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Art and Science woven together: Kim Reichert draws on art training for product development. (New Product Development: Chef Sessions).

Kimberly Reichert started her food career as a fiber artist -- but not of the dietary fiber sort. Reichert is Wild Flavors, Inc.'s research chef and manager of the Erlanger, Ky.-based company's Culinary Food Science unit. Her studies at the University of Cincinnati centered on weaving art pieces from various fiber media and as a self-professed right brain researcher, Reichert weaves her artist past into a food science environment.

"I realized I was not going to make a living as a fiber artist," says Reichert. "It wasn't really going to pay off."

But creativity runs deep in the Ohio native and the culinary arts were a logical next step. "I enjoyed cooking, so I went to culinary school."

Reichert, now a member of the Research Chef's Association, trained at the Greater Cincinnati Culinary Arts Academy, an arm of the Culinary Institute of America, and followed the traditional route of a budding chef -- salad assistant, sauce assistant, and other repetitive tasks at area restaurants. "It wasn't the creative outlet I hoped for," she says. "Ten years ago in Cincinnati there were not a lot of women in charge of that industry. It was still a man-run show."

Yet she persevered in Cincinnati kitchens until a former culinary school instructor called about a job opening in what she called a "test kitchen." It was really a product development job for a small area food processing firm and it allowed Reichert to stretch her creative wings. "In some ways they were ahead of their time," says Reichert of the now defunct organization. "I got a lot of experience there in everything from salad dressings to nutritional beverages. It was not a fast-paced company, so I also had a lot of opportunity to learn."

Now at Wild for seven years, Reichert builds on that early diverse and artistic education and orchestrates a similar union among her staff.

"Being an artist has helped me in product development because I am a visual person," she says. "I visualize what a new [food] concept will be the way I visualized art. I am always drawing off that."

The product development team at Wild draws from a full menu of experience too, and they work closely to merge these backgrounds. As part of Wild's Culinary business unit, Reichert oversees the Food Science Group and also functions as the research chef. Much of her efforts are to unite the flavor creation division with customers in the product development process. Reichert's team meets as a group every morning to discuss customers, innovations and strategies. "Everyone is on the same page from the very beginning," she says.

"You can't just send a bottle of flavor to a customer anymore," Reichert adds. "You have to show them what it will be like in a finished product. There is also a lot of involvement from the customer." More and more, she says customers are calling on the Wild team to offer product development aid.

"A lot of people use us to bring new ideas to the table. We can actually double their R&D efforts. We have been operating like that for a long time, but people are now starting to look to us for that more often."

Building the culture

Wild's company philosophy goes back to the original goals of founder Rudolf Wild, who in 1931 started to produce soft drinks exclusively from natural ingredients. Times and technology have evolved and Wild constructed a new facility that has been in operation since 1997. Reichert says the structure is built to facilitate the interaction between culinary and science.

The culture, too, is built for this union. "A lot [of the food scientists] take culinary classes to gain full perspective and spark some creativity Everyone has their expertise, but everyone is well-rounded," says Reichert. She adds that all sides of the product development process embrace this diverse education; chefs take food science courses, the food scientists take culinary classes. "It's so important to learn both sides," she says.

Like art, the culinary/food science union draws on each person's own talent and personality. The success of Wild, says Reichert, is the right blend of expertise and passion. "It's about the relationship with food," she says. "I feel differently about things than someone who got their start in food science might. You can give us both a project and we might come up with something similar, but the way I arrived at it will be different. Here, we can draw on both approaches."

Slowly, food companies are integrating chefs into the food science facet of the business. But there are things companies should look for when trying to incorporate a culinary-trained professional. Reichert says it is vital, though challenging, to bring in the right culinary person. There are pitfalls. "You can have someone who has learned the skills, but it is important to find out what they can do with them," says Reichert. "It's how you feel about food. They [potential candidates] need to have an understanding of what they are getting in to.

Also vital in today's atmosphere is cross training. It's part of the regular interaction at Wild and Reichert says that her own supplemental training in food science has been valuable. "It's so important to me that I know how to manipulate hydrocolloids or gums."

As for the future, folks like Reichert and team will continue to build on cross-functional product development and leverage the advances their technology center offers.

"You have to have the technology behind you," says Reichert who advocates wisely using the Internet for recipes and to learn about the cuisine of different regions.

Reichert is also an avid traveler and uses this to uncover new flavor ideas.

"I'm very lucky this profession found me," she says.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bold and regional continue as trends

Big bold high-intensity flavor profiles continue to dominate the food landscape, according to Kim Reichert, Wild Flavors, Inc., Erlanger, Ky. The immigration trends of the Hispanic and Asian populations continue to fuel the acceptance of distinct flavors on a regional level. "The flavors from these profiles are very big and bold," says Reichert.

"When people are saying 'Mexican' food in the U.S. they are really talking about Tex-Mex. Now we are talking about flavors from the Yucatan province, or moles. We have moved beyond the cheese-soaked enchilada."

On the Asian front, Thai flavors continue to cross into the mainstream. "People are starting to understand what satay is and what lemongrass should taste like. They are looking more for the authentic flavor profiles from specific regions."

In more general terms, Reichert says that food industry is finding the beverage industry as a great resource -- especially those beverages in the wellness arena.

"The culinary industry has lagged behind beverages in innovation," she says. "The beverage industry has a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. They were first to incorporite exotic fruit flavors and some other progressive ingredients. Food companies are starring to take notice of these ingredients as they become more popular."
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Title Annotation:Wild Flavors Inc.
Comment:Art and Science woven together: Kim Reichert draws on art training for product development. (New Product Development: Chef Sessions).(Wild Flavors Inc.)
Author:Ennen, Steve
Publication:Food Processing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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