You know Charlotte does a steady business in conventions, right?
Shriners to square dancers, insurance agents to cake decorators. You never know whos tromping around uptown unless you stop to read the visitor badges bouncing around their necks.
This weeks visitors: An estimated 1,200 members of the Research Chefs Association, including university students who came to town to try out their food science skills.
Research chefs are the people who figure out ways to keep your potato chips crispy and your frozen vegetables tasting like they came from a field instead of a freezer.
They use words like sous vide and Cryovac, and they can spout phrases like encapsulated omega oil.
Unless youre in the industry, you dont know how to put words to it, says Eric Sparks, a chef for Park 100 Foods, which makes soups and sauces for national restaurant chains.
We identify the gold standard, then use food science to scale it up.
On Friday, the conference will have a trade show at the Charlotte Convention Center with companies including Butter Buds, Chiquita Fruit Solutions and Lee Kum Kee.
Theyre also holding sessions with titles like Natural Functional Ingredients for Improved Application Results.
But on Thursday, the real conference action was at a student competition at Johnson & Wales University, where six teams from five universities were trying for a $5,000 prize.
To reach the competition, the students had to enter a plan for a chicken dish with a North Carolina theme that might be served at a casual restaurant, such as an Applebees or Chilis. They had to come up with the recipe, directions, and a plan for how it would be mass-produced such as frozen, refrigerated or vacuum-packed.
Out of 20 entries, six schools got picked to send in the ready-to-cook version with instructions for how to finish it, while their students came to Charlotte to make the real thing.
On Thursday, judges followed the students directions to make the prepared version, then compared it to the students freshly made plate. Winners will be announced Saturday, and students will have a chance to network with future employers on Friday afternoon.
How does a competition like that translate to real life? A fast-casual restaurant doesnt have time to cook everything from scratch. Instead, they use batches of things that are made elsewhere, reheated and assembled.
For the students, the research included a crash-course in North Carolina cuisine. The University of Guelph in Canada came up with Brunswick Stack With Sweet Tea Watermelon Slaw and Zesty Pimento and Collard Mac, while the team from Johnson & Wales Providence (Rhode Island) created Carolina BBQ-Stuffed Fried Chicken.
Jason Bentley was on one of two teams from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minn. While carefully weighing portions of collards, he admitted that he had never tasted collards until he got to Charlotte.
They were good, he said. Sweet and sour at the same time.
Lenny Zichichi, 22, a New Orleans native, was an alternate for the team from Louisiana State University. When Zichichi started college, he loved science but didnt have a goal for his life. In his sophomore year, he discovered he could combine science and food.
Its really cool, he says. It applies a lot of physics, engineering, chemistry.
Now his goal is to own a company that makes something that tastes really good and is good for you at the same time.
Someday, you might hit a vending machine at 3 oclock and find a Lenny Bar that tastes delicious without sending your blood sugar through the roof.
And thats really what research chefs are all about: Better ways to make better food. Watching his teammates in the kitchen, Zichichi said its still about making something that tastes good.
Our barbecue sauce is money its the best Ive ever had.
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