Use it or Lose it: Building a Skill in Flavor Creation

May 30, 2019

By Terry Miesle, Senior Flavorist

Use it or lose it. This is true in most aspects of life. Whether sports, language, arts, music, computer coding or any other skill, you need to practice if you want to keep your chops. It’s important to refresh and reinforce the basics to the point they’re second nature. Then keep doing it. I’ve found that the same is true in flavor creation.

Flavorists progress through a career, just like most other professions. When we’re new in the field we don’t know a lot. It’s an apprenticeship model. For seven years, we learn from mentors and colleagues. Part of this is the practice of evaluating raw materials and discussing how to describe and use them. These components can be extracts, oils, flavor molecules, herbs and spices or anything else we use to flavor foods. We then learn the components of these extracts and foods. This allows for creative and novel use.

Building a language

Building that language in our brains feels exactly the same as learning a foreign language. These aromas and tastes have meaning to us, but needs an independent verbal language so we can communicate to one another. The younger trainees are typically responsible for presenting compounds to a group under the guidance of a more senior flavorist. Often these sessions will reinforce the vocabulary of flavors – the families of compounds, families of herbs, similar groups of botanical materials and so forth. This exercise should begin to make sense pretty quickly in a training regime.

This is also why it’s very difficult for someone to teach themselves this profession. Not only is it a matter of access to these very specialized ingredients, but it's a matter of access to knowledge and experience. Often a training session will lead to stories of former colleagues and projects. That’s how memory works, our sense of smell is very closely tied to memory. We learn language from each other, and without that access it’s very difficult to learn. Think of trying to learn Korean or Sanskrit via a book instead of a class or person.

Feedback is valuable

If you visit a flavor vendor and see a flavorist staff at a table sniffing strips of paper and tasting items -- this is what they are doing. We’re using our learned skill so we keep it finely tuned. Teaching and learning are simultaneous, and require consistent reinforcement. No one learns it all, and no one has the equivalent of “perfect pitch” for smell and taste. My advice to product developers working with flavorists – tell them what you’re experiencing. Give feedback, and be as detailed as you can. Ask your flavor partners if, like FONA, they supply descriptor training. It’s very useful to hear opinions and observations, and to speak in the same language. All of this helps your flavor creation team serve you better, and so we can incorporate them it all into our own perceptions.

About Terry

Terry Miesle is a Senior Flavorist with more than 25 years in the industry, with a particular specialty in reaction flavors.savory profiles. He is a certified member of the Society of Flavor Chemists since 2001. In his free time, Terry is active in local nature conservation. He is a Field Monitor and advocate for native bees and other insects. Terry has a growing collection of accessories for his Weber Grill, and enjoys trading tips and recipes.