food scientists possess regarding the elements that make up food—such as protein, carbohydrates, fats, water—and how they are affected by processes such as cooking, holding and cooling also can play a key role for operations seeking to develop more nutritionally focused products.
“In order to develop a low-carb product, you’d have to have a real understanding of what a carbohydrate is and does,” says Marilynn Schnepf, who chairs the nutritional and health sciences department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
At Boston-based fast-casual chain Au Bon Pain, where R&D staff includes a master baker, master pastry chef and a number of additional chefs, the team turns to a nutritionist when creating products such as its trans-fat-free muffins.
“It’s been a real eye-opener for us because as chefs we’ve never had to deal with [health issues]. We always created for flavor and never really worried about fat,” says Vice President of Food and Beverage Michael O’Donovan. “Now it’s something we have to think about early in the process.”
A corporate-culinary collaboration
New products cannot be built on culinary knowledge alone. The most comprehensive research-and-development departments draw on the expertise of colleagues in purchasing, operations, marketing and finance to ensure the best chances of menu success. But what role does each department play?