Beyond the Line is a series focusing on professional roles for chefs beyond the restaurant kitchen. We’ve been speaking to former students of the Basque Culinary Centre - a gastronomic university in San Sebastian, Spain - who have all gone on to pursue varied careers within food.
Our latest conversation is with Elena Moya Jiménez, a 23-year-old new product developer at Heura Foods, a fast-growing European plant-based meat company. Originally from Villarrobledo, Spain, she is currently based in Barcelona.
Tell us about your experience of studying at the BCC.
I studied gastronomy and culinary arts at the BCC from 2016 until 2020, with a specialisation in development and foodtech. I absolutely loved my experience there, as learning at the leading gastronomic research centre in the world gave me an holistic perspective of the huge impact gastronomy has in our lives, and really taught me how to think outside of the box. They don’t just teach you methods and processes, they teach you how to develop your approach in the kitchen in order to figure out how food impacts people beyond just taste. It’s not just about learning about the past, it’s about looking towards the future.
What’s the greatest tip or lesson you took from your time there?
The greatest lesson I learned was that there are no limits in the kitchen, and how to persist to get the results you have envisioned. There’s an ethos of creativity and freedom at the BCC that I have tried to take with me in every job I’ve had since. They really teach you that there are no limits when it comes to innovation.
I think that the culinary perspective that I gained there has been invaluable in connecting the scientific background of other colleagues with the different aspects of gastronomy. The multidisciplinary experience has been incredibly beneficial during several of the different projects carried out during my first year at Heura.
Tell us more about your role at Heura.
I first started at Heura as a gastronomic intern in February 2020, to carry out my final degree project, which consisted of nutritionally and organoleptically improving the burger that it had on the market at that time, and in October I was promoted to new product developer. I wanted to work at Heura because, much like the BCC, the company has an incredible culture of creativity and innovation. Over the past few months, I’ve been working with our amazing all-female R&D team to develop a fat analogue for Heura’s new plant-based burger. To develop the fat analogue, we worked to alter the texture of extra virgin olive oil in order to replicate the sensorial experience of beef, with 85% less saturated fat than animal meat.
Our day-to-day is based on obtaining the best results, formulating the meat analogues of the future. We want to create something that is organoleptically as similar to animal meat as possible – that way people can go plant-based without sacrificing on taste or nutrition.
What does the future hold for plant-based meats?
The global plant-based industry has grown significantly in recent years and is expected to be worth $74.2 billion by 2027. This increased demand from consumers directly translates to an increased scope for innovation – so it’s definitely an exciting time for the sector. In terms of trends, demand for ‘clean label’ vegan products is growing as consumers are increasingly wanting sustainable products that are both good for their bodies and good for the planet.
In addition, as innovation within the industry moves forward, demand for a wider variety of proteins will increase. So we’ll see an increase in vegan products that are made from ingredients such as chickpeas, sunflower seeds, and legumes; and fermented foods are likely to grow in popularity.
How does your experience of working in restaurants inform your current role?
I think that innovation in the kitchen translates very well to innovation in the lab – the creativity that you learn working in a kitchen is incredibly beneficial when developing new products. In addition, in a kitchen unexpected things happen all the time, so you really do have to be able to think on your feet. Those quick problem-solving skills have definitely been useful in my current role.
Is it more or less pressure working in an R&D kitchen, compared to a restaurant kitchen?
I think that both places require a lot of creativity and problem-solving skills, but working in an R&D kitchen forces you to have more of a long-term perspective. The innovation that takes place in our lab has an impact on millions of households' kitchens on their day-to-day way of eating. I would say it is just different not more or less. In addition, because Heura is such a mission-driven company, we have the freedom to think a bit more about the wider societal implications of our work.
Could you see yourself working in restaurants again in the future?
Right now, I really believe that working in a lab is the best way to have a positive impact on the future of gastronomy. It gives me a huge sense of pride knowing that Heura products are being used by both chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants to create amazing, innovative dishes, as well as ordinary people experimenting with new recipes at home – it really demonstrates the democratising power of food. We all have a unique role to play in creating the future of gastronomy.
How do you see the role of the chef changing in the future?
As consumers demand healthier, more environmentally friendly products, there will be increased pressure on chefs to respond to this shift in behaviour. This means taking a holistic approach to sustainability, from ingredients to kitchen equipment. There’s a real opportunity for chefs to play a leading role in the conversation about how food can be a vehicle for wider societal change.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
I love knowing that I'm playing even a small role in creating the future of gastronomy. I really believe that companies like Heura are creating the food of tomorrow and are helping to work towards a brighter future. Sometimes people don’t know how hard is to create these kind of products, and how much time and effort and time it requires.
How has the pandemic affected your daily work?
I joined the company last February just before the pandemic hit, so I haven’t really known a time in this role where the pandemic wasn’t a factor. However, Heura managed to expand into seven new countries in 2020, which demonstrates to me that consumers are eager for change, and the plant-based movement can play an important role in creating a more sustainable post-pandemic future. So I suppose it gives me even more of a sense of purpose.
What would your advice be to chefs who are worried about a lack of kitchen jobs due to the effects of the pandemic?
The best advice that I could give would be to find a niche that you are really excited and passionate about. This will allow your creativity to flow. People can really tell when you are invested in your work and tend to gravitate towards you.
I think that now is the time to focus on the great opportunities that will arise. It is not about thinking how to return to what we had, but rather deciding how to move forward and how to be more resilient, building a future that is in line with the needs of a world in the effects of the coronavirus.