What're the academic options open to a food obsessed person?
September 4, 2007 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Week 2 of my endless food career related questions and this one is a doozy: What're the academic options open to a food obsessed person?

Bear with me here, I may get wordy:

As we went over last week, in lieu of throwing myself upon the gears of 9-5dom, I've been trying to figure out what I'd like to do with my life. Earlier this year I fled my 9-5, moved halfway across the country, got engaged and signed up for the Peace Corps. This readjustment left me with a lot of downtime in the day (I worked a lot of night shifts) and I found an inexorable passion for food in full bloom.

The problem is that I don't especially care to jump into professional kitchen work. The hours are understandably brutal, the honors are few and far between and the pay is awful.

What I've really been interested in is food writing and/or the academic end of food. I've been doing my reading (MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, Jefferey Steingarten, Harold McGee, Brillat-Savarin, on and on.) and keeping up with the ChowHound and EGullet crowds. My kitchen skills are informed, if unpracticed, and I'm grounded in the theory.

While I'm trying to make my own inroads into food writing I hardly expect it to pay the bills nor fully satisfy my, ahem, appetite. To that end I looked into two programs:

The NYU Food Studies program: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/nutrition/index.php/page/10

BU Masters of Gastronomy: http://www.bu.edu/met/adult_college_programs/graduate_school_program/post_graduate_degree/food_science_degree/index.html

However, I've had a hard time getting in touch with anyone who has actually been through those programs. Looking at the brochure and auditing the class is one thing, actually talking to someone who has been on the ground in quite another.

So, to whit:

Are there other, similar programs available in the US?
Have any MeFites been through either the above programs or similar programs?
Are there other options for an academically inclined person who is spurning culinary school?
posted by GilloD to Education (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My housemate in the UK did a MA in Anthropology of food. She is now hosting a BBC international food program.
posted by k8t at 12:52 PM on September 4, 2007

You could audition for a season of "The Next Food Network Star." Then you could teach millions of people your recipes every day. A lot of the food network stars are self-taught.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 1:29 PM on September 4, 2007

You might consider studying agriculture, although that might be a bit farther down the food chain than you were thinking of. Competition for jobs with a degree in agriculture is probably not as tough as for jobs hosting TV programs. (not that I have any special knowlege about jobs hosting TV programs, but I think that's a pretty safe bet)

Food Science looks to be an academic discipline with many different specialties, if you want to be in academia, just find the one with the highest paid industry positions. People are probably taking those jobs instead of going into teaching.
posted by yohko at 1:31 PM on September 4, 2007

Well, maybe study food or eating in a history or cultural studies department somewhere?
posted by bluebird at 1:36 PM on September 4, 2007

Response by poster: While Food Science is a very attractive discipline it often means going back for an undergrad in Chemistry or loading up on Chem courses before being accepted. While that's not entirely impossible (Outside the fact that I bombed Chem in high school), it's expensive time consuming.
posted by GilloD at 1:36 PM on September 4, 2007

This probably doesn't help your long-term academic goals but since you've already joined the Peace Corps, perhaps look into the CulinaryCorps as well?
posted by kathryn at 1:48 PM on September 4, 2007

I know of a school that offers a non degree certificate in food science. The classes are offered online. I believe that you only have to have a high school diploma or a bachelor's degree in another discipline.
posted by catseatcheese at 2:23 PM on September 4, 2007

If you're set on having the piece of paper and bragging rights which a degree provides, go for it.
"My kitchen skills are informed, if unpracticed, and I'm grounded in the theory."
If you really want to become proficient in your kitchen skills on the fronts of technique, science, and creativity, the best way to do that is through kitchen work (as painful as that may be). The least painful way to do this, in my opinion, is to figure out for whom you want to work--which well known chefs/restauranteurs do you most admire, and what would it take to get a position in their kitchen? If it involves a culinary degree, that wouldn't hurt you in your pursuit of being a professional foodie (If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a food critic who doesn't understand the technique behind what they're eating, but thinks that they do)--that is, if you have the time and the funds to go that route. At any rate, working in a high-powered, gastronomically advanced kitchen for even a few months can open your eyes to things you can't get in books or from cooking at home.
I may not have answered your question. I guess my point is that if you really want to write about food and sound both inspired and informed, you have to have, ahem, 'meat' backing up that writing. That's one thing that makes Anthony Bourdain's food criticism so enjoyable (to me, at least). The guy really knows what he's talking about. The dirty & unpleasant details of kitchen work are certainly everything you mentioned, but still necessary. Sorry for the long post.
posted by SixteenTons at 2:49 PM on September 4, 2007

I went to work in a kitchen for free for a month or so when I had some spare time. The pay was non-existent so there was nothing to complain about. The hours were of my choosing. The glory was whatever I invented for myself as I walked home.

I ended up loving it. I can't imagine any other line of work for myself right now.
posted by jon_kill at 3:24 PM on September 4, 2007

Re: Agriculture programs. I did ag econ as an undergrad and did some food science and food law courses. I liked the latter enough that I plan to make it a career. That said, when studying food in the context of ag, be prepared for slogging though a lot of other classes like organic chem and stats. Food science seems to be good job-wise, but I was turned off by its sterility.

I think what people don't realize is that the vast majority of people in food have boring, hard jobs. I work with crop scientists, ag economists, horiculturalists, nutritionists, lawyers, agroecologists, and all sorts of people who deal with food, but those jobs can be hard and boring. It's only when you've established yourself that you can do the "fun" writing, a la Marion Nestle and Harold McGee.
posted by melissam at 6:18 PM on September 4, 2007

Oh, that said, the one academic program you might like that I've had experience with is the food business/hospitality management. Still requires math and science, but you get to spend some time in the kitchen and the job prospects are decent.
posted by melissam at 6:24 PM on September 4, 2007

I would look into the James Beard Foundation. I believe they have a fellowship for food writers, and I believe the food critic for the NYTimes magazine went to a French Culinary School on that fellowship.

Or, you could email the professors you'd be interested in working with, or people in the field -- and explain that you're interested. I have found that most people a) like talking about what they do and b) are happy to help. If you live in an area with food writers, ask if you can take them for coffee. Or see if your town has a historical culinary society. :)
posted by moooshy at 6:35 PM on September 4, 2007

Looking at your previous AskMe questions I see that you are a newly-graduated English/Philosophy major who has been engaged in a quest for self-discovery in recent months.

Before signing up for an expensive academic program, why not tough it out and slave away in a kitchen somewhere?

That might help you focus on whether you REALLY want to pursue a food-related career.

From my experience (in non-food-related fields) it seems like young people are often attracted into a field by superstars doing the most interesting work; what isn't immediately apparent to the young people is that the odds are hugely stacked the person getting the kind of fabulous, attention-getting work that attracted them into the field in the first place. I.e., the person attracted to food by Anthony Bourdain, is more likely to end up being a chef planning the lunch buffet at a suburban Holiday Inn, than become another Anthony Bourdain.

I'd suggest that a taste of the drudgery of an ordinary kitchen --- prior to enrolling in an academic food program --- would be a great way to save yourself the tuition fees if food really isn't your passion; i.e., that way you can discover whether you'd still want to be in the food industry even you weren't working a glamorous, elite job.
posted by jayder at 7:25 PM on September 4, 2007

that should have read, "hugely stacked against the person"
posted by jayder at 7:27 PM on September 4, 2007

I'd second everything SixteenTons and jayder said, especially the advice to spend a couple years in an on-the-ground job. "Do it for a couple years to find out if you still love food at that point" was exactly what a Culinary Institute of America grad and good friend of mine told me when I was starting out in food. You absolutely must get your hands dirty to learn, and you have to do something like that in order to build up your knowledge and your credibility.

I've researched NYU's degrees (because I considered them myself) and while they're very in depth, it's not a culinary program. If you want to write about food, you have to get your culinary knowledge somewhere, and culinary school or on the job are two places that can be done. You've said that you've had trouble getting in touch with people who've been through those two degree programs - have you asked both programs to make it possible for you to contact some recent grads? If you're interested in academia, be aware that food studies is still a very small discipline, and getting established will likely be significantly more difficult than in academia in general.

You mentioned in a response to your previous question that you're working for a caterer now. If you don't want kitchen hours, you also might consider working for a high-end food retailer. The money's still not good, but the hours are better, and you'll have opportunities to learn about a variety of industries within food. (The money's not good in food in general, unless you own a business or are in sales or packaged goods.)

If you really want to write and you already have a degree, I'd say just start writing now. Start writing a food blog (goodness knows that joining the Peace Corps should give you some interesting food-related adventures to write about) and read other food blogs. Look for freelance opportunities and get writing and pitching. Read the books, yes, but read the better magazines too, including things like Gastronomica. Read the Wednesday food sections of all the major papers. Look up all those writers' names and figure out how they got where they are. I suspect you'll start seeing some patterns.

Find ways to meet the food community and the food writing community in your area - start at the farmers' markets, perhaps, where you have the opportunity to talk to producers and find out who they supply, and potentially meet those people outside of their kitchen. Visit farms, cheesemakers, winemakers, dairies, anyone who'll have you. Join your local Slow Food chapter. Find classes taught by experts in subjects that interest you and take them. In NYC, the opportunities to learn about food are limitless.

(As for me, I've been in the food industry for a dozen years. I fell in love with food while going to NYU for something completely unrelated, and unfortunately it was before their food studies program had started. I ended up leaving the school and the city and staring my life in food by working in the cheese business for five years. I considered studying food science, nutrition and food studies, but through the vagaries of life ended up with a food marketing degree. Email is in my profile if you'd like to contact me.)
posted by jocelmeow at 9:18 PM on September 4, 2007

What Jayder said. Best recipe for gumbo I ever got was from a dishwasher at one of the kitchens I worked in. From the anthropological point of view, working in a pro kitchen is invaluable for observing the dynamics of food production and gives a hands-on understanding of what recipes make it to menus, and why. Basic kitchen knowledge should secure you a prep job somewhere, and if it really doesn't suit you, a few months should at least give you real appreciation for the people who do it for decades on end. It will enrich your love of food more than you could possibly imagine.
posted by methylsalicylate at 1:46 AM on September 5, 2007

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