Professor Aubrey Coffee demonstrates knife work techniques during her lab session, connecting industry expertise with classroom experience.

Professor Aubrey Coffee demonstrates knife work techniques during her lab session, connecting industry expertise with classroom experience.
Image Credit: Pat Wright | Clemson University

Food is everywhere. The annual President’s Picnic is, of course, a picnic. Tiger Town Tavern and Esso Club are major destination spots for any Clemson visitor. And what kind of Clemson football tailgate doesn’t have an abundant supply of game day snacks? As Clemson Tigers, so many of our thoughts, actions and traditions are devoted to eating — and this is no coincidence.

“Food is the foundation of life,” said Aubrey Coffee, Clemson’s sensory coordinator and senior food science lecturer. “I get excited just talking about it.”

Coffee’s passion for food is enough to make her a top-notch professor, but her wide range of industry experience is what truly sets her apart. She started school at the University of South Carolina Sumter, earning an Associate of Arts degree in education before attending Johnson & Wales to receive two degrees — an Associate of Science in culinary arts and a Bachelor of Science in food service management. But Coffee did not stop there. She attended the American Institute of Baking to refine her skills and, finally, earned a Ph.D. in food technology at Clemson.

Along the way, Coffee worked in her fair share of restaurants and hotels, gaining invaluable experience that cannot be taught from textbooks alone. “This industry is so unique because no matter how you’re feeling when you walk into work, you leave so satisfied,” Coffee said. “There’s something special about seeing people enjoy what you have created.”

“Through everything, baking became my favorite aspect. I love playing with sugar,” she said. Which might explain why you can find her snacking on her favorite food — gummy bears — or competing on reruns of TLC’s “Ultimate Cake Off.”

At Clemson, Coffee has found a new way to express her love of food. “I like teaching because I like giving back,” Coffee said. “Think of what the University was built on. Food science and food technology embody Clemson’s history as a land grant university.”

But this program isn’t just based on history — it’s all about the food.

And not in the way you might think. Food science is much more than simply following recipes. The discipline incorporates all elements of science from the flavors found in amino acids to the chemical composition of sugar. “Most people don’t realize that food science actually has a lot of science,” Coffee said.

Food science students get their hands dirty in Clemson's state-of-the-art culinary research kitchen.

Food science students get their hands dirty in Clemson’s state-of-the-art culinary research kitchen.
Image Credit: Pat Wright | Clemson University

“Take garlic for example – it is so strong. Just one bite of raw garlic and you’re scaring off vampires.” Coffee laughed. “But roasted, it mellows, it becomes sweeter. Why are root vegetables so potent in a raw state and delicious in a cooked state? What is the science behind it?”

The theoretical aspects of food science are only the foundation. As Clemson’s sensory coordinator, Coffee has helped establish the hands-on, action-oriented nature of the program by recruiting external companies to do sensory work with Clemson students, whether the company is looking for placement in market, changing ingredients or comparing their product to competitors’.

Coffee has also been a driving force in integrating food science with other disciplines at Clemson.

“The possibilities for students are endless, and they all revolve around food,” Coffee said. “There’s a whole process that many people don’t realize. Food doesn’t miraculously end up on the grocery store shelf.”

Product development, marketing, food safety, culinary arts, packaging and Culinology® are only a few avenues for food science students to pursue. She is currently planning a semester-long program that will give students the opportunity to participate in a summer internship in Australia. The internship will provide global experience in a four-star restaurant — the perfect opportunity for Clemson’s food science, parks, recreation and tourism management (PRTM) and business students to work together.

With so much going on, it’s hard to believe Coffee has time to breathe — let alone bake. But she embraces the challenge.

“Our program is all about the fundamentals: If the knife falls, don’t catch it,” Coffee said. She hopes that her students will graduate from the program with a strong foundation of knowledge that will enable them to succeed in the industry. “Anyone can follow a recipe — it’s just a blueprint — but our students understand how the ingredients work together and can fill in the blanks.”

With a professor as exciting and accomplished as Coffee, Clemson’s food science students can bake their cake and eat it, too.