Wine Improves with Age... Do Careers, too?

yes, that's a BDU patterned apron
Over the past year, I've been targeting continued education. If you've followed this blog, you'll know that I have had a varied background and transitioned into food product development in the past five years.

Air Force --> Thrive Lifestyles (nutrition business) --> teaching nutritional science --> Seattle Culinary Academy --> Modernist Cuisine --> Beecher's Handmade Cheese --> Lundberg Family Farms

Along this pathway, I've met some incredible entrepreneurs, chefs, and dreamers. It's been wonderful. I've now started on a pathway of moving upwards in the product development career path, and I love it.

Lundberg Family Farms
From a casual glance, it seems like I play with recipes all day. A closer look will show that I spend a lot of time crunching numbers in spreadsheets and attending meetings about the numbers crunched in spreadsheets. A portion of my time is spent cooking.

Now, as a culinary crossover and now food science crossover, I carry a unique and nontraditional set of skills into my job. I like to market myself as bringing new skills to a team and automatically thinking outside the box, since I wasn't trained to think inside it. The internal dialogue often goes a little differently, but I imagine everyone's does.

from the RCA website
In an effort to fill in some of the gap in food science, I sat for the Research Chef Association Certified Culinary Scientist exam, an exam designed to evaluate and verify one's knowledge base in both culinary arts and food science. I was sure glad I had gone to culinary school and had also asked questions of mentors and friends! I passed the exam at my first attempt, and that sure felt good!

Andrea and Yvonne (back) prepare samples for a tasting
Lately, I've been working on filling in some smaller gaps. I finished an EDX course on statistics - I (heart) Stats, taught by Notre Dame professors - and am completing a DMAIC training course for Quality Engineering. It's been really great to get my brain back into algebraic math - that took a while - but it's also been exhilarating to exercise my brain differently. If you haven't taken an EDX course, you should. It is a program that offers college level courses in topics ranging from Astrophysics to Introduction to Public Speaking. The courses are taught by renowned universities across the globe, and some courses offer certificates of completion, for a small fee. I search it every season for a course or two that I can take to sharpen my knowledge or refresh a past training.

Wine may improve just by sitting around in a bottle (sorry to my sommelier friends for such a dumb analogy), but career improvement takes deliberate steps. This was my first step.

Soon: my next step - mindset changing. Making the leap from young manager to senior manager.

The R&D Team 2014 - Hassan Dwidar, Yvonne Garrett, me, Andrea Zeng


Sensory Evaluation - Leveling Up in Food Tasting

Well, readers, it's been a while. To say it's been busy is a bit of an understatement and a disservice to the adventures I've been having. I'll to take time to record those, and I hope I'll be able to keep up.

First: Food Tasting 2.0 - Sensory Panel
I've been working on a program at work to teach employees how to critically analyze food samples that we make. 

From Beecher's Handmade Cheese
I had started dabbling with sensory evaluation at Beecher's Handmade Cheese with their dairy scientist, Paul McNeely. I remember the day we established the spider graph for the award-winning Flagsheep cheese. I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest from ingestion of the sugar-, salt-, caffeine-, msg-, and citric acid-spiked waters that we used at different concentration levels until we determined the cheese's taste characteristics. Lesson learned: expectorate everything. 

Such flavor mapping really helped us enhance our understanding of the tastes and flavors of the products, so it made sense to establish an official program at my new company. The flavor map below isn't from our panel - it's an example beer spider graph used as an example on an NIH report. 
from NIH

Lundberg Family Farms is primarily a farm - we focus on rice growing, milling, and packaging - so the seasoning packets that we add to our rice side dishes are made by partner companies. Whenever shipments of seasonings arrive, we want to ensure that they're made to our specifications. We also use sensory panels to evaluate ingredient substitutions and recipe changes. So I have been building an internal official sensory evaluation panel that can use formal taste tests to evaluate food samples for specific criteria. It's been a whirlwind.

From Lundberg.com
First, I read all the books I could - simple introductory paragraphs in magazines and even a few textbooks, including Sensory Evaluation Techniques, a masterful textbook that I read at Beecher's and used for writing our panel plan. I sound a lot like Tim Ferriss (famous for the 4-Hour system), I suppose, in the way that I researched my new responsibility. It took me 10 days to read the book, and I emerged with more questions than answers. I also realized I should have paid more attention in statistics class. Thank goodness for Excel!

Second, I reached out to professionals and researched training courses. I spoke with one of the chemists at Sierra Nevada about their program and how it was developed. Their interim sensory manager explained that the program took a few years to establish and is strictly controlled due to the nature of their product. Their panelists have to be sourced from within the company, so that allowed us to discuss the doubts that my colleagues had that we would have enough participants sourced from within the company and that the panelists wouldn't be sensitive enough to conduct the evaluations we need. These doubts are prejudiced, and they've proven wrong. 

When I attended the Research Chef Association conference in New Orleans, I participated in as many of the sensory related presentations that I could. Wow, what a science it is. One session I attended was intended to give panelists an introduction to the beef tasting lexicon. My beef inexperience never felt so strong as when some of the beef sales guys in the room started trying to guess the cut of the beef and its USDA grade. It was also inspiring to get our team trained to a comparable expertise. 

Finally, we partnered with a professor from Chico State, the local 4-year university, who had spent
time working for the National Food Laboratory (NFL - yeah, they know), a nationally recognized organization in food product evaluation. She helped us prepare a basic lecture for employees and lectured 4 groups of employees. She also helped us write our sensory tests and suggested concentration levels for each of the tastants. 

We've been running the sensory panels twice a week for three shifts each of those days - 7:30, 2, and 3:30. It makes for long days for the food technologist and me - especially with prep and clean up-  but we've had a great turnout. 45 people signed up initially, and 34 come regularly. We have two mechanics, 6 factory workers from rice cakes, and a few other of the hourly staff - the company members that some doubters didn't think would participate. Some of their ability to participate is due to use choosing to host the sessions three times per day so that the graveyard and night shift can participate as conveniently as the day shift. In addition to the committed crew, we have a few interns, engineers, administration, and even managers, including my VP and the CEO. 

Sensory Evaluation sounds really fancy and scientific, but really, we all do sensory evaluation most of the times that we eat food. Think of your favorite food and the reasons it's your favorite. Then think of your least preferred food and those reasons. You just evaluated the foods, congratulations! A trained panel is one that we use known modifications to foods and teach our panelists how to measure those changes - such as evaluating the addition of a tastant (salt, sugar, caffeine, msg, or citric acid) and its relative concentration - and to articulate what they detect. 

We have focused our first evaluations on discrimination tests - tests that measure whether panelists detect differences between samples. Those samples' differences noticed will help us make business decisions. There are other types of tests - affective and descriptive - but they're either focused on consumer feelings about the products being tested (affective) or in describing the characteristics of the products, such as texture, flavors, and intensities of those flavors. 

Well, that's one of the projects I've been up to. 


Whole Foods Market event - March 7

Here's a recent announcement from our friends at Whole Foods Market

Whole Food Market’s annual “Crack Heard Around the World” is coming up on Saturday, March 7 at noon.  As you may recall, this is a national event where all Whole Foods Market stores across the country simultaneously "crack” and sample an 85-pound wheel of authentic Parmigiano Reggiano — event is free and includes tastings and pairings! 

Here are some fun facts about this special Parm: 
  • Each year Whole Foods Market‘s cheese experts visit the Emilia Romagna region of Italy and select wheels from just four producers 
  • Each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is 85 pounds and requires special knives to “crack” it open
  • Only cheese made in area specific area in Northern Italy -- Reggio Emilia, Parma, Modena and portions of Bologna and Mantua - can bear the Parmigiano Reggiano name.
  • Every wheel at Whole Foods Market is aged 24 months (this is the best age in terms of flavor and texture; it cannot be called Parmigiano Reggiano until it is aged at least 12 months)
  • Its flavor profile is toasted, salty and nutty with subtle crystal-like texture and a little goes a long way

In addition to the event, there will also be a SALE! That’s right, 50% off Parmigiano Reggiano on Saturday, March 7 only.


Valentine's Dinner at Home

great picture, right?
Twelve years ago - 12!! - Joshua and I celebrated our very first Valentine's dinner. I remember that was my second Valentine's ever when I actually had a date  - much less a boyfriend - on the day for lovers. I was soooo excited.
Jami, my roommate and now an accomplished Air Force pilot and flight instructor, helped me do my makeup, and she probably let me borrow one of her much sexier tops, since I was still discovering my... uh...  well anyway. Nothing that silicone can't help.
Joshua and I had talked about driving up to Santa Barbara to go to dinner somewhere on the beautiful boardwalk and take a romantic walk down said boardwalk. (If you haven't seen it, you really should. You can get glimpses of it - and Vancouver's waterfront - on the TV show Psych) He picked me up right on time, and we drove... to his apartment.
2009 Big Table Dinner, Spokane, WA
He had kicked out his roommates for the evening (okay, they probably had dates?) and cooked this incredible Shrimp Alfredo on Linguini, fresh asparagus, and garlic bread.
Legend goes that he had asked several neighbors - girls who lived in the apartment next door - how to prepare the menu, and a sorority sister of mine asked me a few days later how it had turned out, since she had attempted to give him some advice.
Who cares how it turned out? It was such a special dinner, and it turned out to be the start of some really great meals that we have shared together. I actually don't remember well how the dinner really tasted - it's a pretty classical combination of garlic and cream, so you can probably imagine it as well as I can. To his credit, Joshua did a great job, despite the fact that I suspect he used a Knorr packet and the asparagus had sat in the cooking water while he drove to pick me up.

2008 at Lindsay Warren's apt
Since then, we haven't spent a whole lot of Valentine's dinners together. Sometimes it was because I was on the other side of the pass, so to speak, and was trying to keep up with the prix fixe menu. Other times, it was because I was probably supposed to plan the dinner  - we like to trade off years of responsibility - and I'd probably procrastinated.
This year, though, since we couldn't get the reservation we actually wanted (Kestrel Winery in Woodinville), we are going to recreate the dinner, sort of. 
We'll make our own (real) Alfredo sauce, and I'll blanch the asparagus rather than steep it. We'll also have to adapt the pasta and garlic bread components to gluten-fee versions. We're looking forward to a romantic night IN (you're welcome, my industry friends), and if you haven't already made dinner reservations, you could too.
Check out what our friends from Whole Foods Market sent to get your ideas flowing:
Want to make your Valentine’s date night sizzle? This weekend, February 13 to 15, at your local Whole Foods Market save $5 on our classic surf-n-turf special; featuring two savory New York Strip Steaks and two 5-6 oz. Lobster Tails.

If you want some tips preparing your surf-n-turf, try this delicious recipe for Herb-Roasted Lobster and Steak. This decadent and filling combination features dry-aged beef alongside juicy lobster tails, all topped with homemade herb butter. We split the lobster tails in half for easy and elegant serving after they’re cooked.

Oh, you’re eating out you say? Fear not! Give the kids and babysitters a tasty meal by saving 50% on BOGO take n' bake pizzas Saturday, February 14 only. 

Looking for a fun activity to keep the kids and babysitters entertained while you’re out? Let them customize their own pizzas! Choose a cheese pizza and add your own toppings. We’ve put together a few suggestions below:

• Hawaiian: Canadian bacon and pineapple chunks
• Cheeseburger: Ground beef, cheddar cheese, onions, add sliced pickles after baking
• Potato bacon: Thinly sliced red potatoes, crumbled bacon, green onions, olive oil
• Or have the kids channel traditional Italy (and get those greens in) with a pizza insalata: build a salad on top of a cheese pizza! 
And if you do nothing else, make sure you hug someone you love and share a bite together.