PORTLAND — 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.
Here in Oregon, there is a fair chance the inspiration was Sarah Masoni, a university laboratory manager with a less than lyrical title: 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. 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 specialty in dairy products.
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 center of attention, 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 Masoni, 54, honed her talents while working behind the scenes within big organizations: She graded cheese for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, built better Gardenburgers and worked in the main General Mills research center.
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 programs at universities like Rutgers and Louisiana State. With 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.
While every client pays the same hourly rate set by the university, Masoni gives smaller producers attention through one-hour consulting sessions. They leave with resources and to-dos, she said, and a request to report back once those have been completed.
“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 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.
Her most recent projects include tasting notes for cheese curds from the new TMK Creamery in Canby; helping a Japanese company produce four fruit flavors of a fermented egg-white drink called Eggurt and developing a cookbook for Oregon’s specialty crops.
You won’t find her name on the package of any product, Masoni said. “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 flavors (pear and blue cheese, strawberry with honey-balsamic vinegar and black pepper) and around-the-block lines wouldn’t exist without Masoni.
“She has the uncommon combination of being brilliant and completely disarming,” said Malek, a former corporate marketer who revealed her dream to run a scoop shop over a meal at the Dockside Saloon.
Working with Malek on the weekends, Masoni developed Salt & Straw’s founding flavors, secured connections with local dairies and helped produce the first retail batches in the center’s incubator. She then took the company’s younger co-owner, Malek’s cousin Tyler Malek, “under her wing,” said Malek, so he could become a skilled ice-cream maker on his own.
What was most impressive, Malek said, is Masoni could go directly from blue-sky brainstorming — “this is the spirit of flavors and what we want to be about” — to pitch-perfect recipes for ice creams that have become nationally known.
“She’s an evil genius,” Malek said. “In a good way.”