Food science graduate launches career

Jennie Vallangca is a 2020 graduate of Niagara College’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program and spent four months as a research assistant with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre at Research & Innovation. Today, she’s employed by two companies: Wild Tea Kombucha and JOEY Restaurant Group in Calgary, Alberta. She also works as an independent food science consultant.

Tell us about where you work:

I work for two companies: I’m a quality assurance/quality control specialist for Wild Tea Kombucha and a line cook for JOEY Restaurant Group. Wild Tea Kombucha is a company based out of Calgary, Alberta and they produce kombucha (cocktail-inspired and soda flavoured), both non-alcoholic and alcoholic. It is a summer internship through Canada Summer Jobs and my responsibilities include designing an alcohol-testing program, as well as assisting production and working on a traceability program.

JOEY Restaurant Group is a premier casual restaurant chain that has locations all over Canada, as well as a couple locations (and upcoming ones) in the United States. 

If this isn’t your main job since graduating, please give us an idea of what types of related things you’ve been doing since graduating.

Both jobs are steps towards my goal(s): to help food businesses thrive through my work as a food science consultant, as well as a research chef. I work as an independent consultant as a side job to build my portfolio and credibility as a food science consultant. It gives me more opportunities to network with other small companies and to help them solve their problems.

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

It helped me both on the technical side as well as the interpersonal side. I was able to get the experience talking to clients about their situations and how we could help find solutions; keeping clients updated and creating a final report on their project. It gave me more confidence and a better understanding about how to meet the clients’ needs. 

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

The bone broth project with Broya was definitely a memorable project. It was my very first research project in the industry and it gave me a chance to work both in the kitchen and the lab. It also paved the way for me to work in the natural health-food sector, which is an interesting industry to work in due to the constant change and its innovation. Also, it is so fun to see a product I helped with on grocery store shelves – it gives me such joy!

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

Originally, I wanted to become a chef, but due to the lifestyle and all it entails, I knew that I didn’t see myself doing it long term. I still wanted to get into food and did the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) in Hospitality and Tourism in high school, but I wanted to do something bigger. Random Google searches later, I found the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program at Niagara College and it was more of a “put all the eggs in one basket” type of situation. I had never considered working in the food manufacturing industry, but the more I researched the program, the more I was leaning towards it.

Most memorable experience at NC?

One of the most memorable experiences I had was organizing a whole mixer for the second-year students and some members of the industry. Many of the industry partners were actually alumni of the program and it was nice to hear what they have been up to since graduating – with some becoming managers, food scientists and giving advice to then-second years who were in the process of finding a co-op placement.

“It is so fun to see a product I helped with on grocery store shelves – it gives me such joy!”

A faculty member who influenced you?

All the faculty members made a huge impact during my time at Niagara College. Sabi Bamrah [professor, CFWI], Sunan Wang [professor, CFWI], Amy Proulx [coordinator/professor, CFWI] and Chef Norm Myshok all helped shape me for a career that I want to be in. I had always thought that I would end up in academia, but they taught me that it’s not just academics; applied learning and industry experience is completely different from school learning. They also gave me the resources to pave the way for me to build myself in my career and they always had my back.

A mentor at R&I?

Everyone in Research & Innovation had an impact and an influence on me. They taught me things outside of academia like learning new lab equipment, communicating with clients and project management. They gave me countless feedback on projects, which definitely helped in my current job(s).

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

Definitely find your path. Find what you are passionate about, whether it be research and development or FSQA (Food Safety Quality Assurance), you will find that path. Also, discover what sector of the industry (i.e. meat, cannabis, pet food, etc.) you want to work in.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

You definitely start from the bottom. Not everyone will get the opportunity to have their dream job right away; you’ve got to start somewhere. Working for a small business, you wear multiple hats and sometimes those hats aren’t what you are hoping for. I remember always hearing that the first few years of your career will be the most difficult, so always be resilient and don’t lose that goal.

Proudest achievement since graduating?

Moving out west to Calgary to start my career and to establish myself as a food scientist/product developer/research chef/etc. I was also part of a webinar for the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST) with Food Grads on the topic of “entering the job market as a new food scientist.” It was awesome to hear the other speakers (some of whom I personally know) talk about their experience, as well as talking about mine.

Interests outside of work? 

I tend to do many things – mostly being active. I like cycling (usually mid-long distances), fencing (I did it competitively for a couple years during my time at Niagara College), kickboxing and rock climbing. If it is not sports, then drawing (mostly portraits), exploring restaurants and listening to music. 

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Just keep going! Life is a tough road, and the moment you conquer that obstacle, the reward is truly wonderful! The only way to do it is to keep going and be resilient.

Anything else you want to say?

What do you do with a drunken sailor—I’m kidding! But seriously…what do you do with five loaves of bread from baking class? Asking for a friend.