Professional Chefs: Consider a Career in Food Science
Food science is an industry full of exciting food creations and discoveries that make up a rewarding career. Not limited to scientific minds, the world of food science welcomes people with professional cooking backgrounds, too.
Interested in what it’s like to be a food scientist? We spoke with food scientist Aaron Tiesel about life on the job, the benefits you can look forward to and how to break into this fascinating field.
What does a food scientist do?
A food scientist determines the taste and stability of foods — both for restaurants and long-term shelf life. They work on diverse projects that involve creating a variety of food formulas and a lot of hands-on cooking when they’re first starting out.
“Since entering food science early this year, I've worked on salad dressings, vinaigrettes, ice cream and with plant-based proteins to create meat substitutes. I’ve worked with a food chemist to develop keto desserts using an artificial sweetener, and with a team to remove artificial ingredients to make them ‘clean label,’” says Aaron.
As a food scientist, you also get to do research and perform diagnostic tests in a lab, such as PH tests, viscosity tests and microscopy, where you place a food sample under a microscope to see how starch molecules hold up after cycles of freezing and reheating.
The benefits of being a food scientist
In addition to “playing with food,” food science comes with several incentives.
As a former professional chef, Aaron welcomes a more relaxed work environment: “Most days, it’s lower-pressure and slower-paced than being in the kitchen. Even the most rushed projects feel more laid back compared to a restaurant’s dinner or lunch rush. And it doesn’t take as much of a physical toll.”
This field also offers better hours, better pay, benefits and more career opportunities than in the restaurant world.
“You can join helpful organizations, such as the Research Chefs Association or the Institute of Food Technologists, where it's easy to network with other food scientists who have diverse expertise. Plus, depending on who you work for, you can travel to conferences to learn more about the industry and how to grow in this role,” says Aaron.
Many paths lead to food science
Though you don’t need a professional cooking background for this role, it’s important to earn a bachelor’s degree in food science or culinology, a combination of food science and culinary arts. If you have an aptitude for hard science, a graduate degree in food science helps you advance even further.
The Research Chefs Association offers programs for certification as a research chef or food scientist, along with internships that help you determine if food science is right for you.
“I also know of some people who worked professionally in kitchens and then, through networking, stumbled upon positions as product developers or corporate chefs,” says Aaron. “Being a product developer aligns with being a food scientist because you have to understand shelf life, pH and the scientific processes of cooking and food.”
Skills for scientific success
When it comes to the skills you need to be successful, know the basics of cooking. Be able to handle yourself in a kitchen and use a knife without cutting yourself. It’s also beneficial to be proficient in Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint because you have to give presentations outside of the lab.
Don’t worry if you have little experience with scientific equipment. On-the-job training typically involves learning how to use a microscope, related computer software and other lab equipment.
Aaron also advises: “Develop a solid understanding of general chemistry and organic chemistry. Become familiar with cooking, even if it’s just cooking on the weekends at home. Buy a copy of Jacques Pépin's book, La Technique, or Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking to learn solid fundamentals and save yourself a culinary school tuition.”
But food science isn’t all technical skills. Having thick skin is important, too. You’re bound to make mistakes during the learning curve, and it helps to keep an open and patient mind throughout the challenges.
Contract work can pave the way
Contract work is a smart way to break into food science because it gives you and an organization the chance to determine compatibility. And Aerotek helps make the process easier by connecting you to available jobs packed with the most potential — and scientific intrigue.