From the April 2016 issue of Drovers.

Her love affair with cooking began in a no-stoplight town on the shores of Lake Superior, inside a small kitchen on a summer day. She was young and bright-eyed—too small to reach the counter top, but big enough to stand on a chair in her bare feet to help with the meal preparation. Her grandmother stood beside her, chopping carrots, potatoes and onions, handing them off with gentle instructions. As the beef browned, they carefully measured out flour, water, oil and a pinch of salt for a pastry crust to fill with the meat and vegetables for a dinner of beef pasties—her favorite.

More than 10 years later, she was in a kitchen in the suburbs of Hartford, Conn., with her sister, laughing and catching up on life as they soaked corn husks, chopped vegetables and cooked seasoned meat for tamales.

Again, years went by until she was standing in her kitchen in Denver one evening, teaching her suitor how to make pasta on their third date. Flour was everywhere as they rolled out dough and gradually fed it through a roller—opening her heart as she shared her life passion with him. They later married.

For Laura Hagen, senior director of culinary for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), food is more than her occupation—it’s her life passion.

It wasn’t a direct path to the kitchen

Hagen had a growing career at Ford Motor Company as a public relations and marketing specialist for more than 13 years after receiving her undergrad in communications from Michigan State University and a masters in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

“I was living in California and had traveled to Colorado for a program that took me to five different ski resorts. At the last one, I decided I was moving to Colorado,” Hagen says. “I was able to sell my house within one day and move to Denver.”

She soon discovered recreational cooking classes in her new city, which had her quickly leaving corporate America to attend Cook Street School of Culinary Arts full time.

“At the age of 39, I decided it was time for me to go after something I was passionate about and enrolled in culinary school. Food and cooking had always been a big part of my life,” she says. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished, but had to take advantage of the opportunity I was in.”

After getting her culinary degree, Hagen began teaching cooking classes at a retail cooking store and volunteering for Share Our Strength, a charity that helps educate people with limited food options how to cook healthy meals. Her marketing background combined with her passion for food and helping people made Hagen a natural fit for the organization, and they hired her full time to coordinate charity events.

“In April 2009, I was at a trade show to recruit chefs for our volunteer programs when I met a chef from NCBA,” she recalls. “We kept in touch, and by December I was hired as a recipe tester.”

On the outside, the life of a recipe tester sounds glamorous with days spent cooking up inventions and experimenting with new and old flavors. But being a team member for NCBA’s Beef Culinary Center entails much more, Hagen says. The center is a contractor for the Beef Checkoff and the “Beef: It’s What’s for
Dinner” campaign.

“Every recipe we develop has a purpose and a reason we went down that road. It might be consumer research or our own research from food websites and publications,” she says. “It really comes down to a science. Everything is weighed and measured—not only how much a piece of steak weighs, but its thickness and length before and after it is cooked.”

Once a recipe has been completed, it goes through a series of tastings by the culinary team. When a recipe has successfully made it through three rounds of tests, it is edited, photographed and published.

Hagen was a tester for only eight months and over the years has taken on more of a management position, using her marketing and culinary experience to expand the team’s impact for beef producers. This includes following food trends to pitch new recipe ideas, supervising the test kitchen, updating recipe photography and serving as the communication point person for NCBA and Beef Checkoff staff.

“The neatest thing about my job is working collaboratively with the communications department for NCBA to reach consumers,” she says.

Hagen takes her role of supporting the beef industry seriously. “We are showcasing beef so that people continue to put beef on their plate and we are doing that for beef producers—because when we showcase beef, it helps keep it in demand,” Hagen says. “I love the idea of extending culinary knowledge to restaurants and consumers.”

Someday, Hagen dreams of opening a breakfast restaurant—her favorite meal of the day. But for now, she’s focused on reaching consumers and helping drive beef demand.

“A lot of my love for cooking came from my mom,” she says. “Like her, I still clip recipes out of food magazines and share them with the culinary team. This past summer, my mom purged her recipe folders and sent them to me. The beef folder was fun—she had saved a lot of booklets, including some from the ‘Beef It’s What’s For Dinner’ program. That was cool!”