Have you ever been at store or market and wondered how certain products come to be? Who was the first person to decide to pre-slice bread? Who thought to package vegetables in cans to extend their shelf life or to swirl chocolate and hazelnut together and market a dessert for breakfast?

In recent years, the Niagara Region has turned its eyes towards innovation in our food industry. Harnessing the region’s bounty, companies are now researching how to not only create new, fresh products using our homegrown produce, but how to stay relevant in today’s evolving culture of fickle product loyalty, the on-the-go lifestyle and our love for everything bacon flavoured.

Welcome to the centre of the culinary stage the Food Technologist, Research Chef and Food Safety Coordinator – all branches of food science revolutionizing the food we fill our plates with and the production processes behind our favourite products. Early food technology concentrated on food preservation and making produce last longer. Research Chefs have helped to discover and create some of the new food combinations and products we rave about. And Food Safety Coordinators make sure what is being created and marketed is born in a clean and safe manner so we can eat with ease.

Businesses are now turning their eyes towards this next generation of innovators to further their product development: individuals with the perfect combination of food science knowledge, basic culinary skills and diverse palettes to create the next big thing in food.

From creating natural ingredient based energy drinks to lab grown produce, the foods in development by local culinary innovators is reshaping tomorrow’s kitchens and how we see food.

Tommy Nguyen

Food Technologist, Provisions Food Company

What is a food technologist’s main role day to day?

A typical day in production at PFC means meeting a lot of standards. As a food technologist it is my role to ensure that the products being made are of utmost high quality and consistency to the level we set for our products. This means simple procedures like making sure the products have the right colour, flavour and texture to more complicated information like viscosity, sugar content, and pH level. The goal of a food technologist is to bring consistency to great tasting foods.

What brought you to choose this career?

Having worked in the food industry for almost a decade I have learned a few things. First, that there is a burning passion for food deep inside of me that needed to be expressed. And second, I learned first-hand that the food service industry is an extremely demanding and exhausting career. This was not what I wanted for my life. I desired a career that made it possible to achieve a work/life balance at the same time pursuing my dream of working with food. This led to my discovery of Niagara College’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program which catered to my love for food and kept my career going down the path I set out for myself. Being part of a team that is creating a strong brand and exciting new product s is the perfect fit.

What makes your job new and exciting in the culinary world?

It’s the future of food. Influencing what products are available to consumers across the country (dare I say, one day the world) instead of just one particular restaurant is an exciting idea. Artisanal, local food companies are becoming more popular creating a need for more food technologists. Here at PFC we are joining that trend toward all natural products that do not contain preservatives or additives. This is an exciting change in the world of processed foods.

How has your career and passion helped to innovate the food industry and homegrown products in the Niagara Region?

Niagara is full of fresh and delicious produce that is right in our backyard. As food techs we have the training and expertise to make sure that the agricultural wealth of this region is handled properly to get the products on the market for the whole nation to enjoy.

Which products have you helped to create/ influenced and what makes them different?

The newest product to join the PFC family is our asiago & sundried tomato short breads. This is in addition to our line of savoury short breads. PFC started by asking what the wineries of Niagara needed to enhance their premium wines at the point of sale. Wine friendly short breads are one way. Another way is by producing fruit pastes (similar to jam but less sugar and more pectin). For this we used the same model the wineries use: a premium, single variety product that showcases all the great flavours the fruit contains whether it be Bartlett Pears, Damson Plums or Montmorency Sour Cherries.

How do you stay inspired and educated on new food trends?

Following Culinology is a great source of knowledge on what’s trending next in the food market and from that, ideas start to flow. Working with a small batch company like PFC is an excellent way to get a broad sample of all aspects of running and being a part of a food business. This ranges from creating new products or flavour combinations to going out to represent the company at events. What inspires me day to day is simply just having the opportunity to work with Lori McDonald at Provisions Food Company and learn from her experience.

Why do companies need young innovators to help their business?

One of the greatest sayings I learnt in my past experience in management is: There’s no better eye than a fresh pair of eyes. Having young innovators working with your company allows the opportunity for new things to be seen when you, yourself have become desensitized to.

Spencer Dion

Research Laboratory Technician at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre 

What is a Research Associate’s main role day to day?

The great thing about being a Research Associate is that your role can vary from day to day. One day you might be working in the kitchen to develop a new product for a client and the next day you could be working in one of the labs performing any number of analyses on another product: it all depends on the projects you’re working on.

Niagara College Research & Innovation’s working model is project-based which I separate into three categories: Product Development (PD), Laboratory Analysis, and Regulatory Assistance. PD can include anything from improving an already existing product to making an entirely new product based on the clients’ expectations. Laboratory Analysis encompasses microbiological, chemical, and quality analyses (which are also broad terms in their own right). A Research Associate can be involved in projects that require multiple lab analyses spanning weeks or even months (e.g. shelf life testing, challenge testing, etc.). Regulatory Assistance can be helping clients with their product labels, whether that is navigation of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website to figure out what claims they can make or what their product can be named to avoid being misleading. Many of the projects we work on combine elements from all three categories.

What brought you to choose this career?

As my mother would tell you, I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be either a chef or a scientist.  As the years went on I leaned more towards food as my passion so I decided to pursue becoming a chef over the latter. I went to Niagara College and graduated from the Culinary Management program.  By this time I had already been working in restaurants for a few years and I decided that the lifestyle wasn’t for me. I still loved to cook and work with food, but I wanted a more conventional workweek, one that challenged me intellectually. So I enrolled in the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program at Niagara College. During my third year I was hired as a Research Assistant and after graduating got the coveted role of Research Associate. My career now includes aspects both from the culinary and scientific backgrounds.

What makes your job new & exciting in the culinary world?

Instead of conducting academic research in order to publish papers, we do applied research for industry.  Clients come to us in search of assistance with any food related problem and we work closely with them to find a solution.  We usually work with small to medium sized businesses that don’t have the capital to invest in expensive tests or equipment; by working with us they get access to both at much lower cost. This helps the business and the industry as a whole by expanding companies and creating new jobs and revenue streams.

Can you give us an example of a product you’ve helped to develop?

One of my most notable clients would have to be Emmanuel Jal.  Jal is a former child soldier from South Sudan who escaped that life and came to North America where he is now a Peace Activist/Recording Artist. He had an idea for a healthy beverage mix based on plants that are indigenous to his home country, plants that he actually used to survive while escaping his old life. Since he had limited knowledge of the food industry he looked to Niagara College Research & Innovation for assistance. I sourced a co-packer (someone who will make the product for him on a large scale), found a supplier for the ingredients, defined what he could say on the label, and determined shelf life through microbiology testing. The product is now available in Sobeys across Ontario and Walgreens in the United States. Niagara College, Research & Innovation helped Emmanuel Jal to bring his idea to fruition.

How do you stay inspired & educated day to day?

When your job is a combination of both of the things that you’re passionate about, staying inspired is no problem. On a day to day basis I am presented with new challenges to overcome and it keeps me sharp. Staying educated on food trends is simple when the team I work with is just as interested in food as I am. This doesn’t even include the fact that through school and work I have formed connections with chefs that I run into and collaborate with frequently.

How has your career & passion helped the food industry?

I love what I do and I put every ounce of creativity that I have into every project that I work on. I feel that there are no food-related issues that I can’t solve as a part of the Research & Innovation team.

Beatrix Csemer

Quality Assurance/Food Safety Coordinator/SQF Practitiioner Oliv International Inc. 

What is your main role  day to day?

I would say this is a combined role. Food Safety is under the umbrella of Quality Assurance. We are making sure that the product that we create/manufacture at our facility is safe for consumption and it meets our high standards. Then SQF Practitioner has a similar but more specific role-document and implement Food Safety Programs, complete audits, monitor, record, verify.

An example of the two roles together: our oil dispenser must be cleaned and the task recorded after each use. Quality Assurance is checking the critical control/quality points through HACCP flow, SQF Practitioner is verifying the document is being updated and that instructions are followed correctly.

Why is your job new and exciting in the culinary world?

There are many great chefs/cooks/bakers in the food industry. However, there is a very important piece when it comes to innovation- the innovator needs to understand and apply the science behind cooking/baking/ developing new products. This is what we young food technologists can offer to the culinary world.

What brought you to choose this career?

In the food world innovation means “difference”. The food industry is always looking for their finished article to be different, to stand out. That falls into two categories:

Invention: Identifying a gap in the market place and creating a brand new item in order to fill that gap. This is very difficult, the brand new idea is difficult to envisage, design, manufacture and sell. It’s far easier to adjust an existing item.

Revision: Taking an existing product and revising it in some way to make it different from the rest of the market. For example, a steak is still a steak. You can’t turn it into a new kind of protein. How you treat, prepare, cook, dress and serve that steak can be different or “innovative.”

I have hands on experience when I’m working on revision and division but it also involves brainstorming as well as microbiology, chemistry and research on each project. Every project has its own story and it gives me the opportunity to learn something new along the way.

How is your career and passion helping to innovate the food industry?

The same as with any other passion: passion to succeed, create, improve. Just as a painter has a passion for colour, light, image, we have a passion for taste, texture, colour, nutrition with a striving to create a pleasing image.

Can you give an example of an application of your job?

A catering company approached Chef Ted Reader (The BBQ king) with a challenge. They wanted to develop new products for the Royal Winter Fair Tradeshow. Of course with every project, they had their criteria that needed to be followed such as bite size, utilize their protein, stay within a specific price range, trendy, family friendly and easy to prepare.

Ted thought the best approach to give them results would be to bring this project to the 3rd year Food Innovation class. They tried each and every product that we developed then picked the best ones as their most innovative creation. The best product was created by my group, The Sweet And Sour Bacon Tender Balls.

A year ago, Community Living approached Niagara Research Innovation Center. They had a challenge and they needed a solution. They needed new formulations for their jams and sauces with a couple of criteria. I developed four different formulations for them: pepper peach salsa, Asian BBQ sauce, peach Icewine and a strawberry base jam infused with spirits. Pepper peach salsa is their biggest seller product since arriving on the shelf. It helped them to achieve more variety on their product list – which will lead them to the next phase of their non-profit organization.

How do you stay educated on new food trends?

Food Magazines, E-books, webinars. I’m a member of the Research Chef Association where I can attend conferences and learn about the most recent trend. I also have a great connection with Chefs and people who work in the Food Industry on a daily basis.

Written By: Gabrielle Tieman