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Meet 'the million-dollar palate' behind a flood of new foods

Sarah Masoni, a professional food designer, is skilled in building flavours and textures.

A class working on a soup recipe at the Food Innovation Center in Portland, Oregon.

Ms Masoni can master most recipes and identify rancid ingredients with a single sniff.

Portland, Oregon

MOST makers of fancy food like to supply a romantic story behind the birth of their triple-berry jam or new ice-cream flavour. Maybe it was Grandma's recipe, or a life-changing trip to Vietnam.

Here in Oregon, there is 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 programme at the Food Innovation Center of Oregon State University.

Ms 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 flavours and textures, versed in arcana like the aftertastes of alternative sweeteners and the umami of dried yeasts. She has a foot in the worlds of food safety, processing and packaging, and supermarket shelf stability. A student of food trends and innovations, she is also a sought-after judge, with a speciality in dairy products.

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Her sense of taste is so keen that one client, Chris Spencer of UpStar ice cream, says she has "the million-dollar palate".

Remarkably, it comes without a million-dollar attitude. Rarely the centre of attention, Ms Masoni has a down-to-earth, slightly nerdy charm, like the shy kid in class who surprises you with her witty insights.

That may be because Ms Masoni, 54, honed her talents while working behind the scenes within big organisations: she has graded cheese for the US Department of Agriculture, built better Gardenburgers and spent a summer working in the main General Mills research centre 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.

The Food Innovation Center, a multidisciplinary partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, is one of several similar extension programmes at universities like Rutgers and Louisiana State. With Ms Masoni's help, Oregon's is extremely successful, luring not just food makers and farmers from the Northwest, but also international conglomerates that keep their work there hush-hush.

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 flavours of a fermented egg-white drink called Eggurt; developing a cookbook for Oregon's speciality 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, Ms Masoni said, but she is fine with that. "It's really my job to help people make their dreams come true."

That's what she did for Kim Malek, the founder and an owner of Salt & Straw, an ice-cream chain whose experimental flavours (pear and blue cheese, strawberry with honey-balsamic vinegar and black pepper) and around-the-block lines wouldn't exist without Ms Masoni.

"She has the uncommon combination of being brilliant and completely disarming," said Ms Malek, a former corporate marketer who revealed her dream to run a scoop shop over a meal at the Dockside Saloon, the Portland dive where Ms Masoni likes to take clients. (Ms Masoni enjoys the hash browns, and the restaurant's role in the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal: key evidence was found in its dumpster.)

Working with Ms Malek on the weekends, Ms Masoni developed Salt & Straw's founding flavours, secured connections with local dairies and helped produce the first retail batches in the centre's incubator. She then took the company's younger co-owner, Ms Malek's cousin Tyler Malek, "under her wing", said Ms Malek, so he could become a skilled ice-cream maker on his own.

What was most impressive, Ms Malek said, is that Ms Masoni could go directly from blue-sky brainstorming - "this is the spirit of flavours and what we want to be about" - to pitch-perfect recipes for ice creams that have become nationally known. "She's an evil genius," Ms Malek said. "In a good way."

Ms Masoni has had a lifetime to accumulate expertise: her grandparents ran creameries on the West Coast, and her father, Edmund Zottola, was a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota who talked shop every night at dinner. He once took the family on European tour of dairies, where the young Ms Masoni stayed with the owners of the Laughing Cow processed-cheese company.

Her Proustian-madeleine moments reveal that food production was probably her path from the start: she recalls watching an episode of the 1960s sitcom That Girl when she was about five; a penniless Marlo Thomas made tomato soup at the Automat using only packets of ketchup and hot water.

("I was like: 'Woah, that is so cool!'") Other pivotal memories include the introduction of the Egg McMuffin in the 1970s and of the Hardee's cinnamon-raisin biscuit in the 1980s. Even then, she recognised that both breakfast items were breakthroughs.

Ms Masoni is one of only about 60 people in the country qualified to be technical judges, and one of the most honest with her feedback.

It's perhaps easier to be honest as an outsider, one of the advantages of working with many companies rather than running your own. NYTIMES

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