Notable food professionals visit SMSU

MARSHALL – Southwest Minnesota State University is continuing to elevate its culinology program, having recently implemented a new Open Innovation Research Center on campus. And this past week, some high-profile visitors had the opportunity to learn about the new venture.

Food Network star Nancy Fuller, East Coast caterer Christopher Robbins and UniPro Foodservice President and CEO Roger Toomey took a guided tour and also heard a presentation about the new endeavor and about the culinology program itself from Dr. Samir Amin, the Open Innovation Research Center director.

“I’m currently running the program,” Amin said. “My background is culinary arts and food science. That’s basically what culinology is. Culinology is taking your knowledge of culinary arts and cooking, along with the basic fundamentals of food science, and combining them to develop products.”

SMSU is the only university in the country to offer a stand-alone (four-year) culinology program in addition to being the world’s first bachelor of science in culinology approved by the Research Chefs Association.

“Only at SMSU and at Taylor’s University (Malaysia) can a student start and finish,” Amin said. “And we’re getting more well known as students begin to see the benefits.”

Toomey, who is also on the SMSU culinology board, explained that employers appreciate the fact that SMSU graduates get hands-on experiences to go along with their degree.

“We’re formalizing the Innovation Center in terms of how we market it to the outside industry,” Toomey said. “The goal is really to give practical experience to the students, to get the potential employers introduced to the students, which provides internships and full-time career jobs after they graduate.”

Currently, there are 13 RCA-approved college degree programs in the U.S., beginning with SMSU, which graduated its first student in 2002. As of 2012, a total of 101 students have graduated from the cutting edge program at SMSU, with approximately 300 more students currently enrolled.

Nine institutions have a 2+2 program model, which involves a partnership with a culinary school. Two others have a culinology option/concentration.

According to Michael Cheng, the culinology and hospitality management director at SMSU, culinology graduates have a 100 percent placement rate, with a starting salary of $38,000. Thanks to the strong partnership with General Mills, CuliNex, the Schwan Food Co. and other companies, the students leave SMSU with a strong education and hands-on experiences, he said.

“That’s very valuable to employers, to have the education and knowledge but also the experience,” Toomey said. “But with our number of students growing, so are our expenses. We need more facilities and more internships.”

The Open Innovation Research Center will also provide great opportunities to food industry organizations, especially those that don’t have a large research and development budget, Toomey said.

“We want to help the small guy first,” he said. “A lot of these companies don’t have these resources. So it all ties together in a neat little bundle.”

Amin explained that the collaborative work would provide valuable opportunities for clients in regards to reaching optimal commercialization goals with incredible speed to market. That’s what sparked an interest in visiting the campus for Fuller, who is the host of “Farmhouse Rules” on the Food Network channel. She’s also the owner of Ginsberg’s Foods, a multimillion-dollar business she runs with her husband.

“I’m here because my show is very popular and when someone is recognized in the food industry in the television world, such as Food Network, and you have more than two or three seasons under your belt and a million viewers, you have an audience,” Fuller said.

Fuller’s intention is to find various products, such as sauces, chips and dips, that can be packaged and potentially distributed to restaurants everywhere.

“My dream is to come up with a product that highlights my motto: fresh is best, but when you’re stressed, here’s a product that’s as fresh as can be, whatever it is,” Fuller said. “

Being able to test a recipe and solidify the structure of the recipe appealed to Fuller, who had very positive things to say about the new endeavor at SMSU.

“You’ve hit every facet of the industry,” she said. “This has so much potential. It’s much more sophisticated than other programs I’ve seen. It’s the breadth of knowledge that I’m so impressed with. The wealth of knowledge is so powerful.”

Toomey has 30 years of experience in the foodservice industry, including 14 at UniPro, which is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Robbins is also no stranger to the foodservice industry, though his speciality is upscale catering and events planning.

Robbins and partners Ken and Paula Wolfe founded Robbins Wolfe Eventeurs (RWE) together and are celebrating the company’s 20th year.

“I’m really working closely with Nancy to conceive of what these product ideas may be and how we may put them into a development timeline and what are we going to innovate,” Robbins said. “We’re here to innovate product, basically.”

That’s where SMSU comes in, and though the Center is the early phases of development, it has the potential to be extraordinary. And Amin, who has 30 years of food industry experience, including restaurants, hotels, retail and product development, is leading the way.

“The growth potential is almost unlimited,” Amin said.

While he was working at a restaurant in California about two years ago, Amin said he ran into Cheng.

“Right after I got my Ph.D., I had been offered a position at a really unique company in California called Two Chefs on a Roll,” Amin said. “The two founders of the company started by renting space in restaurants during off hours and grew it into about a $60 million business before they sold it.”

Amin explained that the restaurant had a very strong culinary emphasis and was driven toward innovation, which is what Amin wanted to do as well.

“They wanted me to blend those paths of culinary and food science,” he said. “I stayed there for six years, starting as a research chef and working my way up to director of research and development.”

Cheng encouraged Amin to apply for the fixed-term faculty opening in the culinology department at SMSU, and Amin took him up on it.

“I wanted to teach, and I came out here and fell in love with this program,” Amin said. “It’s one of the best I’ve seen. The students are great. The faculty is great. And the support we get from industry is also really good, and that allows us to do a lot.”

Like Amin, Cheng is very active in the RCA, which was started by a group of chefs in 1996 and has now grown to include 2,500 members. Cheng will also serve as an adviser for the Open Innovation Research Center.

“A culinologist, as defined by the RCA, is a food industry professional whose job integrates the application of culinary arts and food technology,” Amin said. “They play significant roles throughout the product cycle, oversee food trends, have a diverse knowledge base and look at food from a different perspective. They push the envelope more from a creativity standpoint.”

The Center already has more than a handful of clients and expects to have a big push over the fall semester.

“We’re starting to get more projects,” Amin said. “It’s exciting.”