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Common Foodsense: Pillsbury Reminiscences



Back in the waning days of my wayward youth, I was hired by Pillsbury to do some occasional work in its test kitchens. This was not a completely new deal for me—I had done some corporate recipe development with four-track timers and gram scales and measuring spoons and thermocouple probes and all those other tools that slow you down when you’re just trying to make a damn soup—but the environment I walked into was a different world.

For one thing, it was entirely female. This was a nice change. At the time, restaurant kitchens were still mostly male, and even where they were integrated, they’d put testosterone diffusers in the makeup air unit to maintain a traditional atmosphere. Another difference was the institutional decorum that was observed at Pillsbury: In the five years I worked there, I heard no one shouting, singing or cursing, except me.

The women in those kitchens had degrees in home economics, a field of study you won’t find in college catalogs any longer—it’s been rebranded as family and consumer science. They were calm, careful and meticulously organized, three characteristics I had heard about but seldom encountered professionally. They were also patient, which I appreciated, especially when they were patient with me.

Part of that patience came with the job. Recipes were not tested in the typical restaurant one-and-done fashion, where you look at what needs to get moved out of the cooler, think up something and give it a cool ironic name, and maybe make one to convince a skeptical chef who grudgingly allows you to sell it at lunch. They tested them like Ford pretends it tests its trucks, beating concepts mercilessly to see what survived.

They had two main avenues of recipe development, one to help sell existing products and the other to develop new ones. The former were cousins of the recipes that consumers submitted to the famous Bake-Off: here’s an easy pie that uses our wonderful flour, so buy our flour, capisce? The new products might take two years from conception to rollout, and go through 40 iterations with a couple dozen people from five departments sticking their fingers in the pot.

And then there was equipment. Since home cooks were the target market, these kitchens were representations of what people might have in their houses. Every imaginable kind of microwave, stove and oven made an appearance, and they all had crappy BTU outputs and idiosyncratic hot-spots, just like home. We were supposed to develop recipes that could survive the foibles of consumer equipment, so the company went out and bought foibles.

There was also a full-time librarian on the floor that housed the test kitchens, curating an amazing collection of cookbooks and every food magazine in circulation. This was the source of cutting-edge ideas for new products, which of course big companies do not adopt. Cutting edges get you cut. They let restaurants do the early market testing of wacky ideas, and when something crawled out of the petri dish that got enough people excited, they’d use their enormous merchandising power to muscle in and rule the market. Or at least, that was the idea.

The mid-90s was a transition point for the multinational food manufacturers, as they tried to turn their lumbering organizations to follow new consumer tastes and demographics. The two-earner family was now the rule rather than the exception, and people were less willing to spend their time at home cooking. They wanted fewer recipes for stuff they could make, and more products that they could heat up in 10 minutes and have a dinner for four. And as their willingness to spend time went down, their sophistication rose, and their expectations and willingness to spend money along with it. So mac and cheese was out; we all started demanding Michelin from a microwave. One star, at least.

You could see glimmerings of this in the test kitchens. I was the only chef of typical chefy background when I started there. By 2005, Pillsbury was gone, eaten and digested by General Mills, and many of the home economists were gone as well. If consumers wanted chef-driven food, the reasoning went, let’s hire chefs to give it to them. GM must have a dozen people now with the title of “corporate chef,” a job that pays astoundingly well (for us kitchen dogs) and has those weird things like sick leave and holidays.

But I’m suspicious that the worm may be turning again. We do still see things like my old favorite pamphlet from the Palouse Dry Bean Council, in which home economists thought up 96 ways to use lentils, which most of the world will never use. But you are also seeing a resurgence of cooking at home. The most obvious evidence is meal kits: Most of the prep is done for you, but you do the assembly, having been carefully instructed how not to screw it up (oddly enough, this describes my first 10 years in restaurants. We seem to be creating a world of line cooks. Perhaps they should include cigarettes and whiskey in those meal kits). And as the demand for at least semi-homemade food grows, those careful crafters of recipes may find themselves welcomed back, where they can resume building sturdy recipe foundations on which consumers can safely dance.

Or somewhat safely. I’m guessing that if you want real restaurant-quality food, you’ll still need to go to a restaurant. 


Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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