Science of Food A food scientist holds biofortified rice. Photo by CIAT via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I Am Not A Chef

Careers in culinary and food science


Soon after graduating with a degree in culinary science, I began to be met constantly with the same question: “So, now you are going to be a chef?” That benign yet facepalm-inducing question was difficult to avoid, but it was even more frustrating to explain to the disappointed few that I was, in fact, not a chef. Nor was I going to be one.

Culinary science, I often explained, is the “biological brother” of Culinology, and the “cousin” of food science. Culinary science, like Culinology, is a blend of culinary arts with sciences — biology, chemistry, physics, and nutrition. Simply put, culinary arts teaches the how of cooking, and culinary science builds on that foundation to aid in understanding the why of cooking — why certain techniques produce unique flavors and textures.

The culinary scientist learns culinary arts techniques, much like their culinary arts counterparts. However, their culinary knowledge is augmented with food chemistry, cooking physics, ingredient interactions, and sensory science. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to take classes in several different regional cuisines and apply to them a scientific understanding.

The distinctive difference between Culinology and culinary science is that Culinology was developed and trademarked by the Research Chef Association (RCA) with a set core curriculum and requirements. Culinary science, depending on the school and program, allows the student to follow a more flexible path. At Drexel University, for instance, culinary science students can pursue minors in business, marketing, or science concentrations (i.e. microbiology or chemistry). Culinary scientists have the knowledge base to create or improve existing products while also being able to liaise with customers and colleagues in other departments. Both Culinologists and culinary scientists can pursue careers as research and development chefs, food technologists (who use different flavors in food product applications), and project managers.

A food scientist, on the other hand, reduces the “broth” of culinary arts and opens a veritable spice cabinet of science concentrations that include sensory science, microbiology, chemistry, engineering, as well as business and marketing. Sensory science is a combination of psychology, sociology, and food. Sensory scientists interact with consumers and industry professionals to build insight on how desirable a product is, or what traits or trends a company should pursue within their products.

Food microbiologists, for simplicity, can be divided into two categories: those involved with food safety and environmental concerns and those who focus on product development. Food safety/environmental microbiologists ensure that a product, or the environment in which it is produced, do not harbor potentially dangerous microorganisms. They also conduct microbial risk assessments, or studies to see how well an organism can survive within a product. Whereas, the product development microbiologist may use fermentation or microorganism reactions to produce products or novel ingredients; for example, probiotic (beneficial microorganisms) yogurt. Food microbiologists would have to determine if a strain of probiotic organisms will work within a product, what dosage is required, and its impact on the final product.

Food chemists are the analytical food scientists. They often employ the chromatograph and other analytics to determine chemical concentrations of food or raw materials. They may also use their chemical knowledge to create fanciful flavors from raw chemicals.

Food engineering studies how food functions within a machine, or how processing equipment might affect food products. For example, a food engineer might study the rheology of chocolate — how temperature affects chocolate’s movement properties. A few degrees plus or minu, can be the difference between a thin, crispy chocolate shell, or a dense chocolate armor.

These are but a few of the different careers and fields of opportunity that culinary science, culinology, and food science offer. However, these field are not islands. There is constant interaction between them academically and professionally. Product development often will require input from culinary scientists, sensory scientists, food engineers, sales teams, and food safety specialists to achieve the desired quality and enjoyment levelt.

How a culinary scientist interacts with a food scientist varies depending on the type of company and the company’s products. For example, let’s imagine a fictional company that produces chocolate granola cereal bars. The culinary scientist would create several lab trial products with different ingredients and chocolate flavor profiles. Trials might include cost reducing efforts, raw material substitution, or product extensions (creating new product styles). The food scientists would conduct consumer sensory test panels of the granola bars. The data collected from these studies would help the culinary scientist determine which chocolate flavor the test consumers preferred. The culinary scientist could use this information to improve the concept or move the product within the pipeline.

If the product had positive sales potential and was seen as marketable, it would move toward the production phase. The production team, assisted by food engineers, would be tasked to work together with the culinary scientist for “scale up.” This involves scaling up from a five-pound trial test to a 5000-pound trial test. This process can reveal numerous production issues and impact on quality (positive or negative). These issues would be reviewed with the culinary scientist for adjustments until a mass producible product closely resembling the original trial product is attained. The product then would go to market, and if successful, new products or line extensions would be created, based on the original.

No, I am not a chef, and now with degrees in culinary science and food safety, I’ve left my original desire to be a product developer and have pursued a career in quality control and food safety. Although it’s not exactly the path I envisioned as a new graduate, it is part of the field that is equally important and vital within the industry. •

James R. Nasella is a 2011 graduate of Drexel University with a B.S. in Culinary Science and a M.S. in food safety from Michigan State University. He is currently a food safety coordinator for Ottens Flavor (IFF Philadelphia) and has edited two Korean cuisine textbooks in his spare time.


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