Raymond Karam – Ice Cream Tastemaster & Chef

raymond karam tastemaster

Interview: How To Become an Ice Cream Taster

My name is Raymond Karam and my job title is Senior Tastemaster at Cold Stone Creamery. Basically a fancy term for Research and Development in particular to ice cream and ice cream products.

I taste flavors of ice cream just about every day to watch the shelf life and the progression of it. I watch how it may change, or may not change over time. When we’re researching flavors, it’s important to do it over a certain amount of time to see if there’s any changes in product. If not, we’ve got something we can go with.

I eat ice cream every day. In fact, I just had some.

I consume 5-10oz of ice cream a day. But not all at one sitting. A bit here, a bit there. Along with that, other ingredients as well. We also look at trying to improve our ingredients, our mixings, and trying to improve that over time. We look at differences in suppliers for the same ingredients. We’re getting ready to do strawberries, where we’ll have a half a dozen strawberries from different suppliers and we’ll pick the best one. From there, we’ll look at pricing and availability and distribution.

In Japan, they wanted a Sweet Potato ice cream for a limited offering in the fall. So we got some products in, some bases, purees, and went through it. We picked a roasted sweet potato that we made ice cream out of, and it was a big hit over there. If you think about it, it’s not so far from pumpkin.

The reaction people have when I tell them what I do for a living is, ‘Oh I want your job.’ I tell them that it’s the best job there is. I’ve never tired of it. I’ve been doing it almost thirty years now. I’ve had different functions within R&D from product development to quality, but what I really like is the R&D part. Making products, making ice cream products, is what I love to do.

Over the 30 years, I’ve been exposed to so much in the food industry. Everything from candies to meats and everything in between. Most people could probably do the job as it is with the flavors and that kind of thing. But without the science background, if something doesn’t work, they’re going to have a hard time figuring out why it doesn’t work. So it’s the combination of experience and education that gets you at the pinnacle of where you are. And I consider it an honor to do it for Cold Stone Creamery. It’s one of the best ice cream companies I’ve ever worked for and one of the best in the United States. It really is a privilege to do it for them because people love Cold Stone Creamery.

My first job in the sixth grade in Brooklyn, New York was a milk monitor. I was one of the five kids who brought in the cases of milk from the delivery truck and we separated it out. We would deliver the white milk, the chocolate milk to each of the classes. It was kismet that I would be in the dairy business all my life.

What you’re going to find is that you’re going to be working a long time. Your career is going to change. It may change in ways that you never anticipated. But the point is to get started in a career and see where it takes you. Work as if you have no fear. Do not fear anything in your job. Work as if you know exactly what you want, and how you want to get there. Work it like that. Don’t worry about what people will say about you and your ideas. Put your ideas out there. Stick your neck out there a little bit. Not too far, but enough to show the company that you’re thinking. And you’re thinking about this business and you’re thinking about how to make this business better. That’s part of evolving your career.

The great thing about Cold Stone is that no matter the flavor I develop, every one will listen to me. The more ideas you develop, the more ideas they want to see from you. No matter how strange or out of the box the idea is, they’re always receptive to it. It may not always make it to market, but we have something in R&D that we call the pantry. So if the flavor is Chipotle Chile Chocolate, there’s going to be a segment of the population that will love it and a segment that will hate it. The point is, if it’s not going to market right away, it goes in the pantry so it’s fully developed and ready to go. Right down to the cost of doing it in a store. It may not go to market, but when someone is wondering about the spicy chocolate that I had, it’s in the pantry.

I wouldn’t develop something and just stop because no one liked the idea. I’d finish it off, and then if they ever like it, it’s ready to go.

And that’s okay with you?

It is. Enough of my ideas are out there. There’s always going to be a need for more ideas. Some will make it and some won’t. When you’re talking about taste and flavors, people can get very finicky. Even something as simple as coconut. It’s polarizing. People will either love coconut in their ice cream, or they will not. As you formulate things with coconut, you have to keep in mind whether it will be a mass appeal idea. Maybe, maybe not. But it shouldn’t stop you from completing the idea because you can’t leave anything hanging. Because if someone does want it, you have to pick it where you left off. So while it’s fresh in your mind, complete the idea and put it away.

So that’s the key? Knowing that you gave it your all?

And be prolific. We have literally hundreds of ideas to pick from. Be prolific in your job and your work because it’s quality and quantity. As my uncle once told me, always give more to your employer than you’re asked. This way, should there ever be a layoff, they’ll come to your name and they’ll go, ‘Well, we shouldn’t get rid of this guy because we may not use every one of his ideas, but this guy is full of ideas. I don’t want to lose him. He’s creative. He’s a thinker.’ And then, you make the cut.

So give more than you’re asked for without any fear. And you can be creative in your work in any work. I believe that.

What personally gives you more gratification: an idea that is middle of the road or an extreme end?

The best flavor is the one where the person puts it in their mouth, and their eyes close, and they go, ‘Oh my gosh that’s so good.’ That first bite is what I live for. When they take that first bite and it’s heaven to them, it doesn’t matter what the flavor is. They’re enjoying something that I made. That gives me pleasure. That’s really where it’s at for me. That’s why I get passionate about ice cream. On so many levels, it’s the world’s greatest desert. It’s sweet. It’s flavorful. And it’s cold. Nothing beats a dish of ice cream on a hot summer day.

If this job ceased to exist, what quality could you not live without?

Definitely the creativity. Taking something that is ordinary and making it extraordinary. That’s where I see the food business, and really any business in general, that idea, that concept can be taken in many other disciplines other than food. There are always ideas that we will take for granted that will be there. It may be a floor manufacturer that has a new idea for floors. They may not want to get into it, but the new idea is something people might be on board with.

If the chair you’re sitting on was the only chair ever made, that would be wrong because there are so many ideas for chairs. Why stop there with just four legs, a seat, and a back? You can do so many other things with something as simple as a chair that are wildly creative.

If something were to read a book about your career journey, what’s the lesson they take away?

A lot of people will tell you to ‘never give up,’ And that’s good. But what’s carried me through is to always keep working. Always give more than what you’re asked for. If you find your calling early in life, great. Get into it and put your heart and soul into it. Work like there is no tomorrow. Make them know that you are a force in your chosen field. If you have not found your calling and are undecided, don’t let that stop you. Keep working. Work in any business, in any field to learn. You may turn on to something.

I’ll give you a big for instance. I started out as a teacher. I came to Arizona to teach. I started subbing, but then the job came up where I used my science skills at the local dairy factory. I started working there and just fell in love with the dairy business. And that’s where it took off.

Halfway through the 15 years with them, I met a guy at Dreyer’s who did what I do now. I modeled myself after him. I saw that he was a person that they came to for flavor development and product development, and I said to myself that if I keep on doing what I’m doing, I can be that guy. In my mind, I imagined myself like him. And I just kept going along that path until I became him.

Within a couple of years, I started doing product development. And I wasn’t asked to do that at Carnation Nestle. I wasn’t asked to do that at all. I just did it because I wanted to do it, and to show them that I could be creative with ingredients. They didn’t take anything I did. But I kept doing it so I became a person that was an ice cream expert in the company. And I fell in love with the ice cream business because there was artistry and creativity. Math and science and physics and nutrition. All of that in the ice cream business.

It’s a very creative medium to work with. It’s like the paint and the colors. If the ice cream base is your canvas, the flavors that you use are your paints. And that’s where the creativity comes in.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to the 23 year old Ray.

Start from where you are. If you don’t have an idea of what you want to do, at least get into something and it may lead to something else. Careers can change. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Careers can change.

I make mistakes all the time. There’s research and development. It takes time to develop something. Very rarely do you hit it on the first time.

If you just thought you were going to get it right the first time, and you just dashed it off and moved on to something else, you’re doing yourself an injustice. You should learn from what you did wrong and improve it. Get it right. Work with it until you get it right and your vision is for it.

There are ways to avoid mistakes. I see a lot of young people that don’t want to talk to older people in their field. Pick their brains! Talk to them. Listen to what they have to say. Ask their advice. Even I, at this stage of the game, I still show my products and ideas to my peers and ask them what they think. Let them pick it apart! Don’t be afraid of criticism. Give it to the right person and they’ll give you constructive criticism. If you give it to people who don’t really care, they’re not going to give you what you want. You need somebody to tell you honestly what your idea is worth.

Our R&D group is made up of chefs and scientists like myself. We’re very honest with each other. We will not sugarcoat an answer just because we want to like that person. If we don’t like something, we’ll say, ‘Hey, I don’t like it. Fix it. Do something with it.’

The second part is that we have an elite group of franchises that we call the National Advisory Board. I can take ideas that pass R&D and I can test it with them. They’ll give me not only product criticism, but also operational critique. They’ll see if it’s possible to do it in the store. Is it really a Cold Stone fit? Does it make sense? You get all of that feedback depending on the group. But it has to be a group that is interested in what you’re doing. Don’t just give it to your cousin. Really test your idea against people who give you good criticism. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be afraid.

I do as much up front research and development as I possibly can leading up to the finished, final product that R&D likes, the NAB likes, the franchises like, and customers like. That is the ultimate to where you want to be. Get past all those tests. Then it’s ready to go nationwide. That’s the ultimate. And it frequently happens. But when it doesn’t happen and something has to be changed on the fly, it’s usually something very little and very subtle that no one would ever notice anyway. There are instances where that’s had to happen. But I try not to have it happen because you don’t want to fix things on the fly. You want to get it right from the time it leaves your hands to go nationwide. That’s really the goal.

Flavors. I never limit myself to any culinary discipline. I always look around. A couple years back when we did our flavor of the month program we were sitting around and someone said, ‘Ray, you can make ice cream out of anything. Even sushi.’ I said, ‘Ah, you probably wouldn’t want that.’ But I was thinking about a ginger wasabi ice cream. Wouldn’t that be fun to try? So low and behold, I got the seasonings, the ginger and wasabi. I created a ginger wasabi ice cream.

Now if you know Cold Stone at all it’s not just about the ice cream, it’s about the mixings. So what is the creation? What would support this ice cream? Started looking online at different food websites and found a fish sauce that had raspberries, coconut, and pineapple that was seasoned with ginger and wasabi. So we got the ginger wasabi ice cream, and behind the stone we have raspberries, coconut, and pineapple. Tada! We have a creation. Ginger wasabi ice cream with raspberries, coconut, and pineapple.

That was actually better than the ice cream by itself. It sweetened it up. It added a little tart, a little color. It was really good.

And that’s the one you got a death threat on?

Yeah! Ginger wasabi. The only flavor I’ve ever gotten a death threat on.

As much as that person hated it, there were probably people out there who really liked it.

Oh yeah. There were some places were we couldn’t keep it in stock. They couldn’t make enough of it. That was certainly one of the most exciting flavors I’ve made.

Brett started out as our intern. He is our first ever intern. He graduated from Johnson & Wales, with a bachelors in food and beverage management. As well as a fully trained chef. He now has a full time job with us.

You know what I did? Here’s another piece of advice. When I was looking for a job, I got on the internet, Jobing.com, all those ones that you go on to look for a job. When this job came up, I not only applied on the internet, but I emailed my resume in. I sent it by snail mail. I faxed it in. I went down Monday morning with a shirt and tie shoving my resume in their face saying I’m your guy! I’m your guy! Let me talk to somebody!

I was so passionate about trying to get the job that they couldn’t help but give it to me. I even called the general number, and at that time you could press 5 and get the CEO of the company. Which I did. ‘Hello, you don’t know me but I’ve been applying now for two days for this job in R&D for ice cream. I’m your guy.’ I left him a message, I left the chairman of the board a message. Didn’t know these guys at all. But again, I wasn’t afraid to stick my neck out and tell them that I’m your guy and I’ve got the skills and that I was perfect for it.

One thing led to another and I pestered them into the job.

Cold Stone is a home grown company. I was a customer before I was an employee. My neighborhood Cold Stone is right around the corner. I knew of them, but I knew at that time that they didn’t have an opening for me. They weren’t thinking about new products and the future. And that’s what R&D is. It’s your future. A company will survive based on the number of products it develops over time. It doesn’t get stale and doesn’t get stagnant.

They hadn’t thought about who was going to be that person. So when it finally came up, I dove right in every which way. I hit them from every angle. Because I felt that I was the guy for the job.

My first job was with my uncle in the printing industry. He had his own factory. He told me to never be lazy. If he even saw me just standing around, he’d say ‘sweep the floor!’ One time I had just put the broom down and took a sigh and he asked what I was doing just standing there. I said that I swept the floor. He said, ‘Sweep it again!’ Swept the floor again.

Even if you have to sweep the floor, I’ve learned that if I wanted not to sweep the floor again, keep busy. Follow the other workers around. Help them. While I can sweep the floor, I’m helping so and so and I’m learning this job. So I learned the art work and the graphic side of it. The plate making, the photography, envelope printing. Everything. Everything that I could do short of running the presses. I learned many different jobs so when it came time to sweep the floor, they didn’t pick me. They picked the guy behind me with lesser experience. So if you don’t want to sweep the floor all day, learn other things.

What he taught me was to learn more and give more than what you’re asked for because you’ll be more valuable. Even if it’s seemingly unrelated, learn it anyway. You never know when it will come up.

If you get discouraged you might end up doing nothing for a while. I’ve known people who are not doing anything because they haven’t found what they want. Keep working. Have no gaps in your resume. Don’t have a gap there. Even if you’re doing something unrelated. Just work at something and keep that resume filled.

The job itself is special. But you have to have the right person. The seat on the bus is special. But you have to have the right person in the seat. You can’t just pluck someone off the street because they’ll get themselves in trouble. A lot of people think they can do it, but really, it takes a lot.

The first time I made this it was missing something. I went back to my desk and calculated how much I would need to get that custardy flavor as a background while letting the key lime flavor come through. And that’s what we did here today. It’s got that custardy key lime flavor to where you add the graham cracker, it will taste just like a frozen key lime pie. And that’s what I’m after. I try to get it right as much as possible here. That’s what we have this facility for. We have the luxury of time to get it right.

For a while I was going back and forth from Yuma. I was in between my last research job and this research job. It was a year and four months in between where I was looking pretty hard. About halfway through that I started doing some consulting down in Yuma. I was going from Phoenix to Yuma every week. Seemed pointless, but a) no gaps in the resume, it looked like a step backwards because I was doing quality control in a milk plant. But it taught me humility. That no matter how high in your career you get, you can fall. You can go back, and you can feel alright taking the step back. Don’t be afraid of that. Keep working, keep in the field, and you’ll get back to where you want to be. Now I’m even beyond where I left the first time. Just keep going. Just stay in the field. The minute people think you’ve left the field, they write you off. Just like that.

Before you know it, they forget your name. Who did you work for again? What’d you do there?

Not a whole lot between here and there. Just cattle ranches and yellow butterflies. Just yellow butterflies mashed on your windshield.

Everyone who works at Cold Stone is trained to make ice cream. Right from the 16 year old to the owner.

The gratification is when people came in the lab and oohed and awed over it. That’s enough for me. That’s enough. Even though it was a creative idea and I was doing it for a competition, people saw that there’s talent in these hands. There’s something to be proud of. Yes, you’re an R&D person. But be proud of being a chef. Let people call you a chef. Because you are a chef.

If you can attain what your mind wants, I wanted to be this person fifteen years ago. I am 100% a success in my mind because I had the vision to see where I wanted to go and I got there. But I was in the right business for it too. Money is not a good barometer for success. I didn’t always think that way. I learned money isn’t a good barometer when I was dissatisfied with a job and I wanted to leave and they wanted to offer me more money. I said you know what, no. Because it was going to be the same old thing with more money and I was going to be that much more frustrated down the road. So I was out.

At that point I went back to graduate school and I learned some more. There’s always room for learning. You never stop learning. Never never. You never know enough, and never stop learning.

If you want to keep learning. You can be a student your whole life. The degrees open the door for you. It’s really what you do once you get inside. You learn from your co-workers and peers in other companies. You learn in a trade show. New ideas, new products, new equipment. If you open your mind, there’s always ways to learn outside of the classroom. The classroom is not the only way. There’s online education, continuing education. If you want to get to a point, education can help you get there. It’s a tool, if anything.

Every day I’m educating myself. I’m looking at food every day. I get periodicals all the time. There’s four or five on my desk now that I’ll have to go through this month. Whether I skim it or it’s enough to get me into the article, always reading. As much as I think I know, there’s always someone that knows more. And I pick their brain.

I’m not a trained chef. Not by education anyway. It’s bio, chem., lots of math and physics. And then graduate school was all food science. I didn’t go to any culinary school. But I know my product. I know my science. My ice cream. I learned a lot on the job.