If you're eating something from a chain restaurant or something that came packaged in a grocery store, chances are at one point or another a person called a research chef had a hand in developing it. But it's not a food job you hear much about: While the products made by research chefs are ubiquitous, their work is arcane. Companies want to own their pot pie or lasagne formulas, they want consumers to visualize Wolfgang Puck personally creating their frozen chicken potstickers, and most of all, they don't want some rival company making the exact same thing.
But CHOW found a research chef willing to spill some secrets of the trade. Chef Wendy, who works for a Canadian firm that develops private-label products for companies like Whole Foods, Safeway, General Mills, and McDonald's, would prefer not to reveal her last name, but that was the last thing she was reticent about. CHOW spoke with her about how to crack the secret codes on food labels, what's really in your carton of orange juice, and more.
Secret 1: People who say they're allergic to MSG usually aren't.
"What do all these have in common?" Chef Wendy asks. "Broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, inosinate, guanylate, and autolyzed yeast extract? Give up? They are all sources of monosodium glutamate. So don't bother telling me you're allergic to MSG if you eat pizza." If you really are allergic to it, look for these ingredients, whether or not the label says "no added MSG."
Secret 2: Most cartons of orange juice aren't simply filled with juice.
"I could get killed for this one," says Chef Wendy happily. "Orange juice is orange juice right? Not so much. They juice the orange and distill all the oils out of the peel." The end result is the equivalent of a bunch of little bottles, which product developers can use, mad scientist style.
"I was in an OJ plant where they had over 300 formulas for not-from-concentrate orange juice," says Chef Wendy. If the client, the company that actually puts out the orange juice, wanted a juice that was sweeter, or more yellow, or a deeper shade of orange, the plant Wendy worked for could mix things together until they got just the right formulation. It's a lot different than just squeezing oranges. And the label will still just say "orange juice."
Secret 3: Consumers often are scared of the wrong ingredients.
In the rush toward whole foods and away from chemical wonders, Chef Wendy says, consumers get paranoid about some ingredients that "are not dangerous and in fact are quite natural. One of my faves is carrageenan. Carrageenan is on a lot of labels, and I'm often asked, 'What is that chemical?' It's not a chemical. It's seaweed! It's also one of the best thickening gums there is. It can hold over 10 times its weight in water. So that means your frozen sauce doesn't end up leaving a watery ring around it on the plate."
Secret 4: Labels have secret codes that you can crack.
Who made that microwave burrito you're eating? As we've pointed out before, it's not Trader Joe's. But you can find out who did, if you are savvy enough. "It's all in code," says Chef Wendy. If the product has meat, poultry, or eggs in it, by law it must have an establishment number or name somewhere on the label. It may read something like "Meat Products of Houston, Inc." boldly on the back, or it could be a tiny number hidden somewhere on an inner flap. Whichever it is, you can look it up at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service website and find the producer's name and other information. "If there's no meat it's a little harder, but it can still be done. There are addresses and various numeric codes that will give it away."
Secret 5: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are difficult to work with, and that's a good thing.
"Traders is a very exacting company," says Chef Wendy. "They have a famous list of ingredients you cannot use. It's about four pages single spaced. Some of the ingredients are quite difficult to keep out, but they have their standards and they are very high and they mean it. That's a good thing. Whole Foods has a similar list and it's on their website."
You'd think that such an exacting list would be a pain, but Chef Wendy says, "I like that the standard is high and it's kept high. Whether they want a high-end item or a bargain-priced item, the rules are the same."
Secret 6: Sometimes research chefs are grossed out by what they make.
"I don't, as a rule, take jobs that compromise my belief systems. No chemical feasts allowed," says Chef Wendy. This leads her to concentrate on developing frozen foods—because the freezer is such an effective food preserver, these items don't need a lot of the stabilizers and preservatives that canned and bottled products require. Nonetheless, "I do have to make lower-end products, and when I do, I work very hard to make them taste far better than they have a right to be!" It's not so much, she says, that the food companies "ask for crap. It's more they ask for the moon and can we please make it for next to nothing. There are less and less of these products being made because the consumer doesn't want them as much, but the market exists."
Secret 7: A really great frozen meal could actually exist, but you're too cheap to pay for it.
Chef Wendy says it's absolutely possible to make a frozen meal that will knock you out of your chair with greatness. "But that entrée needs to cost $7 to $10. People are willing to spend that much in a restaurant for something mediocre but not for something fabulous from the grocery store."
Hence frozen meals cost about $2 or $3. "There is rarely even a full ounce (less than 28 grams) of protein in most single-serve entrées. The $3-and-up ones are more expensive because they put 2 ounces in theirs."
How does she know that, exactly? "When a [traditional] chef refuses to tell you the recipe, it's not because it's a secret. It's really because they probably don't remember what they put in it. And that's the difference between a culinary chef and a research chef. Research chefs weigh everything to at least two decimal points."