By Alexandra Emanuelli
With the rise of gastronomy programs in universities, what do these graduates bring to the hospitality field? Do their degrees give them a leg up and will their diplomas soon be the new requirement for entry into the field, or are they learning in the classroom what has been taught in the field for centuries? I speak with Sarah Mooney, cheesemaker and graduate of the Masters’ program from the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in Pollenzo, Italy, where classes range from subjects on the Social History of Italian Food to classes on Sensory Analysis.
Why did you want to go into making cheese, how did this get started?
I was making cheese at home a little bit. I was making feta and mozzarella and chevre, but I never made the ‘big cheeses’. When I finished the program in Italy, I did my internship and wrote my thesis in Ireland and I was making cheese there, and my boss there told me early on, “If you find something you love and you enjoy the repetition of it – because cheese-making is ninety percent cleaning and organizing for that ten percent creativity – if you find something that you love and the repetition is, you’re at peace with it, it’s something that you’re supposed to be doing.” And I loved that. And I hate repetition. I started making cheese with her and I loved it. I loved that process, I loved being with the animals.
What if any, special skills do you think the Masters’ program gave you?
The classes we took gave me a lot of confidence to be in this industry. They gave me a background. You’ve got a bigger picture of the industry because of the classes we took, and the experiences we had. I mean, going all over Europe and studying with these cheese makers. Even today, I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of something that we saw, or heard, or did, that doesn’t directly correlate with what I’m doing right now. The food industry is old, the cheeses I’m working with are too, and they have these beautiful, old traditions that are still being utilized. But I’m still learning too, I kinda love that too.
What do you think about having attained a Masters’ degree in order to work in a field that didn’t traditionally require any university knowledge, is it relevant that people are studying more now to work in this field?
Think about the year we had and the people we studied with. They were not educated. They weren’t officially educated. They learned it because it was a tradition for them or part of their family or something that they got into. It wasn’t something they went to school to do. I think about the coolest people we met; the fishermen, and the charcuterie producers, and the cheese makers. When I was doing one of my research projects, I went to Crete and I met a goat herder and they were cheese makers. He had four sons, and he was talking about how he had sent all four of his sons to college, and all four of them had come back to be goat herders. I mean, I think that the next generation is educated and is finding value in coming back to the land. You hear so much about the opposite. You hear so much about the fact that we’re losing our farmers, and all of our farmers are fifty and sixty years old, but I keep hearing about these young people that are really working hard to produce good food.
With the rise of chefs who are more educated and are thinking about their food in a more holistic way – do you think producers need to be more educated as well or have they always had that mindset?
Absolutely. Everybody wants to work with likeminded people, I can’t say everybody, but people who are really, genuinely passionate about it want to continue to be educated and want to keep learning from people who are doing it. I think that there’s definitively a divide between the book smart people and the street smart people, and I think to be really respected and valued in the food industry, you need to have both, you need to speak clearly, you need to understand about where your food comes from and at the same time, you have to put in the leg work, you need to have spent hours doing really labour intensive work as well.
The takeaway from my conversation with Sarah was that her university education wasn’t something that made her better or worse than previous generations of producers, it had simply codified that information into a set of formal structures. As a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences Masters’ program myself, I think that our education was in the doctrine of remembering the traditional ways and trying to keep those techniques alive. Simply put, we learned what perhaps these previous generations had known all along, and we had to get a Masters’ degree to understand that.