Data tells the story – consumers are straying further and further from the kitchen, and most younger shoppers lack basic culinary skills despite the popularity of the Food Network. As the retail dietitian strives to manage the complexity that comes with a role to meet the needs of varied consumer segments and wellness and disease management needs, the question arises as to whether or not culinary skills are important. We checked in with Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, CD, CC, former retail dietitian with an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts, to gain her insight on the topic.
Why are culinary skills important for the RD working in the retail space?
Especially in the retail space, dietitians are doing more recipe development and cooking demonstrations than ever. Providing high quality (and entertaining) food demonstrations and cooking classes is a great way to establish RDs even more as the food experts. Providing solid, delicious and nutritious recipes is not always easy, but it can help sell products from your stores!
I think the bottom line is that most consumers look to RDs as food experts and often ask cooking questions – and we should be able to help them become great cooks! It is helpful to understand how ingredients work during the cooking process, so if necessary, you can make healthier substitutions and feel confident cooking and explaining the cooking process in front of a group to your peers or in writing. There are also many retail stores that don’t have a chef, and RDs can step in as the culinary/cooking expert!
Does the retail RD need to be a strong home cook, or do you believe they need professional training?
Cooking a lot at home is most definitely helpful and is the easiest way to gain experience and sharpen your cooking skills (pun intended). Any experience is great experience, and practice makes perfect.
With that said, if it is possible, I’d definitely recommend professional culinary training. In culinary school, you learn knife skills and everything from basic cooking techniques to complex cooking techniques, and it also helps you develop a good palate.
I think another great skill to have is recipe writing. It’s important that recipes are easy to read and follow, so consumers can create the recipe at home with ease. A great way to learn about recipe writing is by reading and creating recipes from cookbooks written and published by a reliable source – such as Cooking Light and Bon Appetit. I also believe having skills in food styling and photography can be extremely helpful for adding mouth-watering photos to ads, blogs, food articles and print materials in the store and on store websites.
More and more retailers are hiring chefs. How can retail RDs most effectively partner with retail chefs?
The chef and RD can work together to develop recipes and provide cooking demonstrations and cooking classes using recipes that fall within the guidelines of the healthy living program – for example, the chef could develop the recipe, and the RD could help make healthy ingredient substitutions and perform a nutrition analysis. The chef and RD could co-lead the demo where the chef demos the recipes and provides cooking tips, while the RD gives nutrition tips and healthy living advice related to eating/cooking. They could work together to create nutritious family-sized and individual ‘heat and eat’ meals, work with vendors to create ‘signature’ items for their store, and nutritious deli, bakery and meat items, and also develop recipes for ads, articles and blogs. Chefs are generally very helpful with plate presentation, and we all know eye appealing food is super important for sales.
How can RDs get more culinary training? Are there specific programs you recommend?
I recommend a professional culinary school, which are generally found in technical and community college settings. This is generally a two-year Associate’s Degree program. Some colleges have certifications in culinary arts as well. If this is not available, there are often cooking classes available in kitchen stores, health care institutions, community organizations and other private academies. There are also online cooking schools. I would recommend taking knife skills and ‘cooking 101’ classes that focus on basic cooking techniques for each food group, and of course, practicing at home and at work.