If you’ve ever dined at a national chain restaurant, ordered food at a ball park or grabbed a fresh prepackaged meal from a grocery store deli, you’ve likely tasted work by Joe Kuechenmeister ’99.
Kuechenmeister is employed with Griffith Foods, a food ingredient manufacturer in Chicago. His role as a corporate executive chef involves traveling the world to sample international cuisine, spot trends, reinvent what he sees and tastes and pitch ideas to conglomerates seeking the next “big thing” in food. After he successfully sells an idea, he heads into a test-kitchen to modify his recipes to safely feed the masses. It’s his dream career, but it’s not the path he imagined as a college freshman.
“I was always a science nerd, so I gravitated toward a biology major in college. I had grandiose dreams of going to medical school, but, by junior year, I realized I had another love — cooking,” said Kuechenmeister.
The Cincinnati native worked during high school at a fine-dining restaurant in his hometown and enjoyed the atmosphere. When he started college he needed an income so he looked for another restaurant job and happened upon an establishment in Franklin that reminded him of the restaurant back home. Over the years he advanced from washing dishes, to overseeing the appetizer station, to running the grill and eventually managing the whole kitchen.
“Everything just clicked for me. I went through my college commencement ceremony knowing I was heading next to culinary school, but, at that point, everything I knew about cooking and restaurants I had learned on the job. I realized I needed to be formally trained if I was going to become a professional chef,” he said.
With encouragement from his family, Kuechenmeister took a gap year to work and save money prior to enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He likened the experience of culinary school and working in a thriving kitchen to the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“What you see on TV is the tame version of what happens in an actual kitchen. I’ve been yelled at and belittled in front of my peers, but everyone else has as well. You learn to respect the harsh, honest criticism because you eventually recognize it’s what makes you really good at the job. True chefs can learn and grow in those difficult moments. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart,” he said.
After culinary school, Kuechenmeister landed a position at the Atelier restaurant in The Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Central Park, where he worked for two years, before moving on to the Merrill Lynch Executive Dining Room in the World Financial Center. There he was the executive sous chef for top executives and board members. He was faced with the challenge of creating a menu that changed daily, and he oversaw all operations of the private dining area. He’d been at the job for three years and was nearing burnout when a friend mentioned an opening for a research and development chef at another venue. It turned out to be Kuechenmeister’s big break.
“Making the transition from restaurant chef to research and development chef has been life-changing,” said Kuechenmeister. “I’m extremely lucky that I still get to cook, but I work normal hours that usually don’t involve all the crazy nights, weekends and holidays. It’s the unicorn job of the chef industry,” he said.
He spent seven years with Gourmet Boutique as a research and development chef where he specialized in developing ready-to-eat fresh meals offered in national grocery store chains. In 2013, he transitioned to Griffith Laboratories as a liquids research chef, giving him the chance to invent coatings, marinades and sauce systems for fresh and frozen foods. In 2015, he advanced to his current role as corporate executive chef with Griffith Foods, part of the same corporation.
His energy is focused on helping national clients take a food-product idea from concept to market — safely.
“Food safety is always the number one priority. Once we tackle the safety aspect, we also have to make it taste delicious and look appealing,” said Kuechenmeister.
Water activity, pH, acidity levels, bacterial load, atmosphere, packaging materials and consumer environment are all variables he must consider, test, and modify for every food product roll out.
“I would have never been hired to do R&D without a biology degree. Science is the bedrock of what I do. Chemistry and biology are integral to food development because food is a living thing, and people don’t tend to realize that,” he said.
Blending the culinary arts with food science is a challenge Kuechenmeister relishes.
“It’s about taking a gold-standard dish I would make in a restaurant – for example a two-pound recipe of beef bourguignon, and then figuring out how to make 40,000 pounds of it while retaining the same quality parameters set at the beginning. You can’t just take the ingredients and multiply them. You must use science to determine how every bite of the food will look and taste while retaining the same consistency, whether it’s eaten on day one or day five. Food safety exceptions or quality deviations are unacceptable,” he said.
In March, Kuechenmeister built upon his culinary training and science background by attaining credentials as a certified research chef; only about 90 people worldwide have earned the designation, according to the Research Chefs Association®.
When Kuechenmeister is not working in test-kitchens, he’s traveling and eating his way through different cultures for inspiration to pitch clients.
“I go out to eat a lot to stay on top of my game. I want to know who has the hottest food truck in whatever town I’m visiting, the latest and greatest on the food blogs and what’s trending on social media. I have to figure out how to take a simple idea and turn it on its head to get ahead of what people are doing now. I’m always thinking about what flavors are going to be hot a year and a half from now. It’s a bit like fortune telling,” he said.
Predicting the next big thing in food is incredibly challenging.
Kuechenmeister said, “About 95 percent of what I do fails. Projects can get killed during the initial concept pitch, midway during consumer testing or at the final launch, after you’ve been working on it for eight months. There are a lot of factors that can influence a product’s failure or success. I’ve had to learn to accept failure and stay focused.
“This career is the best case scenario for me. I get to feed the country on a daily basis, setting the trends instead of following them. It’s an awesome, unique undertaking that I’m grateful to have. I’m very lucky Franklin College helped prepare me with the knowledge I bring to the table.”
For more information about what a degree from Franklin College can do for you, contact the Office of Admissions at (800) 852-0232.