When Anne Albertine gets creative
in the kitchen, millions taste the results. As a research
chef, she mixes good taste with good science, creating
recipes for Taco Bell restaurants at its corporate
headquarters in Irvine, California. Her tacos, chalupas, and
burritos fill the menus of more than 6,500 restaurants.
"My team and I make restaurant quality food that can be
mass produced," says Anne, "so the culinary
quality—the freshness, taste, and texture—has to hold
Research chefs, also called product development or food
innovation chefs, create new foods for restaurant chains,
coffee shops, and food manufacturing companies. They blend
culinary training with a knowledge of food science. "As
chefs, we can make food that tastes good and has visual
appeal," says Anne. "We can weave flavors
together." But research chefs also understand food
preservation, mass production, and the technical terms used
by scientists. And they use this knowledge in their recipes.
Research chefs get ideas for new menu items from many
different sources. They often use the results of customer
surveys to determine what customers crave. Suggestions are
general. They might include requests for a large portion
size, a low price, or a certain flavor, such as smoky or
sweet. Research chefs give the ideas substance by creating
several different recipes to match these characteristics.
"My job is to create options," says Anne. For
every product that makes it to the public, researchers cook
up 30 to 100 alternative recipes that never make it out of
Research chefs also find inspiration by following trends
in consumer tastes. They sample the menus of fine
restaurants, often traveling abroad to stir up their
creativity. And chefs read culinary magazines and study
cookbooks, searching for recipes to modify.
With a set of food qualities in mind, research chefs
start experimenting with ingredients. Anne often begins her
day with a trip to the grocery store. "I pick up fresh
ingredients," she says, "then go play in my test
kitchen." She might try different styles of chopping,
compare grilling an ingredient with frying it, or contrast
vacuum-packed ingredients with frozen ones. In one recipe,
Anne was striving for the just right level of spiciness and
the best type of cheese to give a toasty flavor. She uses
her technical expertise to pick ingredients that will taste
good when cooked in bulk, under the real world conditions of
Anne’s recipes also need to be
convenient. To make a
burrito that was portable, for example, she decided to grill
it. The grilling process seared the burrito so it would stay
closed, even when it held more food than the other burritos
A research chef’s test kitchen is similar to the
kitchen of any professional chef, with heavy-duty mixers,
salamanders—tools for browning the tops of food—and
other gadgets. But a research chef’s kitchen is designed
for precision. Graduated cylinders stand in for measuring
cups, and scientific balances that are accurate to the
milligram replace the standard countertop scales.
Large-batch recipes have to be detailed and accurate so that
they can be reproduced in every restaurant. "We strive
for quality and consistency," says Anne.
At each stage of development, recipes are tested with
customers. In the first testing session, a focus group of
customers might choose among 50 or more pictures and written
descriptions of possible menu items. "I let the
customers tell me what they like," says Anne.
"I’m cooking for them, not myself."
Eventually, focus groups taste samples of the most
appealing of the proposed foods. Responses are taken during
experiments conducted in sensory labs by food scientists and
marketers. Anne observes and learns from these experiments.
"People might say a product is too messy, too spicy, or
too expensive, so I tweak it," she says. "With
food, small changes in ingredients can make a dramatic
When Anne isn’t fine-tuning recipes, she meets with
other members of the staff. "Development is a
collaborative process," she says. Financial experts
check a recipe’s profitability. Market researchers confirm
its popularity. Food scientists concentrate on food safety
and other considerations. And training and operations
managers ensure that the restaurant crews will be able to
make the food quickly and well.
Meetings like these highlight non-food-related skills
that research chefs need in their jobs: good communication
skills and the ability to persuade. "You have to prove
your hunches," says Anne. She gives evidence that her
ideas will be successful, especially when they require a
large monetary investment, such as new restaurant equipment.
Research chefs who work for food manufacturers instead of
restaurant chains perform slightly different tasks. They
help food scientists develop flavor additives and prepared
and frozen foods. They consult with restaurant chefs to
learn what they need and explain flavor possibilities. If
the restaurant wants a lemon flavor, for example, should it
be acidic, sweet, or peely? Should it be liquid or dry?
Research chefs translate the specifications of the
restaurant into the technical language of scientists.
Research chefs also test food scientists’ products, using
them in recipes to make sure they taste good.
To gain their unique mixture of skills, most research
chefs earn a degree in culinary arts from a school
accredited by the American Culinary Federation. And they
take additional classes in food science and chemistry. Anne
received a bachelor’s degree in general science and worked
in consumer product development before following her love of
cooking and getting her culinary arts degree. After
graduating, she completed several internships with chefs
experienced in fine dining, an experience she recommends
highly. "Intern with as many different people as you
can," she says. "It’s important to learn
different techniques and to build contacts in the
The Research Chefs Association offers certification to
research chefs who have culinary education, 3 to 5 years of
experience in both research and culinary arts, and a passing
score on the certification exam. The Association also offers
a culinary scientist certification to those who have a
bachelor’s degree in food science, at least 8 weeks of
accredited culinary education, research experience, and a
passing score on a written cooking exam.
The Research Chefs Association had almost 1,400 members
this year, but the number of research chefs may be higher or
lower than that number because not every member is a
research chef and not every research chef is a member.
According to a survey taken at the association conference in
1999, earnings varied widely for research chefs, but many
experienced chefs earned between $70,000 and $90,000 per
year. This suggests that research chefs often earn more than
other chefs do. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not
collect data on research chefs.
The benefits of working as a research chef extend beyond
earnings. Unlike restaurant and cafeteria chefs, who usually
work weekends and evenings to prepare meals and supervise
kitchen staff, most research chefs work standard business
hours. And although they have deadlines to meet, research
chefs usually work at a more relaxed pace than their
The chance to be innovative adds spice to the job.
"I’m always looking for a new way to achieve
something in a recipe," says Anne.
And when a recipe succeeds, research chefs share it with
a wide audience. "I love seeing a product go
national," Anne says. She also enjoys seeing people
eating and liking her creations—and if people discover
what her job is, they often tell her which of her menu items
are their favorites.
Knowing that her creations are popular adds zest to
Anne’s work, but the work itself is what she likes best.
By mixing a passion for food, a knack for science, and a
flair for creativity, she wrote a recipe for a career she
Photo of Anne
Albertine courtesy of Taco