Beyond the Line is a new series focusing on professional roles for chefs beyond the restaurant kitchen. To begin with, we have been speaking to former students of the Basque Culinary Center – a gastronomic university in San Sebastian, Spain – who have all decided to pursue culinary careers outside restaurants.
Our final interviewee from the BCC is 28-year-old Jose Peláez. Originally from Colombia, he is now based in San Sebastian as head of open innovation and new product development at LABe, the BCC’s digital gastronomy lab, the purpose of which is “to drive and foster the digital transformation of gastronomy throughout the whole supply chain”.
Tell us about your experience of studying at the BCC.
I did a bachelor's degree in gastronomy, or as some of my colleagues call it, gastronomic sciences. It’s a four-year degree and I specialised in innovation and entrepreneurship. This specialisation focuses on the identification of innovation and business opportunities throughout the whole supply chain of gastronomy, mostly the creation of new start-ups and new technological solutions that can be adopted or used by either restaurants or different players. However, during my first years, I had a stronger culinary training and worked in both Michelin-starred and non-Michelin-starred restaurants. I came with the idea of becoming a chef that would have a wider and deeper knowledge in different areas around food and gastronomy. But everything changed over time. I realised I wanted to be mostly on the side of innovation and the creation of new products or services that are used by restaurants, whether a software platform or a new smart machine that can be used in a kitchen. [The BCC] helped me open my mind and the spectrum of what a person can understand when they hear the word ‘gastronomy’. I think that's materialised in what I'm doing now.
Why were you more attracted to pursuing innovation outside of a restaurant kitchen?
It was the possibility of being in a conjunction point, or in the middle of such different perspectives around food. I'm constantly in the middle of a conversation between nutritionists or PhD researchers on consumer or human behaviour, but also chefs. I find being able to participate in such discussions and projects in which very different approaches interact fascinating. I want to be in that spot all the time absorbing those different approaches. I also have that hint of inspiration that is around chefs and culinary creativity, because I work with a lot of chefs. It's just that they don’t work in restaurant kitchens, but prototyping or creativity kitchens. I wanted to have a holistic vision, all the time.
What's the greatest lesson or tip you took from your time at the BCC?
The most important lesson or most eye-opening thing was that restaurants and fine dining, and culinary techniques and creativity, are just the tip of the iceberg of actually a huge, wide and deep world, in which there is the conjunction of a lot of perspectives of sciences, arts, management, and technology. There are also a lot of business opportunities at the same time. The fact that gastronomy is something endless was the biggest lesson for me.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s quite diverse. It's not as creative an atmosphere as you would find at a restaurant, but it’s still very creative. I could be either at a workshop or ideation session with a chef, a nutritionist, an engineer, and another super different profile, creating and ideating how to build an intelligent fermentation system that could be used afterward at restaurants, for example. I'm thinking about it and I am generating ideas. I'm thinking how would it work? What functionalities should it have etc.? I could also be travelling to visit a set of kitchens at hotels because I need to research and understand how some processes are done in those kitchens. I also need to interview and talk to chefs and cooks who are working in those kitchens, in order to understand and design how we could use digital tools to make processes and operations better. I could also be visiting new companies, either technology companies, software development companies, or food companies, and trying to identify together the challenges they are facing related to food, to gastronomy, or to processes for operations in food services. This last part is more like a sales part of my job.
Are there any skills that are transferable from your time as a chef?
Yes, the application of a methodology, a series of steps to innovate and create. The more organised chefs follow steps and trust in a methodology. We are very methodological when we are creating new software. Also, always being curious and open to letting yourself be inspired by your surroundings, from nature to the things that you see around in order to gather inspiration and create new stuff. That creative spark is something that is shared a lot, and the passion and the excitement that you have about food.
Tell us about some of the projects you’re working on currently at LABe.
One example is a platform for interconnected devices that allows both end-users and chefs to elaborate fermented foods in a very easy to implement, controlled and safe way, measured by digital software. We’ve been working since the conceptualisation of that idea until the creation of a tangible prototype, which we are testing at LABe right now for market validation: going out there to the world and talking to users and presenting it to chefs, in order to understand if it would actually cover a need, so we can hopefully create a new business afterward.
We are also working on how to design a smart kitchen in which all of the appliances are interconnected. So, if you're going to use a deep fat fryer and you're going to combine that process with baking, or with, let's say, heating or finishing in the oven, how can you make all those devices talk to each other so they are ready every time you need to pass from step to step? To give another example, how might we create a platform that actually helps chefs reformulate a single elaboration or a single recipe through artificial intelligence engines in order to make that recipe healthier, but preserving the organoleptic characteristics – that means taste, appearance, texture, aroma, etc.?
We are also working on how to implement voice assistance within professional kitchens, in order to simplify and optimise processes, and help chefs, let's say, ask or dictate to a program: “Please change these recipes from my recipe book”. E.g. Change the 100 grams of carrots for 100 grams of beetroot, and make that software automatically change the recipe just by voice command.
How do you see the role of the chef changing in the future?
The role of the chef has been going through professionalisation in recent years. That means acquiring new skills and new sets of knowledge. That's why I believe that in the future chefs are going to be more like culinary engineers. I like that concept because an engineer actually thinks and designs processes, operations and new ways to serve or to create an exciting experience for a diner in this case and that implies having a huge knowledge of food properties and food transformation processes, also the basics of the physics and chemistry of foods, and management.
On the one hand, chefs are going to be culinary engineers, in which creativity and the ability to solve complex problems is going to be a huge required skill. On the other, and it’s something that we are already seeing nowadays, chefs have a huge opportunity to become social impact players or game-changers. They have this inspiring role in society because of the craftsmanship that people find so attractive. That makes people follow chefs and therefore they [can] use their knowledge or their impact to create a better society, a better climate, a better production system, etc.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing about my job is being able to work alongside [people] with such different backgrounds. Also, having such a diverse set of projects that are always looking to the future and [how] food and gastronomy are transforming. The worst thing, I wouldn't say that it's bad, but challenging, is that this atmosphere requires that you are comfortable working with a lot of uncertainty because you don't know what is going to come out of what you're thinking, you don't know if it is going to work. You have to sail with the uncertainty and it is very intense and demanding.
Could you ever imagine going back to work in a restaurant in the future?
I wouldn't ever say no, but right now I'm quite happy with the approach I'm taking to gastronomy and food. I think I will stay for many years outside of a restaurant kitchen. It's where I can contribute more.
What would you say to chefs who are worried about their professional futures due to the pandemic?
I would say it is an opportunity to explore other atmospheres and other types of kitchens in which a chef's skills are demanded and very useful. That creative spark, that awareness and knowledge of foods and combinations and what goes well with what and all this within a recipe, for instance, that's actually required in industrial or prototyping kitchens that are developing products for retail.
My advice would be just to try to explore what other types of kitchens are out there because I realised that there were plenty of them. Add different sets of skills and never stop learning about creativity methodologies. Even digital skills can be acquired, there's a lot of knowledge out there for free. Never stop being curious and don't see your career path as it has been always in the past. You can create your own.