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Back to the Bench: Focusing on Flavorists’ Creativity

By: John Houtenville; reported by Jeb Gleason-Allured, Editor
Posted: December 7, 2009

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Henry Ford’s answer to procrastination was: “You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do.” Flavorists facing too many tasks over an extended period of time may fall into discouragement which can lead to sluggishness and procrastination; burn-out. Houtenville added, “The bench can easily become too full.” This complacency due to burnout can be a major pitfall for any busy flavorist. The issue isn’t always too much work; sometimes procrastination is born from disappointment. “Let’s say you lose a project,” said Houtenville. “You’re working on a project for a month, sending samples in, visiting the customer, and next thing you know—you’re out!” And in many cases the flavorist may never truly know why they lost. Was it political? Did the flavor come in a penny more per pound than the competition? “When you pour your all into it, it can get very discouraging,” Houtenville acknowledged.

One can lose heart when faced with several of these issues at once. At such times, Houtenville said, “Getting back to the bench becomes all the more critical. That’s one of the solutions to pop yourself out of it.”

Boosting Creativity

Most of what you learn is from somebody else, goes the old saying. In flavors, says Houtenville, “Teachability is critical. Are you willing to learn?” Resistance to this can manifest itself as defensiveness when challenged. “Especially when someone in your tasting session is overly enthusiastic to criticize your flavor efforts! Honestly, it distills down to our fear of what others think and our fear of failure,” he explained. “Those imbedded fears keep us from being teachable. Teachable moments often come from the most uncomfortable and humbling times. We can learn so much during those times if we are willing.”

Following the lead of John Maxwell’s Talent is Never Enough, Houtenville said, “We all have talent. Some of us are excellent flavorists, some of us are pretty good flavorists, some of us are learning to be great flavorists; wherever you’re at, talent isn’t enough. Integrity, courage, innovation and a positive attitude are essential as well.

He encouraged symposium attendees to renew their desire to discover. “It takes time and effort, like anything worthwhile,” he said. “Spend more time in the produce aisle. Smell things, taste them. Take notes.” This latter point is critical. Houtenville explained that he once tasted something that he hated, but which had a unique leathery note. If he’d written his impressions down he would be able to recall and pursued that train of thought at later date, perhaps it would have lead to a creative breakthrough. Instead, he said, the inspiration was lost. He added that flavorists should be repetitious. “Go back to the basics,” Houtenville said. “Renew your flavor ingredient cards or your personal, ingredient database” (He still has cards from 24 or more years ago.) And, he said, “Carve out the time to discover. Make it a habit. Be intentional, really work. On a weekly basis, get to the bench. Set aside everything; take a couple of hours a week and begin to “muscle-in” extra time. If you can get to the bench daily, that would be great. Be motivated to stay with it no matter what. Push through the dry spells. Make your tasting time routine. You need some focus time.” Houtenville encouraged managers to make such bench time a part of their flavorist’s annual objectives, as part of their annual review.

Know Your Materials

Ingredient knowledge is key, said Houtenville. Citing Frank Fischetti’s taste categories, he discussed character impact ingredients (materials that contribute the character component of a flavor such as benzaldehyde in cherry), contributory raw materials (those necessary to produce the desired flavor, but not essential to it; those that do not taste of the named flavor in and of themselves) and differential ingredients (those that are unique and offer complexity and signature; mustard oil in tropical flavors, for instance). Flavorists should also explore synergy among materials, combinations of ingredients in which 1 +1 = 3. These synergistic effects, Houtenville said, can be found by spending bench time. Finally, flavorists should be well versed in stability/solubility, cross-use, synthetic vs natural counterparts (what are the differences?), suppliers and availability, preparation and evaluation and dosage (ppm, not %).