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A tastemaker in her flavour factory

They’re not chefs, but flavourists’ work quietly features in many of the foods we eat. Part Willy Wonka, part chemist, they cook up flavours and aromas in the labs of many flavour houses. Synthesizing flavours requires the precision of a chemist and the palette of a chef. For instance, a standard strawberry flavour consists of about 25 different ingredients; a more complex flavour may have 60 or more. A flavourist knows not only the right combinations but the precise potency… This is an interesting take on the job of a leading IFF flavourist in the US.

YOU’VE PROBABLY TASTED Marie Wright’s work, though she’d never admit it. Ms Wright has created more than 1,000 flavours for major food and beverage companies, including bourbon vanilla for coffee beans, apple-peach for cookies and rosemary and garlic for crackers.

She’s not a chef, but Marie Wright’s work is quietly featured in many of the foods we eat. Part Willy Wonka, part chemist, she cooks up flavours and aromas in the New Jersey laboratory of International Flavours & Fragrances.

Like most flavourists, she’s cagey when asked about the brands she creates flavours for. “Perfumers need adoration,” said Ms. Wright, “flavourists’ egos are a little different.”

On a recent morning, Ms. Wright dashed around IFF’s New Jersey laboratory dressed in black lace tights, a butterfly-print dress, high-heel ankle boots and a white lab coat. A colleague stopped her to ask about a lobster flavour. “It’s 700 times too strong,” she said. “Cut it with triacetin.” She popped into the confection laboratory, where a technician rolled sheets of spearmint gum, to drop off bottles of raspberry and apple flavouring.

Most flavourists specialise in sweet, savoury or beverage flavours. Ms. Wright does all three, often in a single day. She finds that the challenge provided by the variety works to her advantage. “I have that attention-deficiency problem,” she said. “If things all get the same, I become lazy.”

Ms. Wright, who grew up in a village in England, excelled at chemistry as a child and was obsessed with food and fragrance. After getting a degree in chemistry and food science at King’s College London, she found work as a flavour analyst, then as a flavour trainee. The first few years were a slog. “When you start making flavours, you’d make something 20 times before you had anything remotely good,” she said. Now, after 10 years at IFF, she can build a flavour in 20 minutes, often from memory.

Knowing that she can whip up a flavour on the fly has given her the confidence to experiment and think freely about flavours, she said. Building a formula in her head is a bit like painting an image. Each ingredient works like a colour, distinct but malleable when combined with other elements. “Let’s imagine I had to make the flavour of basmati rice. I smell it. I visualize that smell in colours — brown, tan, smooth cream — and textures,” she said.

She keeps a mental catalogue of the roughly 4,000 compounds, oils and extracts she works with. She mentally maps the molecules according to their chemical structure and molecular weight. For example, among a class of compounds known as aliphatic esters, ethyl acetate has a fruity, rummy smell. Add a few carbon and hydrogen atoms and you get ethyl hexanoate, which has a pineapple smell….

The Wall Street Journal: Read more

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