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June 11, 2018
On the record

A behind-the-scenes look with Stonewall Kitchen's culinary product developer

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Michele Cole is a culinary product developer at Stonewall Kitchen, the York-based specialty food company known for its gourmet jams and pancake mixes.

Michele Cole is a culinary product developer at Stonewall Kitchen, the York-based specialty food company known for its gourmet jams and pancake mixes.

Cole, who joined the company more than 22 years ago, is the senior member of a five-person research and development team. She sat down with Mainebiz at Stonewall Kitchen headquarters for a behind-the-scenes look into the art and science of flavor innovation.

Mainebiz: How did you end up in this line of work?

Michele Cole: It was serendipity, because it was literally an epiphany. I was changing careers and somebody asked, 'So what are you going to do when you move back to New Hampshire?' And I said, 'I think I'll go be a prep cook somewhere.' I turned around and asked, 'Who said that?' And I'm like, 'Oh, that came out of my mouth.' I answered an ad for a kitchen assistant at a Portsmouth restaurant called the Blue Strawbery [spelled with one 'r,' like the Strawbery Banke attraction in Portsmouth].

MB: What did you learn there?

MC: Chef James Haller's philosophy was cooking without recipes. My first day I had to make butter, and the next task was to make a sauce for potatoes using duck fat and tomatoes. I would throw stuff together and the chefs would taste it and give me feedback, and I adjusted some more. That's how I got my start.

MB: How did you get to Stonewall?

MC: Half the staff at the Blue Strawbery knew [Stonewall Kitchen founders] Jim [Stott] and Jonathan [King], and I was looking for a second job. After a while this turned into my full-time job and the Blue Strawbery became my second job. I started here in July 1995.

MB: What's coming out this July that you're excited about?

MC: Strawberry lemonade jelly. There was no blood involved, but a lot of sweat and tears went into trying to get our whole sensory team on the page of where everybody likes it. We have a slightly tougher scoring system than the industry standard because we are a gourmet product company.

MB: How many tries until you got it right?

MC: I lost track. It was hard because everybody has their own idea about lemonade and how tart or sweet they want it. Then you have to pick the right pectin [used as a setting agent in jams and jellies], which also affects the texture. Trying to get all the stars to align was a long process, probably a couple of months. We had a lot of tries, but we finally broke through and were able to do it.

MB: How much pressure is there to innovate?

MC: It's so important because when you're in the food world, everybody wants something new and exciting. I know we do. We look forward to it, it's like Christmas twice a year for us. We launch new products every January and July.

MB: Any personal favorites in the current lineup?

MC: My current go-to is our Salsa Verde. It comes up with zero points for Weight Watchers, so you can make an amazing chili using chicken or 99% fat-free turkey breast using it. I've tried other Salsa Verdes and ours is the best.

MB: Is your job more art or science?

MC: It's definitely 50/50.

MB: What's the hardest part of what you do?

MC: It depends on the item. Strawberry lemonade was hard, and the other one was the Dulce De Leche Sauce, which took 32 trials. The biggest challenge was getting the ingredients right and the ratios correct.

MB: If you weren't in this job, what else could you envision doing?

MC: That's a hard question because you'd either have to throw me in a brewery, a vineyard or a grocery store. I have to tell you, I really love food stores. No matter where I travel, I have to go to the grocery store, because I'm always looking for something new, exciting and different. To be able to combine travel and food, that would be another ideal job.

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