for Nestle Frozen Food Co. in Cleveland.
After three years of rejected applications, Billue was hired by Nestle last March to work in its test kitchens, refining and improving recipes in the company’s Stouffer’s, Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine, Red Box and Contadina product lines. Four days a week, Billue, along with several food scientists and other culinary experts, runs taste tests, dissecting Nestle products ingredient by ingredient, making sure they meet consumers’ standards for quality and taste. How do they do this? Mainly by eating.
“I can’t tell you how much Salisbury steak and macaroni and cheese I’ve eaten,” says Billue. “Those are our No. 1 sellers around the world, so we’re constantly refining them or trying to come up with variations that work, like broccoli, macaroni and cheese, or beef, macaroni and cheese.”
How tough could this job be? It either tastes good or not, right? Not quite. There’s a bit more to it. “You know if the cheese is too salty or too grainy,” Billue explains. “Or if the meat–I don’t even eat red meat at home — is too tough or too mealy. One thing we’re always sensitive to is that mass-produced taste, that boxed-food taste. You want to avoid that at all cost.”
Billue has also tried to avoid whatever bores and depresses her. Her criminal justice major at Temple University did just that, so she decided not to pursue the legal career she once planned. Instead, after graduating in 1986, she worked a few standard post-college office jobs before applying to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1991. She was accepted and received a two-year scholarship.
“When I went to college, I didn’t even know there were cooking schools,” says Billue. “And the only careers I heard about in cooking were totally unappealing to me.” The most obvious –restaura
nt work–involved long hours, meager benefits, low pay and little security, she says. Her postgraduate job, managing the dining rooms at Coopers & Lybrand’s world headquarters in New York, also proved disappointing. So, after two years, she quit and went to Cleveland, home of Nestle and several relatives, hoping both would take her in.
“I had applied to Nestle when I was still in school, but they were looking for food scientists, not people with a culinary background like me,” says Billue. “I thought being in Cleveland might give me an edge.” It didn’t. She applied, and was rejected again. She took a job as a food writer for a local black newspaper, which she liked. But Billue still longed to work with food and for Nestle. Finally, a woman she met at a Christmas party in 1995, who worked for Nestle, provided the breakthrough she needed.
“I know this sounds like a ridiculous plug, because it’s like the company slogan, but Nestle really is the very best,” she says, laughing. “They’re the biggest, and they cover almost the entire gamut of foods– entrees, candy, ice cream, cookies. They hit every taste bud.”
Taste buds are an essential commodity in Billue’s