Unless you’re grinding peanuts into butter and emulsifying egg yolks into mayonnaise at home, Einav Gefen has probably touched your food in some way.
Since 2008, 39-year-old Gefen has acted as corporate chef at Unilever in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Unilever is one of the world's leading consumer product companies, encompassing more than 400 brands including such pantry, refrigerator and freezer mainstays as Ben & Jerry’s, Bertolli, Lipton, Breyers, Skippy Peanut Butter, Ragú, Hellmann's, Knorr and Wish-Bone.
Having spaghetti and dumped on a jar of Ragú pasta sauce? Thank Gefen. Cooled down in the summer with a Popsicle®? That’s her team’s doing too. Worldwide, the corporation has close to a 50 percent share of the global grocery market and invests nearly $1 billion every year in research and development – including in the edible category with Gefen as top chef.
A highly-skilled chef in her own right, Gefen started out working at fine dining restaurants throughout Israel before coming to New York City to join the kitchens of Danal and the three Michelin starred Daniel.
She later transitioned into a chef-instructor role at the Institute of Culinary Education, where a student approached her about an opening in corporate chefdom and promised to e-mail Gefen the details.
“So I read the job description which was two pages long with lots of great information, yet I couldn’t understand for the hell of me what this person did from nine to five,” Gefen said. “But it intrigued me enough to send in my résumé.”
After a series of interviews and an “Iron Chef” type exercise where she created and presented three dishes from whatever was in the refrigerator, she was offered the gig.
On a day-to-day basis, the corporate chef methodology soon became clear: start like a chef, end like a consumer. For Gefen, it was an easy transition as a trained cook and also as a busy, working mother.
As for inspiration, “it’s first and foremost consumer interest,” said Gefen. “There’s no point in me developing anything that I know won’t be shopped for by our consumer.”
The testing facility she works in reflects the same chef-to-consumer mentality. The facility is split into two components: on one end is a test kitchen mimicking a consumer’s home, complete with electric and gas stovetops, a variety of microwaves and everyday equipment like non-stick pans and wooden spoons.
The other end is a legitimate restaurant kitchen that includes a full suite of appliances, a huge "pass" or work area, a deep-fryer, a sous-vide machine – basically if you name it, they’ve got it to play with.
“I feel like a kid in a toy store,” Gefen said.
Once in the kitchen, it’s a drawing board-to-shelf process. Each product starts in development as a culinary image or an idea. From there, they develop that idea into a recipe, and then ultimately into a final product that stands on the shelf.
Once the product is market-ready or already in-market, they move their focus to the consumer end of the kitchen and develop recipes that use that particular product.
“Not only do we help bring ideas to life and pull attributes in the creation process, we come in as quality gatekeepers down the road to make sure anything we created that is up-scaled is true to the quality we want to deliver,” Gefen explained.
“It won’t be like the pasta I cooked for four people on the stove, but you really want to stay as close to that image in quality as possible. Taste is the main driver.”
In the end, Gefen said they easily introduce up to 20 new products in the market every year depending on the current trends and demands.
But going corporate doesn’t come without its fair share of criticisms, from junking up our country’s food system to selling out.
“They are doing what the companies that hired them want them to, presumably. Food companies are about food products, not foods,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
“Food products are where the added value money is. So the chefs’ job is to create food products that people will buy and will produce profits for the company.”
Despite recent national pushes toward the much buzzed-about “organic” and “sustainable” movements, corporate chefs like Gefen do ultimately have to focus on what the mass consumer wants and will buy.
Gefen said Unilever has recently tried to launch a series of organic products, like Bertolli sauces, but they just didn’t do very well.
“With the economy taking a little bit of a step back, organic took a step back with it just because of the nature of paying more for something that is organic.”
As for the sustainability aspect, Gefen said Unilever is conscious of it: making its global mission to double their business while maintaining the same carbon footprint for the next nine years.
In food product development, this means anything from looking at the amount of water a consumer would use in their home preparing the product to how and how far the products are delivered by truck.
As for “selling out to the man,” a highly regarded chef, Nate Appleman, recently received a fair amount of negative and head-scratching national attention from news outlets and blogs when he left the restaurant world to consult for the fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Even though by fast food standards, Chipotle is on the higher end of the spectrum - they source organic and local produce when possible and use dairy from cows raised without synthetic hormones - it was viewed as a step down for his career by many within the restaurant industry.
In a guest blog on Zagat, Appleman explained his motives to the naysayers:
Gefen herself also doesn’t worry about the negative perception, but instead agrees it’s all about impact.
“If you’re in a restaurant, you make a difference in 100 to 300 people an evening if all of them are happy campers, and that’s it,” she said. “But if you work for a Unilever and make good products, you easily impact millions of people at a time.”
Plus the transition allowed her one thing the restaurant industry did not: balance - and holidays off, Gefen joked. And for now, she’s happy to stay put and keep learning.
“This job combines many aspects of what I like as a human being. I always liked marketing when I was a kid; I love the science behind food; and I have access to the labs and everything around that. And, I obviously love cooking. So for me, working in it is just an intersection of many, many things that I find fascinating in the culinary world.”
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