By Melinda Russell
Name: Kami R Smith
Job Title and Company: Director of Culinary Showcasing; Pecan Deluxe Candy Company
Education: Tennessee Technological University B.S. Foods, Nutrition, & Dietetics; A.A.S. Johnson & Wales Baking Pastry Arts
Can you talk about your Pastry Chef Experience and certifications?
My Pastry Experience is split in two dimensions: Productions & Manufacturing.
Production: I worked in production for 5 years (New Orleans/ Pine Mountain, GA/ Southwest, VA/ Northeast TN), where I received experience in 5-star dining restaurants, high-volume hotel, education, resort, and running a community/ college-sponsored bakery that also led to a tv show sponsored by the grocery store chain in East Tennessee that supported the foods for the culinary college. It was a whirlwind of experience in such little time, but I was eager, young, and wanted challenge all the time.
Manufacturing: I’ve worked under the manufacturing umbrella in corporate world for 12 years: Schwan’s Bakery/ The Schwan Food Company, Dawn Food Products, and currently with Pecan Deluxe Candy Company.
Certification: I am certified through the American Culinary Federation, as a C.E.P.C.- Certified Executive Pastry Chef!
How did studying nutrition help you become a more well-rounded research chef?
By receiving my Nutrition Degree, I had to learn and study all foods, their nutritional densities, functionalities, and overall knowledge of how the body digests and uses those nutrients for life. Though it wasn’t a Food Science degree, I felt I had studied the foods side of my degree well enough to understand reactions with other foods, processes, and can still (till this day), explain fully the digestion route for most any foods. It was drilled and while I was fascinated by the body’s ability to digest, I was equally intrigued by the functionality of foods, and how they played a very large part in life. My artistic flair, love of chocolate, and team work mentality was what pushed me to forgo my intended work in graduate school (R.D.), and attend a culinary school to pursue pastry. Though I never really had a plan in place, it all worked out…I followed my heart, the knowing within that kept me on track. If I had peace about something, I felt I was on the right path. Its true til this day…
What classes/experiences during college helped you the most?
In undergrad, my experimental foods and quantity foods classes really helped me understand food, i.e., vegetables, sugars, humectants, and how fruits react to certain environments. But I also found amazing value in my Nutrition courses. They really set strong pillars in my career as I could go throughout any grocery store and state the origin of the food, the chemical make-up, the type of digestion enzymes needed for break-down/ absorption. In the end, I may not use my nutrition courses often in my line of work now, but with the ever growing GF, Dairy Free, and non GMO labels and standards, I can speak with great confidence on who these affect the body, what ingredients are good measures to begin using versus not.
In culinary school I loved every class—not one more than the other, but in the world of manufacturing (and note, I graduated after the new programs of Culinary Nutrition were created), I found the Baking Science course to be amazing. We had to buy any cookie packed on a grocery store shelf, read the ingredient deck, and had to recreate that cookie in size, shape, flavor, bake profiles, and packaging. I learned a lot of gingersnaps (which I can’t eat much til this day because I was so worn out on them), and ended up nailing them…..with my family being engineers, I found I had a natural ability to envision, build, and plan a mini line and process so that I could deliver cookies that matched the weight and size of the packaged cookie. In the end, I feel I took the class much more seriously than others, but in the end, look who’s still in the business working in manufacturing, versus those who aren’t. It’s the drive and passion within that made me work to get things right.
Any advice to those graduating soon?
Yes! Please understand and know, knowledge is power and what you’ve learned is amazing; however, you still have to learn how to apply what you’ve learned. I’ve worked with many interns and graduates and there was a clear difference in those who ‘thought they knew it all’ versus ‘those who wanted to learn it all.’ I would encourage everyone, once in a new position, to sit and listen to everyone in staff meetings—who is rationally thinking? Who on the team is seeking to deliver a quality product without complaining or laziness? Who on the team is always willing to push themselves to new challenges? It would be this person, I would suggest, to get to know and learn from. I had mentors in the pastry shop so I could better understand tempering chocolate, how to mix meringue properly, and build a cake that will never fall, and, in the same sense, in Research & Development, I chose to learn from those who always seemed to be in the lab, who worked hard, who had a ‘knack’ for new things.
Also, for any new graduate, working in the world of R&D/ food manufacturing, its not just your cooking/ baking talents that will push you forward. I always recommend to any intern I work with or a new graduate that it is better to praise and correct in private. Appreciation is huge. Being a team player is huge, and knowing when to ask for help is probably one of the biggest issues I’ve seen with new hires. All of us who have been in the industry for a while are willing to show, instruct, help, and nudge, but only if you’ll allow us to. We want every graduate to be successful and have a very bright future… allow yourselves to be pruned and molded J
How did you hear about RCA?
I was in my second year at Schwan’s, and a marketer told me to join this organization. So….I did. NO clue what it was about.
As a new RCA Board of Director, what are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to making a difference and ever-creating an environment where everyone is valued. I’m a ‘knitter of people’ and love networking so when I meet anyone new, I automatically reel in my head who this new person needs to know. I can’t help it. I love to connect people together!
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I love projects – so I’m currently working on chalk painting new pieces of furniture. I also have a side cake/ cookie business so it keeps me busy on the weekends as its wedding season! If I’m available to secure a cake, I’ll take the order. If not, I let it go….I choose to control how busy I am for if I’m traveling all week with my job, I know I need to rest and be of value for Monday morning.
What is the best restaurant you have ever been to?
This is a very hard question to answer, but what comes to mind now is Homaro Cantu’s restaurant, “ING” was probably one of my most favorite experiences. IT was based on tripping the taste buds using the miracle berry powder. Every fruit was perfect in taste, salad dressing was pure, meats were rich and savory, and the desserts…I don’t have enough time to talk about how perfect the flavor experience was for my custards, fruits, pastries, etc. It was a perfect moment.
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