Jessica Murray’s Culinary Journey to a PhD

By Becky Kramer

Jessica Murray grew up on a farm in southwest Washington, where family celebrations included elaborate, home-cooked meals.

That early exposure to scratch cooking and farm-fresh foods prompted Murray to take culinary classes in high school, with the initial goal of earning a two-year culinary arts degree.

Nine years later, Murray is working on a PhD through the Carson College of Business in hospitality and business management. The first-generation college student credits her time at WSU for opening doors to possibilities she never imagined during her childhood in Woodland, a town of 6,400 people.

During her time at WSU, Murray has helped introduce a new flour for use in pizza crusts and was part of the launch team for Crimson Confections, a student-led chocolate business. She’s also the primary author on five published journal articles and a coauthor on several others.

“If you are willing to put in the effort and the hard work, the faculty and staff here will create opportunities for you,” says Murray, who will graduate in May 2021.

The science of food

“Cooks know how, but chefs know why,” one of Murray’s early culinary instructors told her. The phrase stuck with her.

After completing two years of community college, Murray used a state scholarship to earn dual bachelor’s degrees at WSU in food science and hospitality business management.

Food science took her knowledge of culinary arts to a deeper level.

“It helps you understand the chemical processes, the microbiology, the physics, and technically, the engineering that goes on during food preparation,” says Murray, who later earned a master’s degree at WSU in food science. “It brings them all together.”

Researching a new flour

Jessica Murray instructs student workers during Crimson Confections production. (Photos by Lillie Williams/Carson College of Business)

Murray’s food science background was an asset when U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers brought a new wheat flour to Jamie Callison, the Carson College’s executive chef and culinary educator. They needed help with testing for product development.

Murray was working under Callison as the pastry lead for the School of Hospitality Business Management Catering Services.

“Do you want another job?” one of the USDA researchers asked her. For Murray, the chance to do paid research as an undergraduate was too good to turn down.

The flour had the high protein values of durum wheat, a hardy variety that grows in arid climates. But the new wheat variety had been bred with a softer kernel, which didn’t require the energy-intensive milling needed to turn traditional durum into flour.

Murray worked as a research assistant at the USDA’s Western Wheat Quality Lab in Pullman, where staff members guided her through how to conduct research and write journal papers.

The flour had “the protein and a great color, so we thought it would do well in pizza dough,” Murray says. “We started testing recipes—I got to see the process from research to farm to table.”

A farm near Lewiston grows and mills the soft-kernel durum wheat. It’s used in pizza crust at Porch Light Pizza in Pullman and other locations around the Northwest.

But the new wheat variety has a much broader geographic potential, including the Middle East and India, which have limited facilities for processing the hard durum varieties.

“With the softer kernel, farmers can theoretically mill this wheat at home,” says Murray, who published her research on the flour in the journal Cereal Chemistry.

She loves a challenge

Jessica Murray was a leader on the student team that spent about three years bringing the chocolates into commercial production.

During Crimson Confections’ launch, Murray was a leader on the student team that spent about three years bringing the chocolates into commercial production.

Extending the shelf life of the chocolates without adding chemical preservatives was one of the challenges the students had to overcome. The team relied on a natural additive and other methods that kept chocolate, butter, and cream as the main ingredients.

Murray “loves a challenge—the harder, the better,” says Callison. “She has a drive for excellence and the confidence to take risks. It’s been fun to watch her development.”

A future in teaching

For her doctoral dissertation, Murray is studying which wines pair with Asian-fusion foods. Classical wine pairings are based on French cuisine.

“But we know the world is changing, and umami—that earthy, brothy flavor—is becoming more important,” Murray says. “Asian-fusion foods haven’t been associated with wines. We want to bring them together so that wine doesn’t get left behind.”

Murray also has a new paper coming out about the use of soft durum flour in pasta. And she’s working on hospitality research related to how making memories creates value for consumers.

“Jessica has an impressive portfolio of academic research for someone at this point in her career,” says Chuck Munson, director of the college’s PhD program.

After Murray graduates, she plans to teach. But she’d like to keep a hand in research, too.

“There are so many opportunities for bridging that gap between food science and hospitality, which is where I like to be,” Murray says. “If I can find something where I get to do some research but also work with students every day, that would be my ideal.”