Culinary Science Degree Delves into Flavor

Kristen Loken, CIA

Many of us came independently to the idea of a culinary science bachelor’s degree. Those who later became members of the development team for the program had each separately arrived at the same conclusion: A bachelor’s degree in Culinary Science was the obvious next step in culinary education.

It’s not something entirely new to us; we had a single class based on comparative experiments in the 1980s and ’90s, built science into the college’s Culinary Fundamentals class, offered electives, and encouraged faculty to do more controlled experimentation to examine how food processes work.

We graduated our first students with this degree in May, and we really feel they have the potential to quickly make a difference in the industry. It’s a professional studies degree, not a science degree, so we stay true to our focus—the culinary aspect—and use science to teach our students a better understanding of what goes on under the hood in the kitchen and to be more scientifically literate culinarians. There’s a gap in foodservice in that many chefs don’t have a sound understanding of science and many food scientists don’t have a comprehensive understanding of flavor. Our students will be able to bridge that gap.

Each of the 10 classes has one chef and one scientist as an instructor, and every class has both a lecture and a kitchen-laboratory component. The program prepares graduates for careers in research and development and the upper tier of restaurants that employ the same kinds of systems and state-of-the-art technology as we do. Multi-unit operations could also benefit from our students’ ability to make dishes that are controllable and repeatable, which is significant for a restaurant that has multiple locations.

While science and food are the focuses, we preach an interdisciplinary approach and encourage students to embrace how other disciplines may inform what we do. A big focus of the program is how the consumer perceives and responds to flavor.

That is, we know flavor perception is not in the food; it’s in the brain. Everybody perceives tastes and flavors differently, and students learn sensory testing to investigate those perceptions. For example, our students learn how to execute tests to determine if a reduction in sodium is perceptible to the consumer. These students can also experiment with cost saving, by conducting a difference test, whose results will indicate whether a consumer will notice if you use a more cost-effective chocolate in a dessert, for example.

We also teach how to develop unique textures and work with precision temperatures, including sous-vide and control vapor technology. For one of their assignments, students were given a historical tragedy, like the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. They had to design a dish that could be cooked with all components in one sous-vide bag that could be fed to the survivors of that disaster, so they had to, of course, take into account ethnicity and religion and other similar factors. And they had to do it for a 50-cent food cost.

I think students, at times, are a little starry-eyed about the artistic aspect of working in a kitchen, and they don’t understand why systemization and inventory control are important. Really, those are the things that keep you in business. Systems and processes lead to satisfied customers. I come out of the pirate-ship era of kitchens: flames, loud noises, and yelling. I hope that’s the old school, and the new school is the efficient, clean, calm kitchen—more like a yacht than a pirate ship. I’m really looking forward to these culinary science students making a difference in the industry.

Chef Jonathan Zearfoss heads the culinary science bachelor’s degree and also helped develop the CIA’s advanced cooking curriculum. Previously he was assistant chef at the Trellis in Williamsburg, Virginia, and authored The Great Chefs of Virginia.

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