By Susan Malovany
Go big or go home, as they say, and research chef Allison Rittman was never one for small dreams. She founded her own company, Culinary Culture, Austin, Texas, when she was in her 30s. She was one of the very first women in the US — and the seventh person — to earn certification as a research chef from the Research Chefs Association (RCA). The chef has a bachelor’s degree in biology, but her interests later began gravitating to the foodservice industry.
“Although I love science and have a strong background in it, I worked my way through undergraduate school in a restaurant kitchen and loved it,” she said. “I started out as a prep cook and worked my way up the ladder. After I graduated, I decided I didn’t want to work all day in a science laboratory, so I applied to go to culinary school, in a field I had grown to love.”
She was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and the rest is history. “I started my culinary career by working in several upscale restaurants in a variety of kitchen positions, then went to culinary school. After that, I went to work for Sartori, and then another culinary consulting firm, before starting my own company,” she said.
Today, firmly entrenched as a small business owner and chef-consultant at Culinary Culture, she’s happy with the road she’s taken. And that has made all the difference in her continued drive toward success.
Life in the fast lane
Chef Rittman’s dedicated her life to being a chef, but admits her fantasy job would be as a Formula One driver, a career full of allure and adventure. “I own a Mercedes AMG and I’ve always loved to drive,” she said, “and I think it would be a thrill to race cars professionally.” Chef Rittman is currently on a different fast track in the food industry to let customers know what she does as a research chef and how she can develop food products for them.
“When people hear the word ‘food scientist,’ some may be afraid that you could be mixing chemicals in a lab and they won’t even know how to pronounce the names of the ingredients,” she said. “My goal is to create foods that taste the best possible without adding anything unpronounceable, and making them as simply and plainly as possible.”
Trying to get people to understand what she does is one of her biggest challenges. “I am not a caterer, and I don’t create ‘Frankenfood,’” she said . “I am not making fine-dining food for chains — I am trying to create commercially viable products that are on trend for chain restaurants — menu items that taste great.”
She works with another chef at Culinary Culture, Chris McAdams, who is based in Denver, and Chef Rittman is in the process of hiring a third chef. She said the best part about her job is it involves something different every day. “As a chef-consultant, I may do sensory testing on products for shelf life, travel to a trade show to track the newest trends, develop menu concepts for large chain restaurants, be in the kitchen to create gold standard recipes, or work in a manufacturing plant to ensure Chris and I are creating a final product that is as close to our gold standard as possible,” she said.
She added that they may also design a kitchen layout, take food photography shots for a website or dine at fun, new restaurants to blog about their experiences. “We also spend time with ‘food immersions’ where we go into a city and immerse ourselves in that culture — say New York City pizzerias, as an example — or Atlanta, where we dine at several different and interesting restaurants,” she said. “We may take customers with or just go by ourselves to examine trends.”
Culinary Culture’s customers are manufacturers and restaurant chains, for the most part. “Among my largest clients are Paradise, a custom-sauce manufacturer based in Louisville, Ky., and Sartori, a premium cheese manufacturer in Plymouth, Wis. “They both have fantastic products and make it easy to create wonderful dishes, and I used to work at Sartori before I started my own company.”
Food comes in first
Other than clean label, food first is the other dominant trend she sees in the industry.
“‘Food first’ reinforces that a concept or idea can work,” she said, “but the food has to taste great to deliver repeat business. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget when pricing or hold times come into play.”
And consumers aren’t shy about expressing their opinions. “My customers want it all,” she said. “They want clean label, yet they also want their products to last through distribution for as long a shelf life as possible, yet be as inexpensive as possible. At my company, we figure out how to give them a quality product with all the parameters given us.”
Among new products, Chef Rittman has helped create is a line of sauces that include gochujang, harissa, chermoula, cascabel, bulgogi and sriracha, showing customers how to use the sauces. “Sauces with these ingredients keeps Paradise on top of the trends because they’re not the more typical tomato-based sauces or chili sauces we produce that are much more mainstream,” she said.