What is a Professional Food Taster? The Interview with Bryan Murphy
What is a Professional Food Taster? The Interview With Bryan Murphy
It seems that the American palate is still familiar with only four responses to food: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Much of the rest of the world is acquainted with at least five. Why this should be I do not know. For answers, I contacted an entertainer in England named Bryan Murphy, who just happens to be a certified food taster and was kind enough to do this interview.
In his spare time, Mr. Murphy spent some days sampling foods for large corporations in England. When I talked to him about being a professional food taster - this was when I found out about this fifth response to food. In fact, I had contacted him awhile back when I was in S. Korea because my Korean friends were surprised that I didn’t know about the term astringency as it pertained to food. I told them that we commonly used that term as it related to makeup - an astringent is used to tighten pores. While eating a persimmon over there they told me that it was an astringent fruit. Okay then.
It was way back in 1908 that Dr. Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University named this 5th taste, 'Umami.' It is found in the seasoning known as MSG. However, it can be found in soy sauce and fish sauce, as well as parmesan cheese and anchovies. (see link below for why umami foods make you feel full longer)
Introducing Bryan Murphy. I have followed his entertainment career in England for many years - and you do want to catch him when he does comedy and talks to the audience - especially when he gives advice to women. He has dual citizenship in the USA and England and over the years he has performed in most parts of the world. I've seen and enjoyed his shows throughout the UK.
Interview with Bryan Murphy:
CG: Please tell me a little about this 5th taste? Sometimes it is called 'umami' - not a familiar word in the US.
BM: It would be in Chinese cooking. Or Far East cooking. We in the West, in general, are not used to that taste. In fact, there are many people who cannot tolerate the ingredient. I don’t know if they still sell it, but the product named Accent is MSG. Lots of Chinese restaurants use it. It used to be put in mixed meats; like cold cuts and hot dogs. Any meat that was a mixture of things instead of just a pure cut of chicken, turkey etc. I know I get headaches from most hot dogs unless they are pure or as pure as possible. Baloney is a good one that has it or used to. I have not checked in awhile, since I avoid those. You will see many times on menus in some Asian restaurants, “No MSG”.
CG: Does the food of England commonly have umami?
BM: No. Not English food. Heaven forbid! But I will say, since I’ve been in the UK, now 20 years, I have seen the food do a 180 degree turn about. And it is wonderful. When I first got here, you could not find a salad bar anywhere. And if you did, it was just the basics, iceberg, tomatoes, cucumber, and maybe one or two other things. Garlic was nigh to impossible to find inside a British person’s home. Joke, but still, not far off. But now, wow! You see people cooking all sorts of “foreign” foods. It’s wonderful!
CG: I read that when a professional taster evaluates food and drink, mouthfeel is a very important part of their evaluation. What is mouthfeel?
BM: It is the sensation you get when you put a food into your mouth. Rough. Smooth. Soft. Hard. Crunchy. How does it feel in your mouth? Marshmallows; soft. Carrots; crunchy. Jaw breaker; hard. The like. How does it feel on your tongue? The roof of your mouth?
CG: When I eat a persimmon sometimes I get that puckered mouth taste - like with some red wines. My Korean friends call it astringent. What category would it fit under in the West?
BM: That fruit would be classified as astringent. Coffee, and alcohol are others. For instance, mouthwash is astringent. Some people have to use alcohol free mouthwash because most brands are too dry for their mouth. I only use that type. It means, drying. Your mouth feels dry after you eat or drink it. It is different from puckering. A lemon is not astringent.
CG: Why did you decide to be a food taster- I mean aside from the fun part? Is that the technical term?
BM:The tech term, after having looked at my certificate, is Sensory Cereal Taster, since I worked for a global cereal company. We just tend to say, food taster. It makes people laugh when they hear that you are a “food taster”.
CG: How did you find the job as a food taster?
BM: This is fun. I wasn’t looking for work. As I was trolling though our local neighborhood newspaper, this ad caught my eye because it was in colour unlike the other ads on the page. It said something to the effect, do you like food? Do you enjoy eating? Right then, I knew I had found my calling. Food and get paid to eat? I sent for the application, filled it out and in about a week, I heard from them to come in for an interview. Very long story short, I went in.
CG: How do they interview you or test you?
BM: We were tested on samples of sugar, salt, in water. Colours. For example, I had to put in order roughly 10 shades of one colour. Women are much better at this since a higher percentage of men are colour blind or shade blind. I did well at the tests and in a few days, they offered me the job. I can tell you, it was such fun.
CG: How long were you a food taster?
BM: I did it for two years and had to stop because I was in a new play and couldn’t do both. I was the only guy around 11 women. I had a ball. And it was a major learning process for me to see how women think, work etc. I had a blast. One woman, let’s put it this way, if we were in school, the teacher would have made sure we were not seated anywhere near each other. She was so much fun. One of us would start laughing and the other was off at that point. We were so bad together. I loved working with them. A great bunch of people.
CG: What were some of the foods you sampled?
BM: Since this was for a cereal company, the end results were always toward the various products. We tasted everything. Are you ready for this? We even had to taste cardboard, and Styrofoam. We were trained on wheat, salt, sugar, honey. Did you know there are over 20 different types of honey? There are probably more but I think we did close to 20. Pepper honey was one of the more interesting ones. The honey seems to depend upon the area the bees are located and the types of flowers around them.
CG: What was your favorite, I mean favourite testing?
BM: My favourite testing was on chocolates. Yummmmmmmmmmm. Naturally being a cereal company, some of their products were aimed at kids and chocolate is a major ingredient in kids' cereals. One of the things the company was doing was to reduce salt and sugar before the government got on them and forced them to do it. The aim was, if I recall correctly, to halve it in five years. It had to be done s l o w l y so the consumer would not notice it. Since I do not eat salt, I was very good at catching amounts of salt in products. I suppose one could say, I am sensitive to salt because I don’t eat it. You’d be shocked at the amount of salt in foods and the foods that contain salt. Just about everything has salt in it. Some foods I will not eat due to the salt in them. Some breads, cookies, etc. I won’t touch because of the salt. Plus of course, it is not healthy. I am always surprised when watching people who “eat food with their salt”!
CG: What was the most commonly tasted food?
BM: For us it was usually some sort of cereal. I will say, one of their healthy products, which said it contained only wheat and water, CONTAINED ONLY WHEAT AND WATER! I am sure not many people eat it. I personally liked it, especially when it was overcooked in the factory. However, they would/could not sell it that way to the consumer.
CG: Was some of the food just awful? Or maybe spectacular?
BM: Ok, the worst day of my career was when we had not 1, not 5, not 10 but 20 bowls of bran! Now the bowls were not full, but at least several spoonfuls.TWENTY! My weekend was cancelled, needless to say. Luckily, that was rare. Spectacular for me was when we had any product with chocolate or there was an apricot product that was like dessert that I enjoyed. The other panelists would give me theirs and I’d bring them home to have as a snack. YUM.
CG: So how would a typical day go?
BM: We’d get in and sit for approximately 20 minutes. Especially in the winter - to give your nose time to thaw and get used to being inside and to let your taste buds get over breakfast. We’d then be called into our desks that had a computer, and keyboard. We had to put in the number on our bowls and then fill in the questionnaires relating to our findings in the bowl. We never knew who had what. We were not allowed to comment to each other on what we were tasting, smelling or writing. One of the things we had to do, sometimes depending upon the product we were testing, we had to sip warm water between tastings. Warm water helps to cleanse the palate. After we finished a survey, usually we went back into our room and sat for roughly 20 more minutes before the next tasting.
CG: Did you ever get sick and just throw up everywhere?
BM: No, but after those 20 bowls of bran, I wanted to do everything!
CG: When you see food tasting done on TV in the US - you always see lots of mouth rinsing and spitting. Did you rinse and spit a lot?
BM: I didn’t, pig that I am. It was food and I was swallowing it. Some of the other panelists did just sample, taste and spit it out.
CG: You plan many dinner parties and even cooked on television shows. What would be a nice meal to complement the senses and taste buds?
BM: I love to cook. I love to entertain. One of the TV shows I did, I had to prepare two different 3 course meals for 20 people in 2 ½ hours, start to finish. And of course I did, with time to spare and a ten minute break during the preparation. I think entertaining should start from the moment your guests arrive at your door. They should smell food cooking immediately.
CG: I absolutely agree!
BM: It helps to get the juices ready. It helps to build up the anticipation. This way, when you present the food, they are excited and hungry! Food should have different textures, colours and flavours. For example, I just had guests for dinner the other day and I prepared a Thai inspired meal. Salmon cooked in coconut milk, bits of coconut, raisins, over yellow rice and stir fried parsnips and carrots. I put coriander on top of the fish just before presenting it. There was a salad of yellow and red tomatoes and rocket and various leaves. Olive oil and apple vinegar dressing over it. The dessert was a key lime and mango pie with lime bits on top of it. Now, aren’t you hungry?
BM: It was a hit! One of my best desserts is Bananas Foster. I tell people, I say it is so good it will make you “wanna smack yo mama”! Not that I want to smack your mother, but wanna smack yo mama. I have seen people lick the plates at my table after they finished it. I was thrilled! Once I even had to make more for my guests when they asked if there was more! I was happy to do it. There are so many calories in it, I really should ask for their cardiologist’s phone numbers before I serve it. Also, the table must be PERFECT.
CG: I've seen photos of your fabulous table settings.
BM: I spend ages just deciding which table cloths and napkins to use. Which set of dishes is a major decision. Then of course how should I fix the napkins? Which design? I usually start about a week before the evening to get it just right. Mind you, I can pull it together in less than an hour and it will be perfect. Boy, I’m good.
CG: Are there many jobs for food tasters?
BM: I am not sure about that. There was not much turnover when I was doing it.
Bryan, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I see why Korean food was so good - because when they cook they make it a point to satisfy the five senses. In the meantime we can all set a beautiful table and have food cooking when our guests arrive. I do hope you will be available for other interviews in the future because you do so many interesting things that I'd like to share. Thanks again!
BM: Thank you! it was my pleasure.
For information about umami foods and Q and A about different foods, see the links below:
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