Recently, a few chefs and cooks have asked me about getting into product development. They express exhaustion with the demands of the restaurants, from the hours standing at their stations to the number of missed special events to the hair-thin margins. At some point, many of us conclude that kitchens are a young person’s world, and we wonder how we can stay involved in the world we love (food!) but in a different way.
I always lead with the mythbusting: R&D isn’t just about playing with recipes and eating. There is a complicated and challenging commercialization process that takes up more time than the time spent perfecting the recipe. On the other hand, you are working with food and are at the front lines of the process that eventually lands a food on a grocery store shelf. It’s pretty fun to spot an item you’ve worked on!
So: How do you cross over? Here is a very basic list of steps you can start immediately to get to know the product development world in food manufacturing. Remember: if you start a new career, you will have to start from the beginning and at the entry-level role. Your other experiences, degrees, and specific skills might allow you to move quickly, but focus on getting in the door. Once you’re in the industry, it’s easier to move around.
- Join the local professional networking chapter for research chefs and food scientists. I am an active member in both the Research Chefs Association and the Institute of Food Technologists. You can find information about your local chapter through basic web searches, too. Attend a meeting, meet some folks, and build a friendship or two.
- Join FoodGrads and check out the posts for newer entrants into the food safety and food manufacturing industries. Join the forums and see what others have shared for lessons learned and get to know the mentors who post jobs on there.
- Go onto career websites, such as CareersinFood, and set up a new search and sign up for the announcements. Use key terms to narrow your search.
- If you’re willing to announce it, change your introduction on LinkedIn showing that you’re seeking ways to cross into product development.
- Enroll in a food safety course, such as HACCP plan writing. This will help you familiarize yourself with current terms and policies and will introduce you to even more professionals in the industry. You can find local courses posted at university extension programs and hosted by professional organizations, like the IFT Short Courses.
- Invest in some textbooks. The Research Chefs Association published Culinology as an introduction to food science and basic knowledge that all culinologists should know. It’s a great starter for food science. Browse your used book stores, especially ones that specialize in textbook sales. Go online and find second-hand texts for food microbiology and food processing. Start reading!
- Pick up cookbooks and food science texts styled for the non-food scientist. Ingredient by Ali Bouzari, The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez, and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGhee are some of my favorites.
- Reach out to your social media network. You never know if you’re just a degree away from a research chef. Ask for an introduction – meet in person, if possible. Ask them to connect you to others.
- Attend a local chapter IFT Supplier’s Night. They’re annual events open to professionals and will introduce you to different ingredient suppliers, manufacturers, and food companies. Some will be local, and some will be representing national brands but are likely the regional contact. Muster up the courage and introduce yourself and why you’re attending the show.
- Listen to the PeasOnMoss and MyFoodJobRocks! podcasts to hear true stories from folks working in the food manufacturing world. Contact the speakers who resonated with you – you would be surprised by how many of them will respond!