The Flavor Man
OK, here’s a question for you: What invisible person plays a major role in the way our food, from snowballs to steak dinners, taste in New Orleans? Hint: This guy may be the ultimate unsung hero.
Woooooonnnnk! Sorry! The clock gotcha!
Chances are you would never have come up with the name Ronald Sciortino anyway.
To put all this in proper perspective you should know Sciortino’s gustatory roots in New Orleans go back to the early 20th century. His family tree, which includes branches named “Ortolano,” reaches into the grocery, restaurant and snowball businesses from Kenner to the French Quarter. And in just about every phase of that family along the way, Sciortino has been front and center.
Today, he’s proud to call himself a “flavorist.” (Do not dare to call him a “chemist” or a “flavor chemist;” “flavorist” will do nicely, thank you.) His workplace from sun up to sun down is a surgically spotless laboratory on the second floor of an equally pristine SnoWizard building straddling the Orleans-Jefferson parish line, a few yards from the river. Giant stainless steel tanks highlight one side of the laboratory and are complemented by shelves containing tiny bottles of just about any naturally based chemical you can imagine. Sooner or later Sciortino will magically concoct these into an endless list of flavors that will find their way into everyday foods to be found all over New Orleans. In an adjunct to the lab, a lone worker painstakingly is hand-labeling bottles of vanilla that will be packaged and sold nationwide.
“In one way or another, I’ve always been in the food business,” Sciortino says. “I bought the SnoWizard manufacturing business from my uncle and aunt in 1981. That was the manufacturing of the snowball machines my grandfather invented, and my aunt and uncle made famous.” He continues, “Today we build 400 a year, all right downstairs from the lab. We sell them all over the country. In ’85, I bought the supply business from them. That included the flavorings they were getting from the Charles Dennery Company. In fact, if you went into any bakery in the Gulf South back then, every product in there was from Dennery.”
Back in the early days, in addition to Dennery, Sciortino was purchasing flavors from a variety of other companies around the country. “Most of those companies are now out of business,” Sciortino says. “Most were bought out by larger businesses.”
But when you’re operating with 40 flavors and you have your goal set on a rainbow of other flavors, you’ve got to go somewhere else to expand.
In steps Warren Leruth, a long-time flavorist, restaurant consultant and salesman for Dennery, who branched out with his own flavoring company and eventually ran his own restaurant – Le Ruth’s in Gretna – that quickly became known as one restaurant critic gushed, “One of the finest eating places in the world.”
“Warren and I were longtime friends,” Sciortino says. “He sold me his flavoring business and told me, ‘I’ll teach you how to make your own flavors.’ He had the formulas for a small number of flavors that he was doing. That inspired me to learn more about flavoring.”
Le Ruth’s closed its doors in 1991, and the great chef passed away in 2001, knowing that he left his flavoring business in good hands.
“He (Leruth) was not only a great restaurateur but a great teacher as well,” Sciortino says. “Right now I’m up to 150 flavors that we compound. I have some others on the drawing board that I can’t discuss right now, but they look like they’re going to be winners.”
And lest anybody be turned off by the words “artificially flavored” on packaged foods, Sciortino is quick to point out that that ain’t exactly so.
“Take strawberry,” he says as he runs his glance over the countless tiny bottles of compounds on a shelf in the lab. “We’ll run a gas chromatography analysis of a strawberry so that all the (chemical) compounds that make up that flavor can be identified. We’ll take all those chemicals. They’ll be measured, put into a container then mixed up. And you’ll have the same strawberry taste that you’ll have if you took a bite out of a strawberry on the vine.” He continues, “It all depends if those chemicals that are used comes from a natural source of if they’re taking the chemicals from another source. The finished product still has a natural identity and the exact same molecular structure. In every sense of the words, it’s a strawberry. But you cannot call it’ natural’ if it didn’t come form a natural source like a tree or a vine.
“So you see the words ‘artificially flavored’ are not a bad thing,” he says. “It just means that we can now reconstruct the strawberry using the exact same chemicals that were identified in a strawberry that was formed naturally. We could use all-natural chemicals that came from natural sources, or we could use chemicals that are more economical but will produce the exact same molecular structure by getting them from an alternative source. You can’t tell the difference. You just cannot call it ‘natural.’”
He continues, “They are the exact same ingredients when you put them under a microscope. What we have built is consistency. You don’t always get that consistency with strawberries – or any plant that’s grown: not enough rain, too much fertilizer, bugs, pesticides, the soil wasn’t right. Not so with what we produce here in our lab. Once we arrive at our formula it’s 100 percent clean and it’s consistent time after time. We’ve taken all the elements out that we can’t control. “
Sciortino opens one bottle after another and gently waves his hand in front of the opening to waft the aroma toward a visitor’s nose.
“Wow!” the visitor says. “That’s peppery!” “Capsicum extract,” Sciortino says. “If you put this too close to your face, your eyes will start watering and burning.
Sciortino opens another small bottle.
“Pineapple,” the visitor says. “That’s right,” Sciortino nods
Ditto for black cherry, rum, ad infinitum. Sciortino’s voice takes on a tinge of pride when he points to his “library” of flavors. “… 500 now,” he says. “This to me is just like learning cooking.
I didn’t go to formal school for cooking but I grew up in the catering business with my mother and I recall everything she did. You just have to learn the ingredients that go into it and the percentages … from there its just a matter of writing out the formula.” He continues, “And it’s not just strawberry or pineapple. Take peach. Do you want peach flavor with the fuzz? The entire peach. Canned peaches? We can do it all through mixing and matching. There’s a lot of trial and error, but we eventually have the formula. I’m always experimenting with new flavors for foods. Last year we came out with a new flavor for snowballs: jalapeño stinger. I’m also working on a new flavor for next year: chili. And it’s hot! Just the vapors from it would make you cough …”
Sciortino is on a roll; he’s obviously a man who’s doing something for which he has passion. He is throwing out one familiar name and product after another – past and present – that use his flavors: King Cakes from Haydel’s Bakery, Hubig’s Pies, “500 or so” snowball stands around the Greater New Orleans area, cream cheese …”
So, you can call Ron Sciortino “Dr. Franken-flavor” or you can call him “a master flavorist.” But whatever you do, don’t call him a chemist. And the next time you’re driving down Oak Street and you cross over the railroad tracks into Jefferson Parish on River Road, take a gander at the second floor of that pristine white building on your right. Ron Sciortino just may be up there concocting a red cherry-pineapple-fuzzy peach lalapalooza that will be all the rage in the ice cream market next year.