Podcast Episode 38

Culinary Research & Development As a Career

Chris McAdams | 42 Minutes | April 12, 2022

In today’s episode we’re speaking with Chef Chris McAdams, an Escoffier graduate who has paved his own lane in the culinary industry as an R&D consultant.

Chris specializes in consumer packaged goods (CPG) product development, plant-based protein innovation, recipe and product development, as well as trend-driven ideation.

As a self-proclaimed “culinary gun-for-hire,” he has done everything from kitchen and menu design to cross utilization training, helping small mom and pop cafés get off the ground, and much more.

Listen today as we chat with Chef Chris about his transition from a marketing professional to chef and culinary consultant, the impact his culinary education has had on his career, and what it takes to sustain an R&D consulting business.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Chef Chris McAdams, an Escoffier graduate who has paved his own lane in the culinary industry as an R&D consultant. Chris specializes in CPG product development and plant-based protein innovation, as well as recipe development, trend-driven ideation, and product development. As a self-proclaimed “culinary gun-for-hire,” he has done everything from helping small mom-and-pop cafes get off the ground, kitchen and menu design, cross-utilization training and much more.

Join us today as we chat with Chef Chris from his transition from a marketing professional to chef and culinary consultant, the impact his culinary education has had on his career, and what it takes to sustain an R&D consulting business.

Good morning, Chef. How are you?

Chris McAdams: Good morning, Kirk. I’m great. How are you, sir?

Kirk Bachmann: I’m a little out of breath after that intro.

Chris McAdams: I was going to say, that was a whole lot of jargon that makes up my background.

Kirk Bachmann: No. It’s exciting. I can’t wait to hear more. You are in Boston, right?

Chris McAdams: That is correct. I live just outside of Fenway, a little town called Brookline.

Kirk Bachmann: Very nice. Weather okay right now this time of the year?

Chris McAdams: Weather is gorgeous right now! We’ve got a 55-60 degree day outside. It’s sunny. I’m looking forward to going to a walk after this.

Kirk Bachmann: Look at that. My eye just caught the odd duck down there on the shelf. There’s got to be an interesting story behind that.

Chris McAdams: Yeah. It’s one of my favorite cook/fun books. I spent about five years in Austin when I was working with culinary culture. One of the restaurants I fell in love with out there was called Odd Duck. It was just a couple blocks away from my apartment when we first moved there. My wife and I, we constantly went there and just fell in love with the menu. We must have eaten there 60 times, and never had a bad dish, never had a bad experience. It was one of those top-to-bottom restaurants that was always firing on all cylinders. The chef over there, Bryce Gilmore, always came correct with creativity and execution, and has launched that into a few other options as well, the Sour Duck Market, and then he has the cookbooks as well. It’s one of those handy ones I always keep around and on-hand because it has a ton of inspiration.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. That was a no-charge plug right there.

Chris McAdams: I always like plugging people that are doing it right?

Kirk Bachmann: Send them an invoice!

Chris McAdams: Yeah, right! Exactly.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

First of all, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really happy to see you. We haven’t seen each other in 2016 or so. I know you’re super, super busy. Congratulations, first and foremost, on all the success, your career. Congratulations on graduating from Escoffier.

As I was doing some research, I noticed that you also studied nutrition – why not? You’ve done a lot – at Metro in Denver. Is Jackson Lamb a name that rings a bell? Was he a part of that department when you were there?

Chris McAdams: I recognize the name, but I think he was on the peripheral for me. I think he was in the department, but I don’t think I worked with him directly.

The Gypsy Life

Kirk Bachmann: Got it. Great school. Great reputation. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you for your service to our country. Really, really appreciate it.

You’re involved with a lot of work and organizations, and I want to make sure we afford you any time that you like or that you’d need to talk about the great work that you’re doing. RCA (Research Chefs Association), plant-based rationale, photography…I have to ask: I know you spent about 20 years of your life in Colorado. There must have been something pretty special in Boston, the East Coast, to pull you out of Colorado. I’ve got to know what it was.

Chris McAdams: I’ve always lived the gypsy lifestyle, and I love attacking opportunities. The more I’ve done that, even since culinary school, so when my externship got approved for London, I picked up and we sold our place and we moved to London and went all in on it. Ended up coming back and that took me to Austin, and then back to Colorado again. It’s been this cycle where I’ll go somewhere, experience something, and the roots will bring me back to Colorado for whatever reason. When I was with Culinary Culture out in Austin, it got to the point where I was handling all of my own clients independently. I didn’t need to be stationed there anymore. My wife and I still had family in Colorado so we decided to move our test kitchen from Austin back to Colorado again.

Then I had an opportunity to join a world-class R&D firm out here in Boston called Chew. That is actually what picked me up from Denver and moved me out to Boston. Sadly, that position didn’t work out for me. However, it did work out for my wife who is now their director of marketing. It was a great win for her, and it just gave me a new opportunity. I’ve taken a couple weeks off to reset and re-aim for the future while she’s been taking care of me. It’s been a nice reprieve. That’s what picked me up and moved me out here. I have no regrets at all.

I’m actually a big fan of this area. I’d never been here before. We moved out blind. I’d gone to Boston one time for a 24-hour turnover for a client project, and left and that was my only exposure. This was a big risk, but the reward so far has been been very high, and I’ve been very pleased with the results.

Energized by Travel

Kirk Bachmann: I’m totally jealous. The travel is exciting, especially in our industry. Where was the externship in London? That’s exciting.

Chris McAdams: Oh my gosh! That was at Clarke’s of London with Chef Sally Clarke, who is an absolute phenom. I had the pleasure of working with her and her executive chef, Michele Lombardi and their entire team.

The funny thing was the reason I chose London is because, unfortunately like most Americans, I only speak one language. I wanted to go somewhere European that I could get the best possible training, but I wanted to be able to speak the language of the kitchen. The irony of it all was I got out there, got approved, got into the kitchen, and it turned out their entire kitchen was Italian. It was a bit of an adjustment when I got out there, but they spoke English enough to get me through, and then in the bakery they all spoke French.

It was a lot of fun and I learned a ton, and I got put in a whole lot of uncomfortable situations and got beat up and battered and bruised and picked up, and did it all over again. It was one of the best times of my life. The three months out there in London was just terrific.

Kirk Bachmann: Stanley Tucci, the actor, just came out with a book called “Taste.” It’s sort of a memoir of his life. He moved to London about eight years ago. He grew up in upstate New York. He said kind of the same thing. In London, you’re in Europe which is super, super cool, but the language is English so it just makes it that much easier, right?

Chris McAdams: I love traveling, and it goes into why we developed Fork and Path, which is our little side company. It was just an excuse for us to travel the world. It kind of kicked off after that trip to London. That’s when I got the taste for it and the energy. There’s so many lessons learned, so many experiences, so much exposure to new techniques, ingredients, flavors, products, things I had never seen before. It was really very eye-opening for me. It just energized me to want to do more and more and more.

The Power of Mistakes

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Speaking of podcasts, I listened to your chat with Neela Paul. Quite honestly, I listened to it twice. I thought it was really, really great. She has some experience with the RCA as well. What I loved, Chris, was you talked at one point about all the things that make us different. You came to this from a mentoring perspective, and then you also segued into talking about what’s necessary to get us to a level of high performance. I loved the thoughtful approach, your style basically, to coaching. You spoke of patience, education. From a leadership perspective, it’s super important to point people in the right direction. But I’d love for you to talk a little bit more. You mentioned that mistakes are okay as long as you learn from the mistakes. Are we saying that we shouldn’t make those same mistakes twice, or we should really develop more from those mistakes?

Chris McAdams: That’s such a deep subject. There’s so much rich context to take out of that. I absolutely love mentoring. I think building up the industry with more quality people who can feel that you empathize with them and care for them is how we’re, inevitably, going to change this industry into what it could become.

I’ve adopted that with people that I work with, steering them away from the mindset that, “because I screwed up, now I can’t do this anymore.” It’s because you screwed up, you SHOULD do that. Because now you’ve learned that lesson, and that’s okay. It’s okay to mess up and learn the lesson and move forward from it. Nothing is ever done perfectly. There’s no such thing as perfection. You can’t execute perfectly. That’s why we have the scientific method. That’s the whole reason it exists. You can hypothesize something, test it, find out whether or not it works. Use the lessons you’ve learned from that test, and then do it all over again. We wouldn’t have an R&D industry without failure. We wouldn’t have the wheel without failure.

All of these things are based on failures, and those failures are such an amazing opportunity for us to grow and strengthen ourselves. I see a lot of times when people fail, they use that as an opportunity to berate themselves, and undercut their own self-esteem. That’s the worst thing somebody should do to themselves. You should never beat yourself up. Everyone else around you is going to beat you up enough. You don’t need to do that to yourself as well. In a lot of ways, we have to be our own cheerleader and say, “That’s okay. I’m glad I learned from it.” Own it. First and foremost, have the integrity to own your mistake and say, “That was my bad.” But then learn from it and do better next time.

In all of my experience leading projects, mentoring people, the ones that I’ve found that are the most successful are the ones who can just easily say, “I made that mistake. That’s my bad.” Let it roll off their back and move onto the next thing and take the lesson learned with it. I think it’s a bit of empowerment to say that mistakes are okay. If anything, they can be beneficial.

Some of the best lessons I’ve learned came from mistakes. I’ve been on projects before where I added the wrong ingredient to something during testing. I totally messed up, and it turned out the results it gave me benefited me on a separate project. I found a result that I wasn’t expecting that I was able to use somewhere else, and that was a huge win. I would have never done that if I had not made the mistakes. That doesn’t mean to aim for mistakes. You have to have the P’s: You always Plan, but at the same time, it’s okay when they do happen to just own them, learn from them, and use them as tools to do better.

Being of Service to Each Other

Kirk Bachmann: This approach to mentoring and coaching and thoughtful leadership and such – do you believe in our industry, which was really devastated during the pandemic – do you believe it’s more important today, post-pandemic that even before in terms of getting people to come back to the industry for the right reasons? And supporting them in a more thoughtful way – not just with wages and hours and such, but the way they are treated?

Chris McAdams: I think it is. With the next generation, Gen Z, coming up, such a focus on it is mental health. We see that in almost all the media coming out that focuses on Gen Z is that mental health is a primary issue and it is something the whole generation is not afraid to talk about. It is no longer faux pas. My parents’ generation, you never talked about when you were having emotional problems. It’s something you deal with elsewhere. This generation is absolutely front and center on it.

I think in order for our industry to be successful, we always have to be looking to the future of the industry and who is the next one in line and how do we nurture that demographic to come up and be successful within this environment. During my time in the kitchens, we were already seeing the expiration of the “bastard chef” idea where they’re throwing plates and everything. That was already on the way out. I’ve worked with tons of chefs that were just, amazing silent kitchens and wonderful people. I think we’re seeing more of that adopted as the Millennial Generation gets to those leadership positions and starts taking over and saying, “This can be more than just a grind. We’re in here to create something. We’re in here to build art and to be of service.”

Being of service, I think sometimes in our industry, gets lost between the front of the house and the staff. We’re of service to all of our consumers, but we forget to be of service to ourselves and to each other as well.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said.

Chris McAdams: I think that’s where it’s starting to change. Now we’re noticing that and we’re looking at the those around us and saying, “How can I help you? How can we work together? How can we go from competitive to collaborative in a really ingenuitive and meaningful way?”

A Winding Path to Culinary School

Kirk Bachmann: Good lesson, not just for our industry, but for life. For parents.

Chris, based on what I know, you attended culinary school a little bit later in life. It was a decision that you made when you started to consider what you truly wanted to do. Can you share with us about where you were in your life when you decided that going to culinary school was interesting and important to you? Maybe talk a little bit about what about Escoffier specifically you found attractive. Boulder, Colorado is a pretty nice place to be. Talk about that a little bit. Really interesting.

Chris McAdams: I like to talk about my background because it always helps other people understand that you don’t have to have a single track to get to where you want to be. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was coming out of high school, so I went into the military instead because I didn’t have a direction. I’ll just go in the military. I’ll start there.

I did my four years in the Air Force as a medic, and during that time, I decided I wanted to go into health. I exited and took my post-9/11 degree to study nutrition and dietetics at MSU-Denver. I did that. I started working a little bit in the hospital, and it didn’t quite satisfy the way I thought it would. I pivoted and turned towards marketing. I started studying a Master’s of marketing at DU. Then I worked as a marketing director during that time as well. I spent three years doing that.

It wasn’t the right fit for me. I move too much. I’m too twitchy. Like most chefs, we bounce around just in general. We’re high-energy individuals. I needed something else that wasn’t just sitting at a computer all day long. I had a really long heart-to-heart with my wife, who has been probably one of the most empowering people in my entire life. She’s been amazingly supportive during my entire career. She asked, “What is the one thing that you’ve always loved to do?” Well, I’ve always loved to play with food. I’ve never been really good at it. I worked in restaurants all the way through high school. I had plenty of experience doing it, but never at a really high level. Why don’t we attack that, but with the mindset that I’m going in not looking for a chef of a restaurant position? I wanted something else. I just didn’t know what it was yet. I knew it was in the food and beverage industry, I just had no idea what it looked like, what the structure was.

It was at that point in time I started looking to get that real culinary education. Escoffier 1) was local. I was in Denver. That was a huge win. But 2) had that compressed timeline. I already had a degree, and I had gone into my Master’s as well. I didn’t want to start over and take prerequisites and go for an Associate’s Degree in Culinary or whatever it was. Escoffier gave me that opportunity to take all of that prerequisite knowledge I had, focus it into going directly into the kitchen and jumping in hands-on with out all the peripheral stuff, and executing as well as I could.

I consistently believe that you get out what you put in. I really tried to put everything I had into my time at Escoffier, working with all the chefs, anyone that would take me in free time. Anyone who wanted to have a conversation with me before or after class. I would just drink up and sponge as much knowledge and experience as I could. It paid dividends. That’s what got me into Clarke’s of London, and that’s what took me into Culinary Culture in Austin, and it got me into this career path that I’m currently in. I owe a lot to it.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you for that, Chris. Today, you serve as a mentor for other Escoffier students. Am I right?

Chris McAdams: That’s correct. I’m part of the Escoffier mentorship program. I’m currently mentoring a student based out of, coincidentally, Austin, Texas.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. Are there some memorable events or moments when you were a student that kind of stand out that you are able to share?

Chris McAdams: My gosh. There are a lot of memorable events. I really did have a lot of fun in culinary school. Doing catering events at the governor’s mansion with Jesper Jonsson was awesome. My entire class with Chef Bob Scherner – I loved that guy. No holds barred, relentless, and exactly what I was looking for, the type of guy who was going to treat you like you were in a kitchen. I had a great time working with him. I learned so much from him, as well.

Honestly, for me what I got from Escoffier, which is what I try to give back, is that same sort of mentorship. Because I was proactive and because I went to my instructors and tried to develop a one-on-one relationship with them beyond just doing the curriculum, I was able to divine so much more information from them – ways of execution and methodologies, and techniques – that other people didn’t get because they were in and out as quickly as possible. It meant a lot to me, and I think subconsciously in a lot of ways, it molded me to see that if they could do that for me, what could I do for somebody else, then?

Working With The Research Chefs Association

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. there’s a theme here. Clearly you like to give back. I’m curious. An organization like Research Chefs Association which I have an incredible amount of respect for and we have a very close common friend in Robert Danhi, whom I’ve known for years. He’s been involved with RCA for a long time. What motivated you to jump into that world? It’s a volunteer situation. A lot of work. A lot of networking. I’m really curious, 1) how did you discover them? And what motivated you to continue to give back?

Chris McAdams: That’s a fun story, actually. I discovered the RCA when I was in London. My externship was wrapping up and I knew that it was cost-prohibitive to stay in London at the time for my wife and I. I knew I had to transition out of London and find a career back in the States. I was doing a ton of research on things in relation to being a restaurant chef in the culinary field. The common thread that always came up was that corporate chef working for a company. Through the spiderweb, I eventually stumbled upon the RCA, the Research Chefs Association. I found all about culinary development, research and development, CPG development. That was very eye-opening. There were all these career fields that I never knew existed that were just quietly simmering in the background that most people don’t know about. As soon as I stumbled upon the RCA, I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I didn’t know it! But this is what I’ve been looking for. Here it is.”

I immediately – I think it was the same night, probably 12:30 a.m, so I guess morning in London. I signed up as a student member on the RCA. Again, coincidentally – I have this weird association with things happening right when I leave – but they had just held their conference in Denver two months before, while I was in London. They had released all of their President’s Award winners for that year. I sent each one of the people on the President’s Award list my resume and a letter of intent. Blindly sent to all of them. One of them was Chef Alice, who recommended the Culinary Culture out of Austin. Turns out she was hiring. She liked what I had to say. I came out, I did a dry run with her, and she hired me on the spot. We were together for about four years. It was awesome.

That was when I realized the power of something like the RCA. In that quick amount of time, I was able to go from jobless in London to employed and salaried in Austin, Texas that quickly. The more I jumped in and worked with the RCA, the more I realized what an incredibly powerful network it is.

That’s one thing that I really try to impress on young people, or anybody in the industry who doesn’t utilize it. The network is an amazingly powerful tool. If you treat your network right, it will pay you back in dividends. Assistance, projects, help with information. You’re stuck on something you don’t know. You can reach out to the network. there’s always somebody out there who has an answer, or who knows who has the answer. Those are the types of things that make me better at what I do. People always say, “It always seem like you have the answer.” I don’t! I just know who to ask to get there. I usually don’t have the answer, but I’m not afraid to say I don’t have the answer and go find it.

Kirk Bachmann: Super great feedback for students. People just getting into our industry, your network is so, so important.

Finding a Career in Culinary R&D

Kirk Bachmann: Chris, you’ve mentioned that you’ve taken a somewhat unconventional path into your culinary career, but a path nonetheless. It’s your journey, super personal. You’ve become this chef for hire, a consultant that’s helping – I love the term helping – food and beverage companies. You are helping them launch products, scale products, revamp products, develop their brands. Military, different paths, culinary school, RCS, travel – how did you learn about this particular path or career opportunity, this R&D consultancy? Were traditional opportunities in the industry at all attractive to you initially, or did you always have your heart set on something a little different? Above it or next to it?

Chris McAdams: It’s funny you ask that, Kirk. It was actually a chef at Escoffier that told me what I needed to hear when I did my first scouting mission at the Boulder campus. “If you’re thinking about joining the school, come in, sit in on a session. We’ll hang out.” The chef who was there at the time who is no longer there, I talked with him the whole time. He asked me about my background. He was learning all of this stuff about me. At the end of the class, he was like, “Look. If you decide to come to culinary school, you’re going to do great. I have no double about that. You’re disciplined enough to do it. However, you should not just go be a cook. I don’t know what it is you should do, but just being a cook at a restaurant is not right for you. You have too many other things that you could bring to the table that would be wasted on simply being a cook.”

I didn’t know. I had no gauge for what I had done or where I was going. I try to stay with a high level of humility. I’ve done a couple of things, but I don’t know if it’s worth anything or if it has any value. But what he said really impressed me. It stuck to me. So, okay, what else can I do? That’s what started the gears turning for looking for other opportunities. That fed right into that exploration of London which led me to the RCA and finding out about that. The culinary consulting, specifically, outside of the singular development at a firm felt really good to me because I knew how variable my mind works. I’m a very independent person. I love working in groups. I love leading groups. I love doing all that part of it, but at the same time, I’m very self-sustained. I can compartmentalize really well and I can execute a plan very well by myself and keep myself on track. It was really an opportunity to jump in right away and handle my own projects from beginning to end. Being my own PM, being responsible for a budget and crash course, under-fire, learn how to do all of the things that needed to be done to be successful in the industry.

I loved it. It was so much fun to just be able to go in and then constantly have different projects thrown at me with different challenges. Things that I’d literally never done before. I had never tempered chocolate before and had to take on a whole confections project around tempered chocolate. I had to teach myself all of that side of it, how to do it, how to execute it and thin it out. It’s this constant learning experience. It’s this constant challenge. It can be daunting. It can be incredibly difficult, and I’ve had plenty of sticky times throughout it, but I’ve always relied on my network and the people around me to help me through it.

That openness and that willingness to accept both tutelage and mentorship, and all of those other things, and direction, it’s allowed me to grow into this position where I definitely have a lot more confidence in what I’m doing. I know when things feel right and don’t feel right. I tend to have pretty good “gut check” knowledge. If my gut says it’s not right, something’s not right. I may not know exactly why it’s not right, but I’ll put it to the right person and they’ll tell me.

R&D Struggles: Communicating Effectively and Realistically

Kirk Bachmann: For current students or grads who listen to our chat and become super interested in your journey, I imagine there are some challenges in this sector, and there are probably some opportunities. I imagine, first and foremost, you have a lot different clients. One size does not fit all. You’ve got to be super flexible, you’ve got to be able to pivot. Maybe speak a little bit about the challenges of being an entrepreneur, and the opportunities.

You’ve said some of it. I love the idea and in a strange sort of way being your own boss, responsible for your own projects and timelines and benchmarks, things like that. I imagine there’s some challenges as well, particularly over the last couple of years.

Chris McAdams: Absolutely. Everything comes with both good and bad. It’s the stress you accept that makes you who you are. In this situation, doing consulting, for me, I was a part of a company. I wasn’t entirely independent. I was under a structural umbrella, but I was handling my own clients within that.

One of the biggest challenges comes with the communication point of it. I think that’s where a lot of struggles happen within the R&D industry. Understanding the expectations of the client coming in, knowing exactly what they want, being able the communicate the realities and the possibilities of what they want against physical reality, and still keep that message attractive. There’s always that talk down. Somebody has this brilliant idea. They think it’s going to be amazing and it’s going to change the world. You have to go in there and say, “I love your energy and I love the attitude you have. This has already been tried six times before. It was unsuccessful. Here’s what we can do to try to make it different. Let’s collaborate. Let’s get together. Let’s spell that out into things that we can measure and that are tangible. Then let’s execute on those items. Let’s put a gate right there and stop and get together and see what it’s like, then go from there and move on.

I think there is a big problem in the R&D industry with over-promising and under-delivering. We see a lot of that. I am of the opposite side of things. I would much rather be very direct and very real with anybody that’s coming on and looking at it. That’s very hard for people to do. We want to please people; that’s the idea. We’re in the food and beverage industry.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

Chris McAdams: We want to make people happy. We want to get them excited. We want to see their eyes sparkle when we do stuff. Being able to temper that and make it realistic is what keeps people coming back. That’s a very powerful thing, to have people constantly coming back because they trust you, because you never oversell and under-deliver. It’s a hard balance to maintain.

I think the bright side of what I do is the variation of it, the variability. Like I said, I get to do all kinds of different projects. Some of them are incredibly unique and very, very meaningful. I’m all about driving any sort of economic change that we can or green solutions, these types of things. Getting a chance to be the first one at-bat for creating some of these game-changer, alternate protein sources. That is a very cool moment, to say, “Wow! This person created this incredible technology but has no idea how to turn it into a food.” So now I’ve got to take their technology and make it something edible. Filling that gap in between those two things is a very powerful and unique thing to do.

Culinary Marketing and R&D

Kirk Bachmann: Good advice. A little bit tougher question, this whole world of R&D consultant work. You marry that with also your marketing background. You’re doing some R&D and also trying to help clients build their brand, whether it’s in person or online. How do you marry those two? That’s tough! They’re kind of different, kind of the same. That’s a big ask! Help us be innovative. Help us be at the forefront while growing our brand to do it. That’s a secret sauce.

Chris McAdams: It’s an interesting thing to balance. One thing to keep in mind for anybody considering this industry: often it’s not all. Usually you’re taking a piece of the pie from a larger pie. Often, maybe I’m coming in and they have a product, they don’t know how to make it aesthetically please, or they need to make a whole menu or a line of items off of it, and they need photographs and language and graphics. That’s one piece of the pie doing that. Sometimes you’re coming in with a client who has a product that needs to be developed, but they already have a marketing team on hand. You have to marry yourself to the marketing team and learn to work with them as you develop this product in-step with their planning for the marketing execution.

Kirk Bachmann: And sometimes you have to be brutally honest. Sometimes you see something and think, “I’m not sure that’s going to work.”

Chris McAdams: I had the displeasure and the pleasure of working on projects with really, really bad marketing teams and really, really excellent marketing teams. What makes me a little more of an asset is because I have the marketing background, I understand what they’re trying to do. It’s not gray area or foreign for me. I understand why they’re coming with these blue, pie-in-the-sky ideas that seem intangible, and then I understand from my other vantage point, being in the development, and in the R&D and knowing what is possible within that and finding that sweet spot in between, and being able to communicate that with them.

It can be a very challenging thing to do, because you do have to be patient and you have to be able to explain in language that the other people are going to understand. I could use all kinds of ephemeral terms to talk about all kinds of stuff, but they need to know why we can’t take this cheese-based product they want and make it a shelf-stable product due to mold, water activity, whatever it is. They may not understand the steps in between, but I do, and it’s my job to make those understandable so that way we can create something that’s in the middle, and that lands both on expectations and with marketing value.

Plant-Based Innovation & Ideation

Kirk Bachmann: Clearly, communication is so, so important. Humble communication. Thoughtful communication. You briefly mentioned plant-based. You probably know that Escoffier added plant-based education, holistic wellness to our portfolio over the last year. Can we talk a little bit about plant-based innovation, ideation, and where you see it going? We know that between seven and ten percent of the population of the United States now self-identifies as plant-based/vegan. I, myself, my family, we’re about 80/20, 85 percent moved over the plant-based. It’s a lifestyle choice that we made, and we feel great about it. In your space, Chris, in this R&D space, or even branding space, where do you see this going? It’s clearly not a trend, plant-based cooking. It’s here to stay. Any insight? No secrets, but any insight into where you see it going?

Chris McAdams: Growing, I think is the easy answer to that. We’re seeing it grow not only in actual market value, but in base interest across the board, especially Gen Z and the Millennials. They are absolutely bought-in on the idea of plant-based.

We also have to consider plant-based means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What we in the industry call plant-based isn’t necessarily what the average person on the street considers plant-based, and that definition is going to keep getting more and more gray. A lot of people consider pasta plant-based. It’s just semolina flour and water. There’s no meat in there. But you say plant-based to somebody else, and they’re thinking Impossible Burgers. That’s a huge gap in understanding when we’re talking the lexicon of language. I think understanding and defining what plant-based is is going to help or just making it a broad term for eating more plant foods.

We’re seeing a lot of really, really high-level technological advancement in the area of creating plant-based proteins. I think we’re going to see a lot more coming along the line of development of whole muscle analogs for foods. People are trying really hard to create plant-based products that look and feel like tenderloins, or scallops, or actual cuts of meat rather than just ground meat or preformed chicken nuggets-type of situation.

We’re also seeing a big of a variance of the other side of the talking point, too. More people are saying, We’ve got all these plant-based foods that are also filled with all of these…the methyl cellulose, and all of these things to stabilize them. We’re going to make foods that fill that gap that are just made simply out of plants. We see some great ones come along. Actual Veggies does a fantastic job with their plant-based burgers.

Both of these things have real estate to exist in. Then you have the third one coming in, which is the cell-based meat, the laboratory meat. I think we’re really all trying to answer mostly the same problems. We’re trying to solve mostly the same problems. It’s basically how do we create less animal fodder. How do we lower the environmental impact of animal feed, and how do we create more of a humane system.

I think we’ll never see the farming of animals stop. I think the hope, long-term for most people who are in the plant-based arena and believe in it is finding a better balance for that. Those whole-meat items are terrific, the special occasion things, but how do we fill the rest of our diet up with plant-based foods that still meet satisfactorily, that hit on the umami and the savory and those flavor notes that we really want, but have much less of an impact both humanely and environmentally on the world.

Plant-Based Foods Named After Meats

Kirk Bachmann: Great response. I’ve asked several guests and other plant-based chefs that I’ve interacted with. Why is it that you’re using the terminology that people are familiar with: plant-based chicken fingers, like you mentioned. The consistent response is, Listen. No one’s denying that people are familiar with things that they believe taste good. A lot of people think chicken taste great. People today are making conscious decisions around animal welfare, personal health, the environment, so on and so forth. No one’s denying. Do you think that down the road we will be at a place where we don’t have to call something an animal protein to make it attractive? No longer will tenders be called plant-based chicken tenders, they’ll simply be called plant-based tenders.

Chris McAdams: I think so. That’s a hard one, because then we get into a lot of committees who have investments into these industries. People will inevitably fight against those things because it has recognition to them. There’s been fights before. Can you call a plant-based chicken tender a chicken tender? Should it even have the word “chicken” in there?

Kirk Bachmann: Period.

Chris McAdams: Some people don’t want that in there because they say it undercuts the actual marketing for chicken products. I think there’s going to be a lot turmoil, inevitably, over it. I think language in the country is a bureaucratic process that takes a lot of yellow tape to get through and to understand. I think it’s going to be a fight, and there’s going to always be an issue with it.

I think ideally, we get to a point where food is food. We’re enjoying the food because it tastes good and it’s good for us and it’s developed well. We’re not going to really care as much about the nomenclature of it. Inevitably, a marketing team out there somewhere is going to create the perfect meat analog, and they’re going to give it some quirky name like Flamb or something, and then that’s what we’re going to refer to it as. It becomes the Kleenex or the Xerox or whatever else. It’s this ubiquitous word that is used for all those types of foods.

Kirk Bachmann: And you’ll be responsible to build it out.

Chris McAdams: Exactly.

Chef Chris’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Chef, thank you so much for that. I don’t know where our time has gone today. Really, really insightful, interesting conversation. But before I let you go, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish, so I have to ask: Chef Chris, what is the ultimate dish?

Chris McAdams: That is such an unfair question. I know you know that. I’ve been thinking about this, and trying so hard. I have, literally, a list in front of me of all of the different meals and experiences I’ve had that have really spoken to me. I think I have to give it to a restaurant, because they really embodied what it to meant to be in the hospitality industry.

Quick story, I’ll keep it short. My wife and were in Montreal celebrating an anniversary. We were there over the holidays, just after Christmas. Because we were celebrating, we totally lost track of the fact that it was New Year’s. It didn’t even cross our radar that it was New Year’s. We went out to go eat, and of course, it’s New Year’s; every restaurant in Montreal was booked solid. We had gotten turned away from seven restaurants in Montreal, and we were about to give up. We said, “Okay. Let’s try.” We had dined at this restaurant three days earlier, called Le Taj. It was this fantastic Indian restaurant next to Rue Des Montreal. “Let’s just try there. If they can’t take us, we’ll go to the grocery store, we’ll eat in the hotel room, and call it a night.”

We went in there. We told the hostess our little sob story. “We’ve been walking around for three hours. Got turned away from every restaurant.” Blah, blah, blah. The manager overhears. The manager takes us over to the bar, standing room only. He pours us each a beer. Then he goes, and we watch him take a table from the back storage area, place it in front of the window where they make their flatbreads in the clay oven, and then pull two chairs. The manager is doing all this. He sets the table. He sits us down at it. He brings us a bottle of wine, and he tells us to enjoy our evening.

We had a fantastic five-course meal at this restaurant on New Year’s. He discounted the check for us as an apology for the way we were treated in Montreal. It was just one of those moments. He didn’t have any responsibility for any of that. He didn’t have to do any of that. But it was a game-changer. I really got the feeling then, that this is what hospitality can do. You can take somebody and create an entire mood and memory that can shape them forever. That’s really what I try to bring into what I’m doing. I want to create things with integrity and excellence that answer a problem, that solves something for a consumer, but also bring them a moment of joy or an experience that they’re going to take with them.

Kirk Bachmann: The true definition of hospitality. Beautiful story, and a story you’ll continue to share.

Chris McAdams: Absolutely. That restaurant is still open today.

Kirk Bachmann: Of course it is. I love that story.

Chris, continued success. Thank you so much for what you’re doing for the industry, for Escoffier. We’ll chat again. The next time you come back to Boulder, I hope you come by the campus and say hello. I’ll give the chefs that are still here – Jesper is still here. Bob is still here – your best.

Really, really proud of you.

Chris McAdams: Excellent. Thank you so much, Chef. I appreciate your time and hospitality, and I absolutely will come by the next time I’m in town. Thanks for everything.

Kirk Bachmann: Awesome.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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