Before I became a food and nutrition writer, I worked at two different cheese shops; when the years are combined, my time as a cheesemonger (more on that term later) spans a full decade. It’s a great conversation starter: If anyone asks, I can recommend one (or several!) of the hundreds of cheeses I’ve had the fortune to taste. I can pair your favorite beverage with a cheese that will make your taste buds sing, and I can talk exhaustively about the politic of dairy farming any day of the week. Working in a cheese shop employed with foodies of the best sort (former chefs, pastry school students who always brought in their “failed” baking attempts, and even a now-famous forensic anthropologist) gave me an education in food that I’ll always treasure. While some of these strange food jobs might seem far-fetched (or even downright dangerous), the people who fill these spaces are incredibly passionate about their careers. Many of these jobs require years of expensive and ongoing training, with plenty of long hours and extensive travel time. So how and why do people get interested in these professions in the first place? Read on to find out what makes these strange food jobs such interesting (and appetizing) career options!
1. Honey Sommelier
Carla Marina Marchese, owner of Red Bee Honey and author of Honeybee Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper and The Honey Connoisseur Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey (co-authored with Kim Flottum) was inducted into the world of honey tasting by accident. “In 2000, I was invited by a neighbor to visit his apiary. Between the visual activity of the bees at the hive entrance, the smell of beeswax, and the taste of fresh honey, I was mesmerized,” she tells HealthyWay. Marchese’s initial interest bloomed into a strong desire to learn everything there is to know about honey and beekeeping. “It did not take long before I became curious about the wide range of flavors in honey depending upon the specific type of flowers bees visit. I was on a mission to uncover information about matching each flower to the flavor it would impart to the honey.” After years of research and hands-on training, Marchese became the first non-Italian to be inducted into the Italian National Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey, and in 2013, she founded the American Honey Tasting Society. The term “honey sommelier” was invented by Marchese and is now widely used in the United States. “Today, people are using it to freely to describe expert honey tasters,” she says, “in reality, it takes years to understand the finer aspects of a wide range of honeys.”
2. Truffle Forager in the Pacific Northwest
When you think of foraging for truffles, your mind probably goes straight to Italy or France. Both countries are famous for their highly-prized white and black truffles (as well as the pigs that find them). You may not realize that there are people working as truffle foragers much closer to home. Oregon is quickly becoming a hotspot for truffle aficionados from all over the globe; there’s even a yearly Oregon Truffle Festival. In 2015, the Discovery Channel unveiled a five-episode documentary called Unearthed that explored the trials and tribulations of truffle hunting in the Pacific Northwest. The state of Oregon boasts two specimens of white truffle, Tuber oregonense and Tuber gibbosum, and a single species of the highly coveted black truffle, Leucangium carthusianum. For many years, truffle foragers in Oregon have used rakes to find the underground fungi, an inefficient practice that drove down the price of Oregon truffles. The reason animals are traditionally used to search for truffles is because their heightened sense of smell can discern between ripe and unripe truffles—whereas raking them out of the ground produces an uneven mix of the two. The solution? Truffle foragers are relying on specially trained dogs to ensure they’re digging up only the highest-quality product. Dedicated trainers like the ones at the Truffle Dog Company are working with specific dog breeds to teach them how to identify a ripe truffle by its scent alone. Thanks to the efforts of these trainers and dogs, the value of Oregon truffles are now hovering around $400 per pound, and while still well below the asking price of European truffles, their popularity is growing as the culinary world deepens its commitment to locally grown ingredients.
3. Geoduck Diver
The geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”) is a rather alarming-looking specimen at first glance. The Pacific geoduck, also known scientifically as the much prettier sounding Panopea generosa, is a massive clam that is wildly popular in China and is quickly gaining attention in North America for its sweet, pleasantly briny flavor and delicate crunch. Found all along the West Coast of the United States and Canada, from California to British Columbia to Alaska, harvesting geoducks is an extremely competitive, dangerous occupation that can quickly become deadly if circumstances turn sour. Geoduck divers wear weights on their feet so that they can “walk” across the ocean floor, sometimes at a depth of up to 70 feet. During harvesting season, geoducks are mostly invisible to the naked eye as they bury themselves deep in the sand. Harvesters must tap the ocean floor to find them with the hope that a single hidden geoduck will lead to hundreds more close by. As the geoducks are harvested and placed in a net, the silt from the ocean floor scatters and creates low visibility conditions. The diver is tethered to a boat and must signal when they’re ready to ascend, a process which can take several minutes. Of course, weather conditions and quickly changing ocean currents can worsen conditions within a span of seconds. So why do geoduck divers take the risk? Depending on market value at the time, geoducks are worth anywhere from $7 and $20 a pound and on a good day, a diver will have harvested thousands of pounds of geoduck as the clams generally weigh an impressive 2 to 3 pounds each, although larger specimens are not uncommon.
4. Food Stylist
You may not realize it, but the work of food stylists is everywhere. They can make egg yolks look vibrantly sunny in recipe books and magazines, and they’re behind all of the food shown on TV and in films, whether it’s a cup of coffee or an extravagant feast. Many food stylists begin their jobs as professional chefs, building their food styling portfolio up as they work (although some food stylists begin their careers through hands-on training, completion of a food styling certificate, or attending food styling seminars). A major branch of food styling involves preparing and styling food for cookbooks and talk shows, an activity that many people assume is done by the cookbook author themselves. A 2017 article published in The Star profiles Jan Sherk, a prominent food stylist in the Toronto culinary arts scene. “People are shocked when I say that the author didn’t make the food,” she told food writer Karon Liu. “I tell them that they’re flying in from another city and it’s impossible for them to shop for the ingredients when their plane lands at midnight or cook out of their hotel room. It’s why there’s a need for people that do what I do.” Becoming a professional food stylist requires patience, time, organization, and a good eye for detail and what makes food aesthetically pleasing and interesting. While the average salary of a food stylist depends on the industry they’re working in (for example, pay rates for book layouts, TV shows and film, and the hospitality industry all vary), an experienced food stylist can expect to earn between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.
The term “cheesemonger” describes someone who sells and is knowledgeable about cheese. Building on this title, cheesemongers can go on to become maître fromager (“cheese masters” who have been inducted into the prestigious Guilde Internationale des Fromager) and affineurs (individuals responsible for aging the cheese and serving it while at peak ripeness). Marcella Wright, a former cheesemonger and current cheese educator, is a member of the Guilde Internationale des Fromager and now works closely with cheesemongers hoping to pass the notoriously rigorous American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional Exam. Wright was fortunate to grow up in a family that appreciated good cheese. “During the summer, my grandfather delivered milk and cheese for a local dairy in Michigan—in the winter he drove a snow plow—and brought cheese home for the family. Robust, ‘sharp’ cheddars were always in our fridge and one of our favorite snacks was cheddar and bell peppers,” she tells HealthyWay. However, it was a taste of an extra-aged gouda in the late ’90s that really sparked her interest in specialty cheeses. “One of the cheeses we tasted was an aged gouda with ‘those crunchies.’ I fell in love with that gouda and became an occasional customer of The Cheese Shop of Beverly Hills.” For those people who love the delightfully crunchy texture of aged cheeses, Wright helpfully shares that “those ‘crunchies’ are tyrosine—an amino acid that develops in aging cheeses like gouda, cheddar, and parmesan. The crystals that develop on the outside of cheddar are usually calcium lactate.” Wright’s advice to those interested in becoming cheesemongers is to work in an environment where you can taste different cheeses as often as possible: “The best way to become a monger is to work in a cheese shop, especially for a chain such as Kroger, Whole Foods, et cetera. These stores have a greater selection of cheeses from “industrial” to high-end specialty and you can learn the ropes while being paid to taste cheese every day. Murray’s requires its mongers to taste three cheeses every day. You learn a lot about cheeses that way especially when you taste the same cheese at different times in its life.” Pay rates for cheesemongers depend on where you’re working, what your responsibilities include, and your level of experience. For those interested in the actual making of cheese, Wright notes that “in the U.S. artisan cheese world, there is a need for cheesemakers. It’s almost a crisis; more jobs open than people qualified. There are courses at many universities and colleges and internships with cheesemakers are abundant.” “If you are passionate, cheesemakers will welcome you and share their knowledge and train you to make cheese,” she says.
Strange but Necessary: Why We Need Weird Food Jobs
If I have learned anything from having a career in the niche food industry, it’s that the people who fill these positions are incredibly passionate about their job itself, as well as the products they work with. Anyone working in a weird food job will be super knowledgeable, and, perhaps best of all, incredibly excited to share their expertise with people who have questions about their livelihoods (and the particular products they work with or produce). The passion felt by people in these industries is what maintains the integrity of the product and allows small artisan companies to thrive in a food culture that is becoming increasingly saturated with inferior, mass-produced items.