Elizabeth D’Cunha is an integral part of making sure we enjoy beloved treats. She is a senior culinary strategist at PepsiCo, based out of the Plano office, and serves the Frito-Lay snacks division, as well as other PepsiCo brands on a global scale. Her job is to liaise between chefs and scientists and keep up-to-speed on what consumers want.
“We have an entire team dedicated to the flavors we create,” Elizabeth said. “A lot of my research helps inform which flavors may become popular, and we constantly work as a team – from research and development to marketing to our chefs in order to create the snacks that consumers find on shelves today.”
Elizabeth graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Science degree in food science and obtained her PhD in food science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She has worked for Frito-Lay for almost 18 years. She grew up in the kitchen, often cooking with two very different grandmothers, but both gave her experience in all aspects of cuisine. She was previously a food scientist at Frito-Lay, but when her current role came up, her co-workers knew she would be perfect as the resident foodie.
“I work across the entire PepsiCo global snacks portfolio, which includes a variety of snack foods,” Elizabeth said. “While I am certainly involved in helping ensure the flavor execution is the best it can be, we have many colleagues dedicated to ensuring the quality of our finished product.”
And sometimes that product doesn’t even make the cut. In fact, the craziest flavor she ever had in her hand actually never launched. (And don’t ask — she isn’t allowed to tell.)
Elizabeth explained that they have been known to go to extremes to get a flavor perfected. The research and development building was outfitted with a barbecue pit with live coals and fire permits to obtain real smoke and grilling flavors. She also highlighted the Lay’s Kettle Cooked Greektown Gyro potato chips as well as the Lay’s New York Reuben flavor as some of their more complex creations.
“Some of the most unique and hardest flavors to bring to life have been the most rewarding. We look back and say, ‘Wow! We really pushed the envelope and created something different’,” she said. “We are always thinking about new flavors that consumers will enjoy. Because consumer tastes and preferences are always evolving, we’re constantly adjusting what’s available in market at any one time.”
Although no two days for Elizabeth are quite the same, she provided a general overview of her average day as a senior culinary strategist.
A Day in the Life of a Culinary Strategist
5 a.m. If contacts overseas call, Elizabeth knows she will soon prepare for a trip out of the country. Sometimes overcoming language barriers is a challenge, but she commended all teams.
8 a.m. If not on an early-morning global call, Elizabeth’s day starts with emails. Since she works with people all over the world, she usually has a full inbox of overnight messages.
10 a.m. Brainstorming upcoming workshops about flavors in-progress and attending meetings with chefs, product developers and marketing teams is next on her agenda.
“All of these teams are working in different ways to come up with ideas and flavors for snacks,” she said. “Our culinary team takes those ideas to help inform the recipes that they create that later become snack flavors.”
11 a.m. Elizabeth may spend the next hour writing reports and creating presentations; the previous is something she does frequently.
12 p.m. This two-hour block of time is usually spent tasting product concepts in the kitchen, where someone may hand her either a bite on a fork or 15 different bags of chips to try.
2 p.m. On to more meetings about new and existing projects. Matching tastes to the various brands is key because each brand has a unique take on a flavor. Lay’s Barbecue potato chips, for example, wouldn’t necessarily have the same flavor as SunChips Sweet & Spicy BBQ snacks.
5 p.m. Elizabeth may wrap up her day by reading a food magazine or two before heading home.