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A Chef Guides Us Through The Weird Process Of Creating A TV Dinner

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Ever wondered just how all those pre-packaged meals, with the list of unpronounceable ingredients on the back, are made and just who it is who develops the recipes? A chef takes us through the whole process, from the lab/kitchen all the way to your grocery cart.

Commenter Stroppydog, a research chef whose job involves creating the recipes for some of the many prepared products that line both your grocery stories freezers and aisles, explained the process to us. And, while it may initially have a lot of trial-and-error, by the end of the line, the whole thing is down to some pretty precise science:

Probably just about everything I do. I'm a Research Chef and work as a product developer. I work on a variety of projects at any given time: frozen meals/foods you but get at the grocery store; new menu items for existing restaurant groups; manufacturer recipes (say a manufacturer of Chinese sauces and condiments wants a larger market share in the US — I develop proprietary recipes using their items, that they then take to restaurant chains in order to sell them their product. And yes that is a real example).

An example without naming any names (let's just say you're not actually allowed to trade anything with them): grocery company has Restaurant Chefs on contract. They want a product or several, and Chef is tasked with creating them. Then the recipes are sent off to the various manufacturers (in this case let's say seafood). The recipe comes down the channels to me and my team (there's three or four of us, mostly contractors/subcontractors, myself included) and we make it up. And we adjust it: taste, visual, consumer appeal, ingredients that will actually withstand the process. Then we make the Gold Standard recipe. Once the manufacturer approves it (grocery chain's out of the picture now), we commercialize it — figure out how to make it work in a microwave or oven rather than how a restaurant would make it. We use Natural Flavor WONFs (With Other Natural Flavors), gums, starches, and all of those things you can't pronounce on the label. We make small batches (one or two of the item) and sample for taste and consistency until we get it right (this part involves a lot of spitting chewed food into cups — taste samples all day and you get fat). At this point it's no longer a recipe but a formula in Excel. The measurements are by weight and need to be precise because that formula needs to ramp up from four units to 10,000/17,000,20,000 (whatever the customer wants to order) units with no change — a milligram off in when making 5 units will completely throw off the finished product when production tells the spreadsheet it needs to make 10,000 units. If it's a complex process I may have to walk the foremen through the it on the production floor. AND... the formula has to be written in descending order (and that changes around) so packaging can get the labels right and the nutritionals are correct

So that Salmon Pot Pie or bowl of Cioppino with the stores own label on it... That was me. And I don't do this for one store: I've created products for most major grocery players throughout the US as well as The Commonwealth. Not just frozen foods either.

Maybe the biggest surprise to outsiders (the consumer) is that most of this is created by subcontractors of subcontractors. Also product developers carry around a cup around when tasting to spit the chewed up food in to.


You can read more revelations from makeup artists, grave diggers, pilots, game designers, jewelers, farmers, fast food workers, and more right here.


Image: Jonathan Feinstein / shutterstock