What Makes a Food Scientist or a Chef?

WHAT Makes a Food Scientist or a Chef 2013 Food Trends FEATURE

Many trends were discussed during presentations, on the exhibit floor and during social events at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologist (IFT) convention held June in Chicago.  Hot topics of conversation included how to increase interest in food science careers and also who can lay claim to being a food scientist. I consider myself a food scientist. I earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s Food Science & Nutrition Department, spent a number of years in R&D and QC with food processors and then moved to publishing where I wrote primarily about ingredient technology.

Colleges and universities tend to graduate far more students with home economics/human ecology or nutrition degrees than they do formally degreed food scientists…sometimes in the order of five or 10 to one. Food science degrees are less favored, despite often resulting in higher paid jobs.  One simple reason was offered by a food science professor who asked then answered his own question. “Why aren’t there more food scientists? …because it’s HARD!” (I’ll comment more about food science degrees in a bit.)

I tried to think of similar careers where some try to claim a desirable title while skipping the time, money and hard work required to be truly competent and qualified in the area. There are many, but another food-related title comes to mind…that of “chef.”

The first definition of a chef as offered by Merriam-Webster is simply a “skilled cook who manages a kitchen (as of a restaurant).”  That doesn’t differentiate between a fry cook with a year of experience and those highly trained and experienced chefs with entrenched careers in the area. I turned to Chef Michael Formichella, CMC, Chella Foods, and asked “how hard is it to become a chef?”

On Being a Chef

“To be honest it took me 20 years before I was accomplished enough to feel comfortable calling myself a chef,” says Formichella. A chef needs to be competent at responsibilities ranging from ordering meats, produce and other foodstuff, menu engineering, preparing simultaneously a large number of meals, managing a staff and dealing with high pressure situations. In addition, the ability to creative, sensory-pleasing dishes is central.

Formichella lectures often and notes that many aspire to be celebrity chefs earning $25,000 to $50,000 per event. However, “They are not prepared to spend two years of their lives in an accredited program only to come out and start ‘at the bottom of the pile.’  One then must go through the due diligence of being a line cook, butcher, sous chef, kitchen manager and so on, which allows you to learn your skill set,” says Formichella.  Formichella himself has a 40-year, multi-continent culinary career including working in 5-star restaurants.

“Last but not least, Formichella’s CMC (Certified Master Chef) certification from New Zealand not only provided a solid educational foundation, but gave him credibility. It attested to his intention to have a culinary career rather than “just something to do until he could ‘find a real job.’”

On Being a Food Scientist

Is the field of food scientist similar? When talking with friends during this year’s IFT, an undercurrent of frustration seemed to exist. One ingredient application scientist said “Just because you take classes in nutrition or biology and then a ‘food science for non-food scientists’ class, does not make you a food scientist.”  Another high profile and accomplished PhD from the University of Florida’s Food Science program laughed at the comment that a food science degree is hard. “Yes!” she exclaimed. When working on her own degree, she had been worried that she wouldn’t pass a required class in physical chemistry (“fondly” called PChem* in many fields), she was advised to audit it first and then take it again as a graded course.

Engineering, chemistry (organic, analytical, biochemistry anyone?), microbiology, physics and experimental design with statistics are just some of the courses required, particularly for advanced food science degrees. Food science programs also generally include more focused classes such as food engineering, “physical chemistry of foods” and nutrition. It doesn’t come easily.

When all is said and done, however, perhaps a key characteristic that well-qualified food scientists and chefs have in common is this. After a foundation of training, hard work and commitment; a life-long satisfactory career is the reward.

* Wikipedia definition:  ”Physical chemistry is the study of macroscopic, atomic, subatomic, and particulate phenomena in chemical systems in terms of laws and concepts of physics.”

— Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell, Co-owner, Global Food Forums, Inc.