10 Questions with Larry Tong

By: Philip Saneski

Headshot July 2012 compressedFeatured Culinologist: Larry Tong, CCS®  Senior Scientist – Product Development  McCormick & Co., Inc.

How did you discover Culinology®?
I started in Product Development at another spice company, and was asked to put together spices and other ingredients in combinations that tasted good.  Food Science was important to know some things about the chemistry of the ingredients I was using, but the taste was the most important thing.  With an M.S. in Food Science, I knew all about Sensory Testing, but no one had ever taught me how to make things taste good.  So I asked myself, “who knows how to make good tasting food?” The answer was Chefs, of course.  So I started googling cooking classes, and stumbled onto the RCA and our Certified Culinary Scientist (CCS) certification.  It’s for Food Scientists that want to learn about cooking.  It was exactly what I was looking for.

What do you look for when you are hiring interns?
I look for a mix of Food Science and Culinary.  You need both to be successful.  I also look for a very good work ethic, the so-called “self starter”.  Food Product Development isn’t a job where you wait around for someone to tell you what to do.  The business people in your company are looking to you for ideas and expertise. So I really ask references about that quality in my candidates.

What can students do to prepare themselves for working in the “real world”?
If you are a Food Science student, I can’t emphasize enough that some level of cooking skills is essential to be a good food product developer.  If your school offers any culinary classes, take them.  If not, take a couple classes in the summer at your local community college.  It will go a very long way to helping you land your first job out of school.

If you are in a Culinary program, strongly consider staying in school, and getting a Master’s degree or B.S. in Food Science. Unfortunately for you, there are tons of kids coming out of Culinary school that are looking for an alternative to working in restaurants on nights,  weekends and holidays.  Food Product Development offers a regular work schedule, good pay and very interesting work.  But you’ll need something to set you apart from the other new Culinary grads.  Combining your great Culinary skills with a Food Science degree almost guarantees a great job.

How has social media changed your job?
Social media has greatly sped up food trends.  It used to be that high end, expensive restaurants drove the food trends.  Because of social media, that isn’t true anymore.  People love sharing their fabulous eating experiences, no matter where they are.   Food trucks, tiny ethnic mom and pops, and recipe bloggers are all driving the trends much more strongly than the fancy restaurants.   Also, social media has increased peoples’ awareness of what is in their food.  They read labels and share what they find.  They talk about “cleaner” brands and products.  This is really driving a push towards clean label, with food companies having to react or lose sales.

You are a Certified Culinary Scientist. Can you talk about the test and how you studied for it?
The test is difficult.  Start studying now ☺.  J/K, students have to wait until they have 3 years of product development experience before they qualify, so you do have time.  But it is a great asset to have on your resume once you have it.   Use the books and online study guide.  I like to study by writing.  I’ll summarize everything I don’t know in a chapter over and over again until there isn’t anything in the chapter I don’t know.  The tests are so hard because anything in the books is fair game.  Having a study buddy really helps.  Also, don’t be discouraged if you fail the first time.  Many people do.  Just treat the first time as a practice test.  Finally, don’t put off the test, otherwise it’ll never happen.  Just schedule it 6 months out, then you’ll be forced to study.

In your professional opinion, what is the most underrated flavor in the culinary arena?
Szechuan Peppercorns are a very much an under the radar flavor right now.  If you’ve never tried them, I highly recommend doing so.  Their “heat” is unlike any thing out there.  Pop one in your mouth, then in about 20 seconds, your tongue feels like it is being electrocuted for the next 10 minutes.  Which sounds terrible, but you don’t use them by the handful, but by the ¼ teaspoon.  So they add a really interesting “what is that?” flavor to food.  They are traditional in Chinese food (duh!), but don’t limit yourself.

What is your favorite spice blend this year?
We have a new Gourmet Organic Matcha Green Tea & Ginger blend coming out shortly that I worked on.  Moving beverages into the kitchen has been a huge trend, really over the last decade.  Think about all the “Bourbon” flavored products out there.   Recipes for it include a Green Tea cake and a Matcha Baked Cod.

How does your McCormick team predict flavor forecasts for the upcoming year?
When the report first came out, we used celebrity chefs to help make predictions.  But we quickly moved to relying on our internal Chef and Food Trend experts, because we knew as much as the celebrities (more I think!).   Our chefs are real globe trotters, visiting our customers.  And we have chefs based all over the globe.  So we have unrivaled visibility to the world of food and flavor.   We get together every year to share trends, recipes and ingredients that we’ve seen trending anywhere.  We make short presentations and tastings of each proposed trend and collectively decide which trends we think will be the most relevant to our customers and consumers in the next 2-5 years.  Looking back at past reports we nailed Chipotle early on as well as the Beverage in the Kitchen trend.   We bombed on Lavender as an up and coming flavor, so it’s an inexact science . Check out http://www.flavorforecast.com/ for this year’s report (and past year’s too).

What are the benefits of students who attend the annual RCA Conference?
The biggest is networking.  Meet everyone you can.  Have business cards printed up for it.  Don’t be afraid of asking for advice from professionals.  Ask them how they got their job.  We were all students once, and love sharing our experiences.  The food industry may seem very large, but it isn’t.  Many people know each other, and the more people you know the better you can do your job, or find your next job.

What advice do you have for students trying to land their first entry-level job?
I agree strongly with the strategy of getting a recruiter or recruiters to help. It is how I got my first job.  A word of caution would be that they only get paid when you get a job.  They may try to place you in a job that isn’t a fit for you.  This won’t be true with a good recruiter, but you should be cautious.  My other advice would be to come to the conference to network.  Look at the RCA membership directory to see who works for companies that you are interested.  Then do your best to introduce yourself to them.  And finally, if you aren’t an IFT member, become one.  Between the RCA & IFT job postings, you see a lot of the product development openings out there.  Plus the IFT has regional events that you can attend for networking.



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