June 20, 2019

Culinary Science and Food Science are Not the Same

CIA Culinary Science class in the laboratory in Colavita.

What ties together the winner of a prestigious national culinary competition, the director of R&D for a large food company, and the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) coordinator for an award-winning restaurant? The answer is culinary science. And there are important differences between culinary science and food science that you should know about.

A lot of colleges—especially ag-tech universities—offer food science programs. Those programs often involve taking agricultural commodities and safely and efficiently processing them. Food scientists rarely, if ever, get into a kitchen. “In a food science lab, you’re not cooking or baking as you would in culinary science,” says Ted Russin, acting dean of the School of Culinary Science and Nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America.

The bachelor’s degree major in culinary science at the CIA is a unique program building on two years of culinary and baking and pastry arts education with four more semesters of hands-on cooking—from a scientific point-of-view. Says Russin: “We approach the science of food through what happens in the kitchen and bakeshop, which is fundamentally different from traditional food science programs.”

What is Culinary Science and What Separates it from Food Science?

While it may be somewhat difficult to define, culinary science, according to Russin, is the ability to know that food is more than just food and to have the tools to ask questions and find the answers to them. And if you can’t find the answers, he adds, at least you know how to create an experiment to learn something new.

“What I want to do with food is to make sure I get good food to a lot of people who need it,” says Jehan Luth, a 2016 CIA culinary science graduate from Nashik, India. “The ‘lot of people’ component is a science degree. And the ‘good food’ is the culinary arts associate degree. Combined, they give me the skills to get a lot of good food to a lot of people.”

Dean Russin, who has both a food science and culinary background, says culinary science graduates have a broader understanding of how foods behave. “In contrast to a food science grad, the culinary science training at the CIA involves making food from whole ingredients and using traditional techniques—effectively developing the skills to identify and prepare the gold standard. On this foundation, we then move into the science of foods and advanced techniques and processes. Our students can roast a chicken from scratch and work with flavor houses to develop a chicken flavored product. The culinary scientist can utilize both approaches to create the most delicious product possible.”

Students in the Culinary Science program presenting their thesis at The Egg on the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park campus. Culinary Science student Brianna A. Benson.

Both culinary scientists and food scientists may end up developing new food products while working in R&D divisions of large food companies. For culinary scientists, the combination of hands-on kitchen experience and scientific knowledge is central to creatively inventing new food experiences, according to Russin. “Students learn about topics such as food chemistry, heat transfer, and microbial ecology, and we encourage them to eat their scientific experiments—something not always possible in a food science laboratory,” he says. This unique experimental approach is particularly valuable when it comes to the practical art and science of food product research and development, where arguably the most important feature is how the product actually tastes.

Becoming a Better Chef

Product development is far from the only career path culinary science graduates follow. With a culinary science degree in hand, you can do anything. Ian Cairns ’15 won the 2018 Ment’or Young Chef competition as the best young chef in America. Russin predicts Cairns will one day be earning stars in the Michelin Guide as an executive chef.

“Culinary science looks under the hood of the cooking process,” says CIA Culinary Science Professor Jonathan Zearfoss. “The best restaurants in the world are making the best food using culinary science.”

The culinary science major makes you a better chef by introducing you to different and new techniques. It helps develop your palate better while exposing you to contemporary processes and equipment such as sous vide cooking, fermentation, and controlled vapor ovens that allow you to have more precision in what you’re doing.

“The culinary science program is interdisciplinary and it involves physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and engineering,” Russin says. “No longer are you just looking at a nice cut of meat on a plate. You’re looking at it saying, ‘It’s got a certain amount of water, a certain amount of fat. It has to get to a specific internal temperature. There are five different ways I could potentially cook it and I know what these five ways are going to look like.’ The palate and tool kit are expanded because you have a deeper understanding of what will happen—predictably and consistently.”

Chef Luis Arufat from The Basque Culinary Center and the restaurant elBulli giving a lecture and demonstration to CIA Culinary Science students in the Culinary Science Lab.

Access to Twice the Knowledge

One distinctive aspect of the culinary science curriculum at the CIA is that many classes are taught by both a chef and a scientist. The “CulSci” kitchen/lab is the place where science and cooking overlap and the two professors can work together to describe both the scientific and culinary aspects of a phenomenon students are observing.

“We provide our students with saddlebags of deeper knowledge that they can reach into in the environments in which they find themselves,” says Russin. “Graduates earn higher salaries because they are bringing both their cooking and science saddlebags to the job.”

Russin says starting pay for graduates of the program averages in the $50,000–$60,000 range.

“You can do whatever you want,” Russin says about the many career options with a culinary science degree. “If you want to be a chef, you will have the tools to do that and you’ll be an amazing chef. If you want to do product development, you will have the tools to do that. You are not limited. I’m excited about the future of our culinary science alumni. We’re going to have grads who will be vice presidents of research and development and Michelin-starred chefs.”