Most makers of fancy food like to supply a romantic story behind the birth of their triple-berry jam or new ice cream flavor. Maybe it was Grandma’s recipe, or a life-changing trip to Vietnam.
In Oregon, USA, there's a fair chance that the inspiration was Sarah Masoni, a university laboratory manager with a title that is less than lyrical: director of the product development and process program at the Food Innovation Center of Oregon State University.
Masoni is not a trained chef, a food scientist or even a typical food fanatic, though she can master most recipes and identify rancid ingredients with a single sniff.
Rather, she is a professional food designer — skilled in building flavors and textures, versed in arcana like the aftertastes of alternative sweeteners and the umami of dried yeasts.
Her sense of taste is so keen that one client, Chris Spencer of UpStar ice cream, says she has “the million-dollar palate.”
Masoni, 54, honed her talents while working behind the scenes within big organizations.
She has graded cheese for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, built better Gardenburgers and spent a summer working in the main General Mills research center in Golden Valley, Minnesota, just across the Mississippi River from her hometown, St. Paul.
Now she works as the “wizard of Oz behind the curtain,” as she put it, for paying companies large and small.
“She probably touches more companies than anyone else I’ve worked with,” said Ron Tanner, a vice president of the Specialty Food Association, which flies Masoni to New York each year to judge the awards for its annual Fancy Food Shows.
“Every store in Portland, you would see stuff that I’ve worked on,” said Masoni, whose successes include Bob’s Red Mill oatmeal cups; Chedz cheese straws; Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters; Choi’s kimchi; and ice cream sandwiches from Ruby Jewel, which started in the center’s incubator kitchen for new entrepreneurs and now has a 10,000-square-foot factory.
Her most recent projects include writing tasting notes for cheese curds from the new TMK Creamery in Canby, Oregon; helping a Japanese company produce and package four fruit flavors of a fermented egg-white drink called Eggurt; developing a cookbook for Oregon’s specialty crops; and visiting supermarkets to help client companies come up with new uses for seaweed and dehydrated vegetable powders.
You won’t find her name on the package of any product, Masoni said, but she is fine with that. “It’s really my job to help people make their dreams come true,” says Masoni.