By Alexandra Alter
April 13, 2011 – You’ve probably tasted Marie Wright’s work, though she’d never admit it. Ms. Wright has created more than 1,000 flavors 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 flavors and aromas in the New Jersey laboratory of International Flavors & Fragrances.
Like most flavorists, she’s cagey when asked about the brands she creates flavors for. “Perfumers need adoration,” said Ms. Wright, a flavorist at International Flavors and Fragrances, who declined to divulge her age. “Flavorists’ 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 flavor. “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 flavoring.
Most flavorists specialize in sweet, savory or beverage flavors. 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 flavor analyst, then as a flavor trainee. The first few years were a slog. “When you start making flavors, you’d make something 20 times before you had anything remotely good,” she said. Now, after 10 years at IFF, she can build a flavor in 20 minutes, often from memory.
Knowing that she can whip up a flavor on the fly has given her the confidence to experiment and think freely about flavors, she said. Building a formula in her head is a bit like painting an image. Each ingredient works like a color, distinct but malleable when combined with other elements. “Let’s imagine I had to make the flavor of basmati rice. I smell it. I visualize that smell in colors—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.
Ms. Wright keeps her laboratory cheerful with paintings of sunflowers and butterflies. “I hate the typical lab look,” she said. One wall teems with thousands of brown apothecary bottles filled with raw materials. The opposite wall holds a chaotic buffet of finished flavors like prosciutto, three varieties of bacon, four different nacho-spice flavors and cake batter.
It can be disconcerting to smell blends of chemical compounds that so perfectly evoke flavors as specific as Asiago cheese and Bartlett pear. Ms. Wright notes that some of her creations, like cheddar-flavored string cheese for kids, are supposed to taste a little fake. (In fact, she rejected one version of the cheddar string cheese because it tasted “too authentic.”) But other flavors are so subtle as to be undetectable, serving as enhancers rather than cartoonish mimics.
Ms. Wright begins more challenging projects by mulling over which ingredients she’ll use and what kind of emotional and psychological impact she wants the flavor to have. She considers possibilities while running or swimming laps, and likes to think about a flavor for roughly 12 hours before working up a formula.
Sometimes she gets ideas from cutting-edge restaurants such as the Fat Duck, which incorporates smell and sound into the food presentation. She’s detected an unusual flavor note while tasting wine. Some ideas grow out of conversations with perfumers. After one mentioned that a chocolate scent could be complimented by animal notes, she tried blending musk into dark chocolate.
After lunch, Ms. Wright wandered into the dairy lab to try different versions of her cheddar string cheese. The first was too buttery; the second, too pungent. The third and fourth passed muster. “Good impact,” she said. “Probably about the right dosage.”
• Synthesizing flavors requires the precision of a chemist and the palette of a chef. A standard strawberry flavor consists of about 25 different ingredients; a more complex flavor may have 60 or more. A flavorist knows not only the right combinations but the precise potency. The molecule Oct-2-en-4-one is fishy and unpleasant in concentrated form, but at the right dosage—0.001%—it tastes and smells like strawberry jam.
• Marie Wright aims for more than verisimilitude. “It’s not really good enough to be a strawberry flavor,” she said. “You’ve got to have some complexity.” She is most proud of her Bartlett pear, which delivers not only the exact flavor but the texture of a ripe, juicy pear.
• Scents “have personalities,” Ms. Wright said, sniffing a paper strip soaked in isoamyl acetate, which, on a first whiff, smells like nail-polish remover but quickly morphs into bubble gum and pear. “To me, this one is very happy.” She douses another strip in eugenol, which smells of cloves. “It should make you feel afraid,” she says, noting that the scent is present in dentists’ offices.
• To make a cheddar cheese flavor for string cheese, Ms. Wright used oleic acid, reminiscent of animal fat; capric acid, which smells like candle wax; indole, found in orange-flower scent; methional, a potato-like smell; and a hint of butyric acid, which “smells of vomit.” “But it’s critical,” Ms. Wright adds.