Episode 21: Culinology with Justin Kanthak, President of the Research Chefs Association
Episode 21: Culinology with Justin Kanthak
episode, Ragnar talks with chef and food scientist Justin Kanthak. Head of Snack for Griffith Foods and President of the
professional trade organization, the Research Chefs Association (RCA), Justin is a true Culinologist.
Like many in our
industry, Kanthak always wanted to be a chef. When he received his first cookbook
at age 8, his fate was sealed. He has spent over twenty-five years growing,
engaging and leading within the food industry, rising in the ranks at fine dining
establishments around the US before becoming a prominent figure in the food
product development world.
Justin studied at
the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, earning his Associates
in Culinary Arts. While at the CIA, he started to explore how he could approach
the food industry differently.
science. He followed up his culinary education with a B.S in Food Science
Technology and a Minor in Microbiology from Iowa State University. He’s
currently pursuing a master’s in business administration from Northern Illinois
University. Impressive, right?
finding his niche to a combination of good timing and good advice. “I really
loved what I did, and had the opportunity to add that science component to my
education,” says Justin. “From there, I went to the product development space.
It was circumstantial and intentional at the same time.”
Research Chef, Certified Culinary Scientist, corporate chef, product development
lead for the US school lunch program, adjunct instructor in Culinology® and
Hospitality Management at Southwest Minnesota State, manager of Global Culinary
Developments specializing in new ingredient technologies, “hired creator” – his
resume is unexpected and, for those of the right generation in the US, reads
something like if Bill Nye joined Top Chef.
“Cooking is fundamentally science.”
Justin joined the
Research Chefs Association as a professional member in 2007. He’d been a part
of the 25-year-old professional trade organization as a student, and now is
serving his second term as RCA President.
that the RCA emerged from a gap in the industry. “The idea of a research chef
in the grand scheme of the industry in the world is relatively new,” he says. “It
emerged from this idea that food companies, food manufacturing companies, and
restaurant chains wanted to embrace culinary as a centric piece to how they
created food for their customers.” The RCA saw this, and decided to take action
with an aim of bringing together culinary arts and technology in a way that hadn’t
really been confronted before.
“You have chefs who spent their whole career in a big chemistry set, but you never took the time to really think about it from that mindset because it was so focused on the idea of creation. Every minute detail from making sure you had the proper seasoning in your food, to how you plated it to make the plates were hot, to listening to the orders coming into the window and when to cook things to make sure that they came up just in time. That was all manipulating science. Understanding how cooking times happen and understanding how reactions happen in time; it was all science.”
This is where Culinology®
comes in. First off, let’s start with a definition. Culinology®,
a registered trademark of RCA, blends culinary arts
and the science of food, and at its core, fosters a union between food service
professionals and food science professionals.
The RCA and its members are pioneers
at the frontier of a fast-growing discipline, sitting between the chefs of professional kitchens, putting
out hundreds of covers a night, and the food scientists who develop products to
increase innovation, quality and speed-to-market. They use Culinology®
to elevate product development through community. That’s pretty fantastic, isn’t
“You think back 30 years ago,
the idea of chefs and their channel, and food scientists and their channel – it
really didn’t merge all that off often,” notes Justin. “One of the people who
was kind of the first culinary scientist or researcher out there was Ferdinand
center: former Worldchefs President, Ferdinand Metz.
knows that name; a man who needs no introduction. He spent many years working
in the food product development space and little did I know when I was at the
CIA – he was the President at the time – that he happened to be one of the
first identifiable, culinary research chefs out there.”
references another culinary great in this evolution story. Revisiting cooking technology
in the days of Escoffier, to cast iron and wood-fire, he imagines “bringing Escoffier
today, and giving him an induction burner and a combi thermal oven. And saying,
all right, what can you do with this?” With the advent of these new technologies
that would be “mind-blowing” to cooks from just 100 years ago, today’s experience
provides these vast and often overlooked applications of science in the kitchen;
applications that bring consistency to a global scale. “It purely spawned from
the idea that cooking and science are one in the same and they’ve never been
different. So why don’t we truly embrace it?”
Justin works with
Griffith Foods, where his passion and talent are more than appreciated, they’re
applied. He’s helping to support their purpose driven strategy across many
roles, including new business development, chain account restaurants, leading the
Snack sales team as well as leading their new business development segment in
health & nutrition.
“At Griffith, we
use culinary arts to accentuate our product developments and at times to be
leading the product development piece with our customers,” says Justin. “We
really want to take this idea of food and elevate it through culinary
perspective, understanding creativity and how to develop complexity and flavor
coming of out the experimental kitchens at Griffith Foods and those of RCA members
at large are creating an effect with industry-wide, food-chain-wide
implications. To put it simply, they’re helping to make better food, better
costs, better chances to feed the masses.
“We can spend all day talking about the economics of it, but
the important piece of this is: the better we choose to do, the better we
require of ourselves, the more it becomes fair for everyone. And that’s really
the center of the idea of ever-evolving food. And even in the mind of a Culinologist,
what we aspire to do is to bring better food to the masses faster and evolve
that technology to support it.”
There’s more than science in the RCA. There’s honor, too.
“This is a place you should start because it’s going to open your mind to why food is what it is.” Justin told a new colleague this just last week in reference to Hervé This, the father of molecular gastronomy. You can hear our episode with Hervé here.
Interested in the subject? Justin also recommends reading On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
Hungry to hear even more on the intersections of science and food? Check out our related podcast episode on The Art of Umami with Chris Koetke.
Justin has also served as a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Food Waste Advisory Board. If you’d like to learn more about how you can reduce your food waste and other opportunities to help feed the planet, visit www.howtofeedtheplanet.com.
About the Research Chef Association
Founded in 1996 by a group of research chefs
dedicated to overcoming challenges facing the food product development
professional, the Research Chefs Association (RCA) has grown to more than 2,000
members. Today, RCA is the premier source of culinary and technical information
for the food industry, with a professionally diverse membership including
chefs, food scientists and other industry professionals who are shaping the
future of food research and development.
RCA is a forward-thinking, vibrant, energized
organization whose members benefit by being part of a dynamic community of food
professionals who work toward a common goal: the blending culinary arts and
To learn more about the RCA, visit www.culinology.org.
At Griffith Foods, our purpose
defines who we are, what we do, and why we exist, highlighting what makes us
distinct and authentic in the marketplace. We help our partners meet the
evolving needs and desires of consumers in ways that respect and sustain the
planet. Our care and creativity mean we’ll find the right mix of global reach
and local impact to serve the earth and nourish all of us who call it home.
We create customized product solutions built on care and creativity. Our biggest passion is helping you achieve your goals, and we’ll partner with you from ideation to production to achieve them. We are dedicated to helping our customers develop new ideas, technologies and solutions, enabling them to stay ahead of ever-evolving needs of the marketplace and consumers. Our collaborative process integrates in-depth industry and market insight, culinary artistry, and technical expertise to solve business challenges.
To learn more about Griffith Foods, visit griffithfoods.com.
Special thanks to Justin Kanthak for joining us as a guest.
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