Careers in hospitality – a new series
There are numerous different roles in hospitality, which is why the Craft Guild of Chefs is launching a new series exploring them and how some of our members have trained to secure their current position.
The hope is very much that it will be informative for new chefs entering the industry or for those looking to retrain.
Sensory Scientist (Professional Food Taster and Food Flavour developer)
Matt Owens, Vice Chairman Craft Guild of Chefs
Key job attributes
• Follow and set food trends
• Must have excellent sense of taste and smell
• A good all-round knowledge and understanding of food, flavour and texture is essential to the role.
• Need a clean lifestyle to ensure a clean palate. Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, spicy and strong flavours inhibit the capability to precisely identify flavours and should be avoided if possible. It takes around 24 hours to recover and clean the palate from very spicy food
Q: As a professional food taster and food flavour developer what ingredients/ products/dishes have you worked on?
Matt Owens: As a flavour developer for one of the top five flavour providers in the world, I’ve worked with some of the biggest household names, from biscuits to stocks.
Sensory scientists, which is what flavour developers are, work in parallel with food tasters and the job uses many of the same skill sets. I do a lot of food tasting too, but my role usually comes earlier in the process than that of a traditional food taster. In my work, they usually get bought in at the later stages of the process to independently test the final product before it goes to market.
The job involves developing flavours for concepts and ranges. I both follow and help set food trends. Two such trends which stand out right now are nostalgia and wellbeing. I’ve been working on incorporating both flavour representations into food which is a fascinating process. For example, to represent wellbeing I’ve been experimenting with avocado, turmeric, and ginger and trying to work them into non-traditional products. The results have been quite exciting. It’s an intricate job and my focus is on developing the different flavour notes within a specific product.
Q: How did you become a professional food taster/food flavour developer? Do you need specific qualifications? How long have you been a professional food taster/food flavour developer?
Matt: I originally trained and worked as a chef. I now have more than 30 years’ experience which certainly helps, but even as a novice you can start establishing some good routines to train your palate.
A good all-round knowledge and understanding of food, flavour and texture is essential to the role. Palates can and should be trained, but you must start with an excellent sense of smell and taste.
It’s well documented that smell is actually the biggest sense for food tasting. Scientists argue over exactly how many, but we can taste up to ten flavours with our tongues – the central five being sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami. However, through smell we can identify many thousands of distinctive aromas, so having a sensitive sense of smell is critical to the job.
It’s a detailed and delicate job, I’m often faced with ten versions of the same flavour which each have just one tiny difference in flavour strengths. I consider all aspects of the flavour including taste, texture, swallowing experience, and aftertaste. It’s my job to identify which one of these near identical products is perfection.
Q: How would someone know they have the 'right' type of taste buds/ understanding of flavour to become a professional food taster?
Matt: Being able to pinpoint nuance and identify flavours within a product would be a good place to start. You can test yourself at home by seeing if you can correctly pick out the ingredients in any given product. Taste it blindfolded, write down what you think you can taste and check against the ingredient list. Once you start to master this you should then see if you can pick out more complex themes like roasted notes, or herby notes. You can also create your own tongue map to better understand how you experience taste. Using examples of the main flavours, caffeine for bitter, sugar for sweet, vinegar for sour etc you can test to see exactly where in your mouth you are sensitive to these flavours.
Q: For your job do you have to 'train' your tastebuds to pick up on certain flavours/subtleties? If so, is this something that anyone can do with enough practice at home?
Matt: You can train an unsophisticated palate, and I would recommend a holistic approach. It’s not just about your taste buds, you need to look after all of your sensory assets in order to be the best. I’ve spent years training and educating mine as well as keeping healthy which is essential to the job. I constantly seek out and taste perfection to ensure I can replicate it. It’s like learning a new language, it takes time, dedication and constant attention.
Taking a holistic approach is important because there are many lifestyle factors which impede the ability to be good at understanding flavour. Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, spicy and strong flavours inhibit the capability to precisely identify flavours. These are known as ‘inhibitor’ tastes, a good example would be a hot chilli or a cooling menthol gel. If a person regularly has a lot of these, they become desensitised to them and other flavours, and this in turn impairs their talent to pick out more sensitive notes. A clean lifestyle and clean palate go hand in hand as a necessary part of the role when looking for perfection.
Q: Are there certain foods/drinks which are easier to learn to appreciate and some which you just shouldn't bother trying to learn to love if you don't already?
Matt: There are lots of flavour notes which most people would be able to recognise such as smokey, roasted, herby or burnt. However, it’s to what degree they can accurately be pinpointed which is what makes a good flavour developer stand out. The umami flavours, more commonly known as savoury flavours, are found in broths or cooked meats and are a hot trend right now. I think they are one of the more complex tastes to understand and work with.
Q: Are there any foods you don't like? If so why? Where do you stand on 'love 'em or hate 'em' products like marmite or parma violets?
Matt: It’s my job to appreciate all flavours so I don’t have too many foods I don’t like. If I had to pick one it would be excessively fatty foods or fatty tastes, as the fat hides other flavours. This is especially true in products where cheaper fats are used as it clags the palate. For me, that is just not enjoyable, but you have to put personal preferences aside in my job and fully embrace the products you are developing flavour for.
Alongside fatty foods, excessively spicy food can work in the same way, masking the wonderful flavours underneath. It also takes around 24 hours to recover and clean the palate from very spicy food, which isn’t ideal in my job so I try to reserve these dishes for special treats.
I admit to loving marmite, but I’m not too keen on floral tastes so I’m not particularly a fan of say parma violets, although they have their place in the food flavour wheel.
Q: What are your favourite type of foods?
Matt: As I have a palate which is trained to be extremely sensitive to flavour, I prefer clean and fresh flavours for my own food. The simplicity of Greek food is very appealing due to its citric and uncomplicated flavour base. Perfection for me is a dish which is made from good quality ingredients, is clean in taste, and with nothing masking the flavours of the ingredients.
If you’d like to be considered for a future focus, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, where you work and your job role.