It’s hard to be a woman in the sciences. It’s just as hard to be a woman in the world of food and beverage. For Natalia Butler, now a flavor guru at Ben & Jerry’s world headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, it was a double whammy. As a master’s student at University of Massachusetts in the country’s oldest and most competitive food science program, she felt like she constantly needed to prove herself as a Puerto Rican amongst her highly accomplished international peers. As a young woman professional working in a male-dominated beverage industry—cider making—she had to prove her chops again and again. Now, as the first Hispanic flavor guru—the official title, by the way—for Ben & Jerry’s, she’s finally been able to feel like a part of a team where her work speaks for itself.
On tonight's premiere of THE ICE CREAM SHOW on VICELAND, she and host Isaac Lappert experiment with a new flavor inspired by the tastes of her home in Puerto Rico. In advance of tonight’s episode, we talked with her about all things ice cream, and a little bit about that niggling enemy of success—impostor syndrome.
MUNCHIES: Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? What was your experience with food like growing up?
Natalia Butler: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico; my mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Dominican. My family owned three restaurants, so we were always around food, very close to food. And in Puerto Rico, everything revolves around food—everything’s a party and we are eating all the time. Big family dinners all the time. My grandmother had orange trees, avocado trees, lemon trees. We always had access to really good fresh food.
My mother and father owned restaurants, so my life has always been about food. I always thought I’d end up doing that, too, but you know, when you own a restaurant, it’s a 24/7 job. My parents were always working at the restaurants. And for me, if I wasn’t at the restaurants, I was at school or doing some after school sport. But my parents were always working, and they didn’t want that for me. My mother, she had her master’s degree, and she knew it was very important for me to do that, too. They loved their restaurants, but she didn’t want her kids to have to work like that and not have a life like they did.
What kind of education does it take to be a flavor guru?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I got a scholarship for college in Puerto Rico. If I wasn’t going to work in restaurants like my parents, I knew I still wanted to do something that would be sort of taking care of people like that, so I thought, maybe I’ll be pre-med? Maybe I’ll be a doctor—like everyone else who goes to college on the island. Or maybe I’ll go into pharmaceuticals, like everyone else on the island. Which I knew I didn’t really want to do, but I thought it was what I should do. But I settled on biochemistry, and because I had a scholarship, I got to do all of these summer internships. …The summer I did an internship at [University of Massachusetts at Amherst], and I was walking across campus and I saw this building with these big letters that said ‘Food Science.’ And I was like whaaat? That’s a thing? I can do that? So I immediately knew working in biochemistry was over for me, and I applied after I graduated.
That’s a big change, going from metropolitan Puerto Rico to rural Massachusetts. How did that go?
I’m from an island, right? And it’s very cold in Massachusetts. And in Puerto Rico, you know, we’re friendly people, we hug everybody, everybody stops and says hello and smiles. I didn’t know people weren’t like that in Massachusetts at first. It was very lonely for a while. That was part of the reason why I never left the lab. I thought, I’m just gonna hole up in here or in the library all weekend, and if you want to come join my study party, then we’ll be friends! I had a social life, but I mostly worked really hard in the lab. I didn’t have a car, and I was biking everywhere or taking the bus, so I didn’t get to explore that area very much. Also, that program, UMass is the best program in the country for food science. It’s very competitive. A lot of my classmates were recruited by the faculty to come there. I had just worked my butt off to get in, and I felt like I had to prove myself, so I worked twice as hard as every body else.
On the weekends, when I was feeling sort of isolated, I’d cook for myself and invite some of my friends over. Once I got a car, I was able to go to [nearby towns like] Hadley and Springfield, and I was like, wow! There are all these Puerto Ricans here! I had no idea! So I could find a lot of the foods that I wanted to eat, and I could cook for my friends. Oh you’re having a birthday party and you want me to bring something? Alright, I’m making twenty pounds of rice and beans for you! It was a way to relax, to cook food like I was used to.
And in the lab now, that’s one of the ways we inspire ourselves and get creative. We all love to cook. Everyone who works with me is a big foodie. We’ll pick a new cuisine and everybody makes something for lunch, and that way we get to experiment with new flavors and combinations and it gets us thinking. We’re constantly learning and tasting and testing and experimenting.
Are you the first woman flavor guru?
I’m definitely not the first woman, but I believe I’m the first Hispanic woman. Actually one of my close friends here, a woman, was hired just a few weeks after me.
What has your experience as a woman of color in a science field been like? Have you had any other women to look to for mentorship?
You know, for me, I’ve actually never had a mentor who was a woman, I’ve only been mentored by men. In my first job [working for a cider company in Vermont], the other person I was working with was a guy who had worked there for a few years already. And, you know, after working so hard because I felt like I had to prove myself in college, then to prove myself in the master’s program, I felt like I had to prove myself to him, too. I was tired of having to prove myself! I was scrolling through LinkedIn one day, and I saw this job, and I thought, you know what, I’m going to just go for it... And I ended up getting it, out of over 700 applicants. That was crazy for me. I just started crying out of joy on the phone when the HR woman called me.
What is your philosophy of creating ice cream? How much of it is your own approach and how much of it is The Ben & Jerry way?
You know, it’s funny, I always think of it as just a liquid—ice cream, the base, it’s really just a liquid. You can infuse a liquid with so many different types of flavors and express yourself because it’s so easy to do with that base. That was the same with cider—it was fun to experiment for me with new flavor combinations there because it’s so easy to start with a liquid. The guy I was working with, I think I blew his mind when I explained it like that. He hadn’t thought of it that way before. But that’s how I think of ice cream, too.
For me, I feel very lucky in that I actually work and develop product for Japan and the Asian market, and what those customers want is a fun challenge for me because its very different from the American market.
Japanese snack foods tend to have more adventurous combinations of flavors, I bet that works well for ice cream.
It does! And, you know, sure, they are used to culturally having flavors that are a lot bolder than the US, but they also still want something that reads as that American, Ben & Jerry’s product. They still want swirls and chunks and chocolate. … And that’s what we do best, swirls and chunks, swirls and chunks. It’s really easy to express yourself and be creative with those building blocks.
How do you know when a flavor is perfect?
You know, like I said, we’re a bunch of foodies in the kitchen here. Everybody tastes it here first, and we’re very honest. It’s not personal, but no one holds back. The other flavor gurus are tough critics! If it passes that panel of judges, it might make it to the product line.
What’s your favorite classic B&J flavor?
I love a good chocolate chip cookie dough. It’s my go-to, you can’t go wrong. It’s comforting!
What are you working on right now?
I probably can’t tell you too many details, but we’re always trying to innovate and think of new ways to put out products that will surprise people. Like the pint slices and things like that. And I can definitely say that we have some products for next year that will be very exciting.