A History of Culinary Research at RRC Polytech
A retrospective by Founding Director Mavis McRae
The idea for a culinary research program at RRC Polytech started with a 45-page plan commissioned by Ray Hoemsen, Executive Director, Research Partnerships & Innovation (RPI) in 2012 and researched and written by Susan St. George. The document contained a thorough overview of food research programs across Canada and a specific review of the needs in Manitoba. Programs existed in Eastern Canada at Holland College, Niagara College and George Brown College. These were all NSERC-funded Technology Access Centres (TACs) housed within culinary schools for the purpose of working with industry on product development. The model existed – just not in Western Canada. The recipe provided by our research plan listed all the ingredients we needed to cook up a uniquely made-in-Manitoba solution for culinary research and innovation.
When we began to implement the plan, we had a blank canvas. Although we had no assigned chefs or staff, no programs, and only one project, what we did have was access to RRC Polytech’s new School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at the recently renovated Paterson GlobalFoods Institute in downtown Winnipeg, along with the talented and creative instructor pool. We also had a long and successful history of research at the College with two existing Technology Access Centres, and active research programming led by a small but mighty Research Partnerships & Innovation team. And there was me, a consultant with a background in food science and entrepreneurship with twenty-odd years of food industry contacts to lean on, and excited to build something new for the food entrepreneurship and manufacturing community. Together, we set into the unknown the way any true researcher would: by formulating a hypothesis for what might work, devising a research plan, experimenting, and building on the results.
Eight years and over eight million dollars in investments later, Prairie Research Kitchen has proven that a successful culinary-based food research program in Manitoba is possible. More than that, it’s proven to be a colossal hit with our community.
This book outlines the recipe for success that went into building this research program, from all the federal and provincial funding that fueled our programing, infrastructure, and collaborations, to all the hard work, expertise and resources from RRC Polytech, our research partners, and our staff.
Reviewing our history allows us to highlight our innovations, celebrate our successes, and look ahead to the future of food research. But the best part of culinary research is, of course, all the great food we helped create. Food is meant to be shared, and this book is an opportunity to showcase food products and ingredients we are proud to have played a part in developing or demonstrating their benefits over the past eight years.
Moving RRC Polytech’s Hospitality and Culinary Programs Downtown (2011-2014)
Paterson GlobalFoods Institute lives in what is historically known as the Union Bank/Royal Bank Building, western Canada’s oldest skyscraper. An example of the Chicago architecture school, the building was constructed in 1903-1904 using steel framing, which was new technology at the time.
When RRC Polytechnic undertook its reconstruction in 2009, the building had been abandoned for almost 20 years. The two-story attic which begins on the 11th floor and now houses PRK is adorned with a decorative terra cotta frieze and porthole windows beneath an overhanging cornice designed by original architects Darling and Pearson. During construction of the research kitchen, the building’s steel I-beams were left exposed as part of a new skylight opening, flooding the space with natural light and transforming the venerable building’s bones into a design feature that celebrates its past and present.
The building reopened in 2013. The total construction cost of $27 million was supported by the Government of Canada, Province of Manitoba, City of Winnipeg/Centreventure, and Paterson GlobalFoods/The Paterson Foundation.
This part of our history starts with Ray Hoemsen. It was his vision to bring a concept developed in Eastern Canada to the Prairies.
“The idea for a culinary-related applied research program first emerged over a decade ago. Applied Research at the College was off to a good start and laid the foundation for a new initiative to further support economic development in the community. The restoration of the Royal Bank/Union Bank Tower as the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, coupled with the College’s culinary-related academic programs, were the key ingredients to developing an applied research program bringing together the culinary arts with food science and technology.
“When we came up with the plan to bring culinary research to Manitoba, there were around 13,000 Manitobans working in food manufacturing, and the industry was contributing over $4 billion in sales. Since then, those numbers have only grown, and agri-processing now accounts for $6.3 billion in sales – a clear indication of this industry’s importance to our province’s economic growth. What drove our success was our commitment to making new food products that aren’t just healthy or innovative – they taste great to consumers, too.”
The initial investment that kicked off our program came from a $2 million grant from Western Economic Diversification (now PrairiesCan) “toward the acquisition of modern food service equipment and installations to enable the development of an applied research program in food technology related to the culinary arts.”
Our applied research program began with five priorities:
- New product and process development
- Technology transfer to industry and organizations
- Commercialization of new and re-branded products
- Raising awareness of Manitoba’s food and beverage industry
- Enriching the experience and capabilities of tomorrow’s culinary research graduates
Paterson GlobalFoods Institute (PGI) officially opened February 2013. The facility provided a new space and state-of-the-art facilities for students enrolled in programs in RRC Polytech’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts. It also featured a Culinary Exchange café and Jane’s Restaurant, where students could put their skills to work serving the public.
The WED grant tasked PGI with delivering 30 technology demonstrations, identifying 30 products and/or processes for research and development, and forming at least 40 partnerships with industry associations/organizations and companies by March 31, 2014.
Those deliverables formed the basis of my initial goals. My first task was to secure a chef instructor to work with, since my own kitchen training amounted to a couple summer front-of-house gigs plus an illustrious high school cooking career at McDonald’s.
Chef instructors Don Pattie, Gordon Bailey, Brad Gray and Sean Audet all pitched in to help achieve (and exceed) our goals, and set the program on a path towards the next step in the process: securing a longer-term grant that would allow us to hire full-time staff and students.
Fun Fact: If you walk up PRK’s back stairs towards the roof, you’ll find graffiti from 1905 (among more recent samples) on a wall that was preserved as a part of the building’s heritage status.
Building Capacity – NSERC-IE (2016-2022)
Following our whirlwind kickoff, it was time to expand the program. The $2.3 million NSERC Innovation Enhancement grant (NSERC-IE) was an excellent option for growing the College’s innovation capacity across Western Canada.
According to NSERC:
“The objective of the IE grants is to increase innovation at the community and/or regional level by enabling Canadian colleges to increase their capacity to work with local companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The grants support the growth of applied research capacity, leading to increased business collaborations that facilitate commercialization, as well as technology transfer, adaptation and adoption of new technologies.”
The program would support everything from hiring research staff, buying equipment and supporting operations to instructor engagement and student employment. With $500,000 for the first three years and $400,000 annually in years four and five, NSERC-IE would provide ample funds to achieve our objectives.
The nice part about being a part of a vibrant and successful research team at the College is the access to a wealth of past knowledge and experience, including previous examples of large funding proposals I could draw inspiration from. Past proposals and the infrastructure built to support the application processes laid out a path I could follow with confidence. This is the value of having a dedicated research office with experienced managers.
Armed with a structure for federal applications plus years of business and strategic plan development experience, I got to work on our 2015 submission for this highly sought-after program. We were immediately successful and received our NSERC-IE funding for capacity building in 2016. We hired our first full-time research manager, Joel Lamoureux, followed closely by our first research technician, Kyle Andreasen. Thanks to this funding, we achieved some early successes, including the Miso Project (page 34), a large industry project with Richardson International, and many projects for small to medium enterprises, which led us to be awarded an RRC Polytech BRAVO Award for Research Excellence in 2018.
The RRC Polytech BRAVO Award for Research Excellence recognizes individuals and/or teams who have:
- Made an outstanding contribution in support of applied research; and/or
- Contributed to establishing an environment which welcomes research and/or supported others in their research endeavors; and/or
- Made an outstanding contribution to a course, project, program and/or community partner.
This award celebrates the behaviours, actions and attitudes demonstrated by employees over the past calendar year.