NAIT research chef passionate about creating new products with prairie crops

NAIT research chef passionate about creating new products with prairie crops

Centre for Culinary Innovation a unique partner of industry in providing applied research, training of workforces

By Kathy Kerr

Chef Maynard Kolskog

Thrilling a client with his latest creation is what drives Chef Maynard Kolskog.

“You get a client who says ‘This is amazing’ and then you think ‘I’ve got the best job in the world. This is really exciting.’ ”

But these customers aren’t dining out in a posh restaurant — the dish they’re enthusing about is more likely to be mung bean scrambled eggs or pea milk.

Kolskog is a certified research chef at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, working with companies and organizations at the polytechnic’s Centre for Culinary Innovation.

Projects Kolskog has worked on include ice cream made from oats or faba beans, oat cheeses, and ways to improve food appearance and texture for patients who have trouble swallowing.

The Centre for Culinary Innovation fits into NAIT’s Industry Solutions arm, which focuses on working with industry. The centre provides applied research help for companies interested in product development.

The centre has been operating for more than a year, using a workstation borrowed from NAIT’s culinary arts academic program.

But in early February the centre expanded into its own space, with 12 workstations and a potential to grow its staff and the number of projects it can take on, says Dana Gibson, the centre’s director of business development.

The centre currently operates with just three staff and some student research assistants.

Kolskog, who started at NAIT as an instructor in 2001, first became involved in applied research around 2014 when an opportunity presented itself to work with the Alberta Pulse Growers on sous vide products and pasta made with pulses.

In 2018, Gibson was brought on board. The centre received $2 million in shared federal-provincial infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and a $2-million, five-year operating grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Although it isn’t restricted to plant-based foods research, the NAIT centre has a particular interest in the sector.

Plant-based soft serve

“We make products our clients are asking for and clients are asking for plant-based products,” says Gibson.

For companies interested in working with the centre, Gibson is the first point of contact.

The centre can help determine if the firm is eligible for grant funding from NSERC or if it will need to pay a fee-for-service. Gibson says clients must have been in business for two years and have at least two employees to qualify for a grant.

Fees for firms that aren’t leveraging a grant vary depending on the complexity of the project and the time required. Gibson says projects so far have ranged from $2,000 to $120,000.

The innovation centre will develop a product to bench-top scale. The client owns the intellectual property rights to the formulation.

Companies need to take the formulation to another facility, such as the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre, the Food Industry Development Centre in Saskatoon or to their own manufacturing facility to scale up production.

Due to client confidentiality Gibson can’t reveal company names, but she says one client, which has its own manufacturing facility, has presented a NAIT-produced food to a retailer and is getting ready to launch the product.

Industry Solutions at NAIT embraces a collaborative model in terms of working with other institutions like the University of Alberta and the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre.

“Traditionally, most of us have taken everything from cradle to grave and we should really be figuring how can we be more of a relay team,” says Gibson.

Sandra Marocco, vice-president industry partnerships for NAIT, adds the polytechnic’s relationship with industry is unique in Canada.

“We’re not doing it through the lens of that academic portfolio. We’re doing it within that partner-of-industry frame. We want to be a supply-chain partner for industry,” she says of the Industry Solutions model.

NAIT doesn’t just offer applied research. It will also train a company’s workforce. For instance, if a company gets a new piece of manufacturing technology, NAIT will train a firm’s staff to integrate that technology, says Marocco.

She points out that while startups can access applied research services at NAIT like those offered by the Innovation Centre, the sweet spot for industry partnerships is more in the scale-up realm with established businesses.

Oat Cheese

Gibson says she sees potential for the Centre for Culinary Innovation to expand some of its role.

“I think the first place we’ll branch out to is industry-specific, small-group, hands-on training,” she says. “People are interested in plants-based ingredients. Maybe people would want to do a three-day short course.”

Gibson stresses that the Centre for Culinary Innovation is squarely on the industry side of NAIT’s mandate. Students who help with projects now are hired as research assistants and don’t receive academic credit.

“Any training we do would be industry identified or custom training that a specific company is looking for.”

Gibson and Kolskog are often meeting business folks at industry gatherings. Being out in the community is part of their job.

Kolskog is happy to supply samples of ice creams and cheeses to pique interest in the centre’s research. The researchers sometimes work on side experiments as well as contract work.

“It’s important that we follow our muse sometimes,” says Kolskog.

Mariana Lamas, Dana Gibson and Maynard Kolskog

“We’re always tinkering with different things. We make our own kombucha in the lab. We don’t expect to sell kombucha.”

They’ve also made miso out of yellow peas.

Kolskog says he is interested in showcasing prairie commodities and the potential of plant-based foods.

“We have a lot of clients coming to us wanting plant based. But I’m feeling that, in a small way, I want something that would help diversify our economy. The meat boards do a fantastic job marketing their products. But we just take all our pulses and grains, and ship them out of the country.

“I feel passionate about our crops and what we can do with them in a value-added context as opposed to a raw-commodity context, which is totally boring and no fun at all.”

This story is part of a series on post-secondary institutions in Alberta. Previously:

Kathy Kerr, a former business and deputy editor at the Edmonton Journal, is a freelance writer.

Posted Feb. 11, 2020

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