The Latte Artist

Jessica Bertin

Jessica Bertin, the administrator of Joe Ed classes, subsists on just one or two cups of coffee a day – a shot of espresso here, a sip of cappuccino there, to test quality control.

“Skim milk. The bane of our existence.”

Jessica Bertin sits in the corner of the Joe Coffee store she manages on New York City’s Upper East Side, eyeing the Sunday morning crowd as the sun streams in. Every large latte with skim order makes the baristas cringe — the thinness of nonfat milk makes it nearly impossible to create the store’s crisp signature Rosetta design.

Joe Coffee, a family-owned business that opened in 2003, has several branches across New York City and Philadelphia. Bertin trains baristas and runs Joe’s public education program, which includes a smattering of about a dozen classes — ones focused on espresso and manual brewing ($60 for two hours) to lectures on direct trade versus fair trade. Then there are the full-day barista workshops ($225 for seven hours) and 16-hour one-week courses, which never fail to sell out. But one of Bertin’s most impressive areas of expertise is  latte art — which, for the record, is much harder than it looks.

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The Pizza Box Connoisseur

Photo: Michael Berman

“People are surprised I’m not 600 pounds,” laughs Scott Wiener, who runs a pizza company. Photo: Michael Berman

To the average American, a pizza box is a disposable, oily compilation of cardboard, taking up room in the fridge until the last slice is gone. But to Scott Wiener, a pizza box is a work of art. That’s why he holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza boxes.

Wiener eats, lives, and breathes pizza. During the day, he runs a pizza tour company, taking groups of tourists to 40 different pizzerias around New York City on a yellow school bus. But the job takes a lot of research, he says. “It’s not just waking up, eating pizza, and getting a paycheck.” 

Nearly six years, 1,500 tours and over 25,000 tour guests later, Wiener is planning a traveling art show featuring pizza boxes around the world, from Brooklyn to Austin, Tex., to the rest of the world. Below, he reveals the country that uses the world’s most intelligent pizza box (not America), how to order pizza the right way, and where his love for dough, red sauce, and cheese first began.

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Foodie Friday: The Dog Food Tester

Food fit for a king (Charles Spaniel). Photo: Nancy Rica Schiff 2006 from her book, Odder Jobs, More Portraits of Unusual Occupations

Patricia Patterson samples food fit for a king (Charles Spaniel). Photo: Nancy Rica Schiff 2006 from her book, Odder Jobs, More Portraits of Unusual Occupations

“It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Patricia Patterson remarks thoughtfully. She remembers its porous surface – it resembled lava rock. She inserted a chunk into her mouth, moved it around for a few seconds. Spit and repeat. Spit and repeat.

At the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University, Patterson, a former restaurateur, analyzes a slew of products for flavor, texture, and color – fragrances, fruit, gelato, coffee, air fresheners, and fabrics. But dog food is the product that makes people raise eyebrows and cock heads.

“I admit, there’s a certain stigmatism to eating dog food,” Patterson said. “But I don’t eat it. I taste it and analyze it.” In fact, its distinct flavor is harder to identify than many might imagine.

Age: 65
Graduated from: Business school in Salina, Kansas
Based in: Manhattan, Kansas
Years in the business: 12
Previous jobs: I started out as a secretary, but I got bored sitting behind a desk. I wanted something more people-oriented, so I went into the bar and restaurant business. I did that for a good many years, but I got burned out.

You left one food job for a very different food job. I basically retired from my restaurant job, and I was looking for something part-time. I saw this newspaper ad for the job at Kansas State University, which appealed to me because it said something like, “If you like to work with food, people, and products.”

Human vs. canine food: a sometimes-blurry line. Photo: businessweek.com

Human vs. canine food: a sometimes-blurry line. Photo: businessweek.com

No mention of dog food. No.

Tell me about your first day on the job. Well, before you’re accepted and trained, you have to pass a test. You have to describe and differentiate between different products. Take cinnamon, for example. They want you to say brown, sweet, woody. But an individual who hasn’t been trained doesn’t think about those things. They might just say that it smells good. 

So developing a lexicon filled with rich adjectives is part of the training. Yes. We’re always coming up with descriptive terms and definitions. It comes with time and experience.

Preparation and special tactics: We don’t prepare the products, so we don’t need gloves or hairnets. But we wear white lab coats [when testing], and stay away from perfume or anything scented. No flavored lipstick, no hand lotion or hairspray, no detergent. We work in a clean conference room, with a table, chairs, blackboard, and sink to wash your hands.

How did you react the first time that dog food appeared on the table in front of you? I was like, yuck, nasty! Animal food was a totally new area we hadn’t approached before.

Have you ever dined at a restaurant and thought, Wow, this kind of tastes like dog food? Yes. Sometimes, you’d like to shut it off, but you can’t.

Your objective in taste testing: We’re not told specifically what we’re looking for; others extract the information they need. We just examine the aroma, flavor, and texture. We determine attributes using references.

Do you mean points of reference? Yes. We have about 40 references for dog food, for attributes ranging from smokiness to mustiness to fishiness. We have references for its appearance, too: color, shape, size, and surface texture.

Testing dog food wasn't half bad, says Patterson. Her worst memories stem from testing cat litter. Photo: Sensory Analysis Center

Patterson has also tested cat litter (for aroma, not taste). “It’s one of my least favorite products,” she says. Photo: Sensory Analysis Center

Your beef with dog food: We had one that tasted like sponge rubber. But we also had one that was very, very good. I’m sorry, but it was. It was meaty and had vegetables.

Did you swallow it? No – you don’t want to mix the flavors. You leave it in your mouth for a certain amount of time, maybe moving it around, maybe chewing it. Then you expectorate it.

Skills required for the job: Patience. A testing can take one day, or it can take weeks, months, or years. It depends on the project. You also need to be unbiased; it doesn’t matter whether or not you like the product.

Best part of your job: Seeing so many different products. I also like the international travel. I’ve been to Germany to work on cheese; Thailand to work on soy sauce and a variety of miniature fruits; and Italy to work on gelato.

Most challenging part of your job: Coming up with new terms and attributes. But it’s a group effort; that’s why we have panels of sensory analysts.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s not an eating job. We taste, over and over and over. It’s very repetitive.

Woof. Source: 4gifs.tumblr.com

Woof. Source: 4gifs.tumblr.com

You mentioned that you own a dog yourself. He must benefit from your sophisticated palette. He’s spoiled rotten. I cook for him a lot – chicken, beef, potatoes, rice, carrots, and pork. But if I’m traveling, he does get dried dog food.

Recently, the radio show This American Life investigated a story about meat plants selling pig intestines as fake calamari. It suggested that consumers couldn’t differentiate between the two. Do you think the same goes for dog food and certain “human foods,” like chopped liver? I have to say, some of the dog food we had was better than people food.

Salary: $10 to $16 per hour.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
There’s a certain satisfaction in improving and developing products that eventually end up on shelves. It’s very rewarding. It’s also interesting to be exposed to products that consumers may never see – the things that don’t make it to the shelves.

Like Patricia Patterson, many No Joe Schmos started out in more ordinary professions. Meet the tech entrepreneur turned pooper scooper and the real estate agent turned hot air ballon pilotThen, check out more of the cutest dog GIFs of all time.

Foodie Friday: The Cheese Makers

At Edgwick Farm, Talitha Thurau and her business partner Dan Jones sell eight different types of goat’s milk cheeses, plus a few seasonal ones.

Talitha Thurau was raised on one of the first certified organic farms in Massachusetts, where her stepfather tore out the family’s oil heater so they could learn to cook on a wood stove. As a teenager, she milked goats before hauling off to homeroom. After graduating from high school, she couldn’t wait to escape farm life, and traveled far, far away, becoming a lawyer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

About 10 years later, after having children, Talitha rediscovered her roots. She moved upstate to Cornwall, N.Y., where she shares nine acres of land with 50 goats, 60 chickens, 14 ducks, four dogs, and three cats. Last year, the seasoned farmer received a commercial license for Edgwick Farm with partner Dan Jones, and now spends just as many hours making and selling cheese as she did practicing law.

“I took my childhood on the farm for granted,” she says. “Now, so do my kids. People go crazy over our cheese, and my sons say, Mom, what’s wrong with these people? We eat this every day!’”

Age: 48
Graduated from: The New School, B.A. in liberal arts; CUNY School of Law
Based in: Cornwall, N.Y.

What guided your path from law school to cheese? After graduating from CUNY Law, I moved to Park Slope [in Brooklyn, N.Y.] and practiced law for 10 years. Then, I had kids and wanted to go back to my roots. I wanted my kids to eat right and live right, just like I had. My [now] ex-husband and I drew a big line around New York City and settled in Cornwall, about 55 miles away. We got goats and I made cheese when I had too much milk.

“[These girls] are challenging and beautiful,” reads the caption to this photo on Edgwick Farm’s Facebook page. Udderly challenging and beautiful, that is.

The process: We milk 40 of our 50 goats twice each day, pasteurize the milk, and then hang and drain it. Once you get all the whey out, you can make whatever cheese you want. But you can’t just follow a recipe; you need to look at how the milk behaves, based on the weather and the goat’s diet. I use pH strips for milk coagulation tests. Each batch of cheese is different.

That’s a lot of goats. Do you have help? Over the summer, we had a bunch of college students working as milkmaids. But I like getting in there, feeling the milk and curds, seeing what my girls are producing.

How do you differentiate yourselves from dozens of other cheese makers in upstate New York? We have the minerals from the soil and water of the Hudson Valley, which makes a big difference. Our milk is always fresh; it gets made into cheese within 24 to 48 hours. Great milk makes great cheese. Plus, our community is Cornwall is incredibly supportive.

How did you meet Dan Jones, your business partner at Edgwick Farm? He was a family friend in Cornwall, and we both went through divorces. In 2006, we took a training class to figure out whether cheese making was a viable business. It took five years to build the infrastructure of our business.

Dan says: I was Talitha’s backup milker when she went on vacation in 2003, and she kept me on after that. She began serving her cheese at barbecues and parties, and people raved about it, so I suggested going full-time together. We got a $120,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gave us a leg up.

Talitha and Dan store all the cheese in a “cave,” or make room, which is a 6’ x 6’ walk-in cooler set at a certain humidity.

Your most popular cheese: Chèvre, which is the basic spreadable goat cheese. We marinate it in olive oil, Herbs de Provence, and freshly diced garlic for 10 to 15 days.

At this point in our conversation, Talitha tells me to hold. Chickens cluck in the background. “What are you throwing at the chickens?” she yells to Dan. Then she returns, apologizing.

Your favorite cheese: Sackett Ridge hard cheese. It’s a cheddar recipe that takes a few days of pressing and drying and six months of aging. It’s a sweet, mild golden wheel that sharpens over time.

How do you name your cheeses? Artisan cheese makers name their cheeses after local landmarks. Sackett Ridge is a landmark we can see from our farm.

Best part of your job: When baby goats are born. There’s nothing like it – it’s so joyous.

Most challenging part of your job: Where you have joyous birth, you’ll always have death, which is heartbreaking and difficult. Recently, we had a fox come through the farm and take a mother hen. Her chick has been walking around calling for her. I still cry whenever an animal dies.

Amount of cheese sold this year: About 20,000 pieces, which I hope to be 28,000 by December. I label each one by hand.

What does success look like for you? Feeding our neighbors in the Hudson Valley. Dan and I don’t want to be rich and famous; we just want enough money to feed our goats and make the most fantastic cheese possible.

Best autumn recipe using cheese: Bruschetta. Cover toasted bread with marinated Canterbury cheese and gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, and then marinate it.

On the agenda for this year: We’d like to teach people how to make cheese in their kitchens and how to have backyard goats. You need at least two goats; they’re herd animals that would be miserable alone. We also want to have backyard chicken-raising contests.

Your favorite cooking show: Oh, we don’t have a TV. We do read the New York Times every day, though. And we’re connected to many chefs in the Hudson Valley.

Do your children appreciate farm life in the way you wish you had? Between Dan and I, we have five teenagers. This is something they’ve always known, so they want to have their own lives. We have to give them that opportunity.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Connect with those who make cheese or enroll in classes. Take a look at Peter Dixon’s website and the Cheese Forum.

2. To make cheese in your kitchen, put two or three gallons of milk into a double boiler. No animals or bread-making in the kitchen, though. Yeast and other living critters will cross-contaminate it.

3. Most importantly, get good milk; that’s where it all starts. Raw milk is the best milk to make cheese with in your kitchen.

More information about Edgwick Farm is available on its blog and Facebook page. All photos and video courtesy of Edgwick Farm.

NEXT: Meet more Foodie Fridays, like the submarine chef and the food chemist.

Foodie Friday: The Submarine Chef

Culinary Specialist First Class Allen Williford puts finishing touches on lunch at the naval submarine base. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry/released)

It’s dinnertime at the Naval Submarine Base New London in the tiny town of Groton, Connecticut, and a room of 30 high-ranking officials are hungry. Culinary Specialist First Class Allen Williford is scrambling around the small kitchen, about the size of your typical break room, boiling lobsters. He splits them down the middle, removing all the meat. Then, he stuffs the tails with a lobster meat custard. The Lobster Thermidor − one of seven courses he’ll serve that night − is ready for plating.

Williford enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 18 and worked on a submarine ship for five years, cooking a standard set of meals for 140 crew members. Now, as a flag culinary specialist at Commander, Submarine Group Two, he designs menus for the flag admiral and often cooks for about a dozen delegates at a time in the submarine capital of the world. His wife and two sons, who have moved with him from San Antonio, Texas, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Groton, Connecticut, are his guinea pigs for new foods. “I feel pretty open to use my own creativity [on the submarine base],” Williford says. “It’s like running my own small restaurant.”

Age: 25
In the navy for: 7 years, 9 months
Grew up in: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Based in: Groton, Connecticut

Did you enlist in the navy with the intent of becoming a culinary specialist? By the time I was 17, before I had to quit to leave for the navy, I worked on the weekends as a line cook and on the weekdays as a waiter. Then, when I was picking what I wanted to do for the military, my cousin told me to do something I really loved and enjoyed. I took his advice and decided to cook, so I went off to four weeks of training at culinary school in San Antonio, Texas.

How long are your trips below sea level? I worked as a culinary specialist on a ship in San Antonio for five years, where I cooked four meals a day for 140 crew members. We spent more than 70 percent of those five years at sea, which is a lot of time away from your family. Now, I’m a personal chef for a flag admiral.

So you just cook for one person? I also host events for delegates and other high-ranking officials.

Do you get a say in the foods you cook? I get to create a lot of my own menus – it’s like running my own small restaurant. I buy my own fresh produce and propose menus, which get approved by the flag staff. When I’m on a ship, however, it’s a standard navy menu that changes every three weeks. That can get a little boring, but we’ll try to change up some of the flavoring.

Photo: cookstr.com

Most elaborate dish you’ve cooked: For high-ranking officials, I’ll make something light and elegant, like smoked salon with an apple coleslaw. Once, I made a seven-course meal, which included oysters on the half shell, mixed greens salad with arugula and bacon vinaigrette, French onion soup, and Lobster Thermidor.

How is the submarine’s kitchen equipped? It’s all industrial sized equipment, with two ovens and one flat grill top. There’s no stove, since pots would fly all over the place. Instead, we have fixed kettles that you can put anything in and then heat up. The kitchen I work in now, on the submarine base, has more commercial equipment: a stove, oven, and refrigerator.

Size of the kitchen: Pretty small. It’s split into two sides: one for food service attendants to wash dishes and clean up, and the other side for the cook. The entire kitchen can fit about three people comfortably. You don’t need too much space.

Best part of your job: I constantly get to be creative. I had a passion for cooking and exploring how things work, and I was pretty much self-taught. It’s satisfying to produce meals that are of the caliber I produce.

Most challenging part of your job: Working by myself. It’s especially challenging for large events of 30 to 50 people, but other cooks will volunteer to help me serve.

Did you always love to cook? I spent a lot of time in the kitchen when my dad cooked dinner as a kid. As I got older, my mom worked as a nurse, so she was gone a lot. She would always have the fridge stocked for me, but I often cooked for myself. Starting at age 15, I started having friends over to cook for them, and realized I had a knack for it.

A passion for cooking more often leads to a career in the restaurant business than in the navy. I worked as a waiter at a restaurant at age 16, and one of the cooks noticed that I always showed up early to help prepare the food. He let me help out, so I’d work double duty: on the weekends as a line cook and on the weekdays as a waiter. I would see how things were produced in the kitchen, and then later in the evening see the look on people’s faces when they ate it. It was immediate satisfaction.

Favorite foods: I really enjoy seafood and Italian food.

CS1 Williford performs water rescue training at the Naval Submarine Base New London pool. (Photo: Lt. j.g. Kevin Shanley/public.navy.mil)

What would people be surprised to learn about you? There’s a little more on my plate than just cooking. Submarines are small communities; there are a lot of jobs to go around, and not a lot of people to fill them. So I also took on the job of submarine diver and rescue swimmer, and I volunteer at the local fire department.

At home, do you opt for take-out as a break from cooking? I’m one of the command’s fitness leaders – the navy has to make sure its crew is physically and mentally fit – so I try to avoid letting my kids, ages 3 and 5, eat fast food. My wife and I share the responsibility of cooking healthy meals at home. [One such nutrition tip to his submarine group: Eat according to the colors of the rainbow.]

Do you test out new recipes on your kids? My family is my guinea pig, and my wife is my best critic.

Salary range: See full pay tables here.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
First and foremost, you need to be passionate about cooking. If that’s the case, the navy will train you and give you all the tools you need to be right where I am today.

Click here for more Foodie Fridays, like the miniature food artist and the master fudge maker.

Foodie Friday: The Miniature Food Artist

Shay Aaron, a Tel Aviv native, initially studied fine arts, but quit one year later to finish his pastry studies. This fall, he will begin classes for set and costume design.

Shay Aaron’s strict diet regimen includes Italian hoagies, lemon pound cake doused in icing, and dozens of cannolis oozing with chocolate. After four years, he has lost 175 pounds.

The catch: all the treats are about one-twelfth their actual size, and made from polymer clay.

Four years ago, at 308 pounds, Israeli artist Shay Aaron was overweight and depressed. He began creating miniaturized food sculptures at 1:12 scale that look almost completely edible, and used the hobby to curb his appetite. “I feel like I’m replacing my passion for greasy food with fake baked goods,” he says.

No need to worry about his creations being too beautiful to eat. You couldn’t if you tried. They fit on the edge of a fingertip, often no larger than a penny or a matchstick. His work, most of which is created using a pasta machine in his small living room studio, includes crops of fruits and veggies, mouthwatering dessert spreads, and loaves of Challah.

Age: 27
In the business for: 5 years
Describe what you do in one sentence. I create collectible miniatures on a 1:12 scale, and also make wearable pieces. 

How does one break into the miniature food art business? From a very young age, I had a weight problem, and I started creating fake food to help get over it. Four years ago, I weighed 308 pounds, and I was miserable. I was working with polymer clay, making millefiori and home décor pieces. One day, a customer asked me to create a miniature replica of a traditional Jewish dish. That was when I found what I wanted to do for the next five years. Now, I’m trying to replace my passion for real food with these little miniatures, and sometimes it works.

Where do your best ideas come from? On Friday mornings, I work with my mom in her little kitchen. We host the whole family every Friday evening, and my mom is charge of the cooking. I help her come up with special desserts that complement her dishes, so that’s where a lot of the ideas for my work come from. I also [draw inspiration from] Martha Stewart.

Does your work make you hungry? I can’t imagine sculpting something not related to work. That said, my work makes me hungry, for sure. The problem is that I work during the wee hours of the morning, and there’s nothing worse than eating at night.

What tools do you use for sculpting? You don’t need special tools and materials to get perfect results. The main material must be polymer clay, but I also combine wood, glass and aluminum, resin, metal, wood and ceramic. I use lots of unconventional tools in my work, from pasta machines to food processors. I also use rocks and boards that create interesting textures, as well as rolling pins and toothbrushes. All my little tools are placed in a little chest of drawers made of clear plastic.

Work you’re proudest of: My Mediterranean cuisine collection is really a part of me. Here in Israel, we usually purchase Mediterranean foods in the supermarket. But before I make miniature versions of any food – in this case, hummus and falafel – I feel like I need to make them for real. That way, I learn more about the process.

How do you price pieces that are barely the size of a penny? It’s hard. I would prefer that someone else priced my pieces, but nobody else can evaluate how much work I put into each piece. The only elements that count are time and effort – not materials used.

Your work is so small and intricate. Are you a perfectionist? No, I don’t define myself as one. I just know how important the details are. That’s where the secret is – in the details.

How did you choose a 1:12 scale? 1:6 is too big, and 1:24 is too small. A one-inch scale is also a traditional ratio for models and miniatures.

Click through to view some of Shay’s work:

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Strangest request from a customer: I was asked to create a wedding ring that looked like a fortune cookie, with a tiny fortune that read, “Will you marry me?” Another guy, from Canada, asked me to create a ring for his wife that featured a replica of their wedding cake.

Best part of your job: That I don’t have a big boss. [Laughs.] The best part of what I do is the compliments and feedback from people around the world. I once received a video from a guy in America who proposed to his girlfriend using my hummus ring. It was one of the most wonderful moments I’ve ever had.

Most challenging part of your job: Creating miniature versions of very specific dishes. I always ask my customers to find images of the items they want me to create.

Do you display miniature art in your home? I keep a few items for myself, but most of my creations are made for sale.

What’s your work schedule like? I try my best to work every day, kind of like a nine-to-five job. It’s hard, because sometimes I don’t feel inspired enough to work on new pieces – and when I force myself to work, I’m not happy with the results.

Speciality dessert: Pies and tarts, and especially all lemon desserts. I love to blend sweet and sour flavors together. I also like all kinds of chocolate in any variation, shape, and state.

Dream job as a kid: I always thought I’d be an actor.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Always accept a challenge, and never give up on a task. But don’t force yourself to do things that you’re not comfortable with.

Check out hundreds of photos of Shay’s work on FacebookEtsy, and Flickr. You can also follow him on Twitter at @shayaaron.

Click here for more Foodie Fridays, like the co-founder of Crumbs Bake Shop and creative director at Dylan’s Candy Bar.

All photos courtesy of Shay Aaron.

Foodie Friday: The Food Chemist

"It's so gratifying to go into a grocery store and see something you’ve been working on for the last year," says Supriya Varma, a senior scientist at Frito-Lay.

Traditionally, food and science and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. But the combination comes naturally for Supriya Varma, the senior scientist at Frito-Lay. Varma uses science and technology on a daily basis to help develop processed food products like southwest enchilada black bean dip.

Many people think the job is “like home ec,” Varma says, which is a misconception. In addition to seeing products through from conception to execution, food scientists are responsible for ensuring that astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in the most compact way possible. (Every gram sent into space costs $10,000!)

After moving to the U.S. from India to complete her Ph.D., Varma pursued a career in food chemistry, a field offering much growth. As she points out, people love to eat – so the industry is very stable. Here, Varma discusses reducing enzyme activity to preserve a product’s shelf life, her views on genetically modified munchies, and her love of plain old Lay’s potato chips.

Age: 33
Graduated from: Rutgers University with a Ph.D.
Has held the position for: 3 years
Previous jobs: Formulated health drinks at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals Limited in India

In a sentence or two, what do you do all day? I generate ideas for new products, build prototypes, and work with consumer insights to get a sense of what customers want. I’m involved from design to execution of new products.

Frito-Lay Southwest Enchilada Black Bean Dip. Photo: fritolay.com

What products? All different dips. We launched a Southwest Enchilada Black Bean Dip a few years ago, and recently launched a spicy nacho cheese one. We also do single-serve dips to go.

Emerging trends in the food industry: Ethnic flavors and hot, spicy products – like Mexican and Latin flavors. Lots of consumers nowadays like those flavors in the form of snacks and drinks, which is a change from what we’ve seen in the past. Consumers used to be very intimidated by new flavors.

Advances you hope to see in the field: While consumers are experimenting with new flavors, it’s still not in a big way. For example, they want to see all different kinds of ice cream, but in the end, they still lean toward the vanilla or strawberry.

So creating innovative new products is a big risk for sizeable companies like Frito-Lay. Yes. Sometimes, we’ll see products come and go, and it took a huge amount of time and effort to have it hit the market in the first place. But there’s hope; many years ago, people barely knew about sushi, and now you see tons of sushi places across all cities, and even in grocery stores.

True, but much of that sushi is not true to form. That’s another thing that concerns me about the food industry: it’s important that products stick to their true roots and are not diluted too far away. You want to give an authentic experience to consumers.

Misconception you’d like to change: People think all processed food is unhealthy, but it’s not.

How do people respond when you tell them what you do? Some say, “Oh, I was never sure how we were getting tomato ketchup on the shelves.” People in my field are the ones making sure astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in a compact way, since every gram you send to space costs $10,000.

Best part of your job: I get to eat all day, but that’s good and bad. [Laughs.] You’re ahead of trends and get to see products in their entirety, ideas coming to life. It’s very gratifying to go to a store and see something you’ve been working on for the last year.

Photo: accessexcellence.org

Something people don’t know about your job: A lot of people think being a food scientist is home ec[onomics] or learning how to cook, but it’s not. It’s looking at food in a scientific way, and making sure the eating experience is the same whether you buy a product at a 7-Eleven on the road or at a large grocery store.

How to you apply science in your job? It helps us understand how the products are impacted over time – in other words, its shelf life. If ingredients have lots of enzymes that can degrade the product, we figure out how to limit the activity of those enzymes. We work very closely with engineers and packaging folks.

Your required reading: Food Chemistry by Owen Fennema. It’s the bible for food chemistry.

Views on genetically modified food: It’s tricky. You want to make sure that the good attributes of food products are maintained and that they don’t have harmful effects. You see things like onions that don’t make you cry and huge cloves of garlic, but it’s important that the overall attributes – flavor, texture, and appearance – remain the same.

Do you have any weird eating habits? I enjoy new cuisines and lots of quick, easy cooking – like frozen veggies, meats, and instant meals. I use them as building blocks and then customize those frozen products. I don’t have time to make elaborate meals.

How have advancements in technology changed your job? We’re now able to store perishable crops without them getting damaged, which in turn makes raw material more readily available. Ingredients that were previously just seasonal are now available throughout the whole year.

Lay's classic potato chips. Photo: fritolay.com

Favorite Frito-Lay product: Traditional Lay’s chips.

Dream job in college: I love animals, so probably working as a vet or at a shelter.

Foodie idol: I don’t really have one. I do like The Food Network’s Alton Brown, though. He demystifies our industry and bridges the gap between culinary and food science.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Supriya Varma offers advice for aspiring food chemists: Put in the time to understand the basic science behind the job; you need to like getting your hands dirty. A science background is highly recommended, if not required, since the job ultimately boils down to chemistry and what’s happening to products as they’re getting processed.

Hungry for more? Click here for more Foodie Fridays on No Joe Schmo, including a pizza chef and kimchi taco truck worker.