Staff working to boost Alberta’s agri-foods industry
NAIT’s newest research facility will focus on the polytechnic’s long-standing expertise in culinary arts.
But the Centre for Culinary Innovation, slated for completion in summer 2019, will be about much more than cooking. The $2.55-million facility with six high-tech kitchen stations will research, develop and test new food products, formulations and ingredients to help food businesses and agriculture processors become more competitive.
The agri-foods industry – which processes and adds value to agricultural products – is expected to grow from almost $65 billion in exports in 2017 to $85 billion in 2025, according to the Advisory Council on Economic Growth.
“We want to build on NAIT’s culinary reputation and our expertise in finding solutions for industry,” says Dana Gibson, director of business development for the new centre. “We want to be at the forefront of what’s happening in food innovation.
“We already grow the best crops in the world in cereals, pulses and canola. Our opportunity to invest in value-added is now.”
Four areas of focus
The centre will focus on four areas:
- Enhanced food experiences – using new or unique ingredients, techniques and flavours
- Nutrition and health – developing specialized food products that are “free-from,” “low-in” or “high-in” particular ingredients or nutrients
- Sustainability – using by-products, alternative proteins and local foods
- Kitchen efficiency – through improved automation, reduced energy use and reduced water use
NAIT’s certified research chef, Maynard Kolskog (Cooking ’82), is already working with clients in the food industry on a fee-for-service basis to fine-tune their products and develop new ones.
He’s worked with Honest Dumplings, an Edmonton manufacturer, to prevent the company’s dough from cracking and to develop natural colourants.
That work has helped them navigate the complexities of scaling up and commercializing their production process, says Genia Rodnyansky, the company’s creative director. “I think a lot of businesses are at a similar stage where you really need that knowledge but you can’t afford to have someone in-house who has that expertise, so it’s valuable to be able to get it on a consultation basis.”
"A lot of businesses are at a stage where you need that knowledge but you can’t afford someone in-house who has that expertise."
They’ve also been able to try out NAIT equipment, like the flash freezer, to see if it’s worth the investment for their own business, she adds.
Kolskog has worked with another company on a project to use by-products like fruit and vegetable pulp to make spice rubs and sodium-free seasonings. He’s also doing research into the nutritional value and properties of oat starch to fortify and improve other foods. For South Island Pie Co., he even helped create a traditional, New Zealand pie dough recipe.
“We can create the recipe, we can help develop the product and we’re doing the actual research behind it all,” he says.
A breeding ground for innovation
The 200-square-metre (2,150-square-foot) innovation centre is under construction on Main Campus, next to NAIT’s award-winning restaurant, Ernest’s, on 118 Avenue just west of 106 Street. An existing office area is being demolished to make way for the repurposed space.
Funding for construction of the Centre for Culinary Innovation includes $1 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and $1 million from the Government of Alberta. An additional $2-million grant over five years for operations came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
“We’re hoping that companies will use us as an extension of their research and development capabilities and as a breeding ground for innovation,” says Gibson. “They’ll come here and they’ll not only find people to brainstorm with but a space and infrastructure so they can create new food products.”