When Associate Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller and students from his “Bonding with Food: The Chemistry of Food Preparation, Production and Policy,” course tossed pizzas into the air and exploded a small volcano in the Vandervort Room last spring, they were following in the footsteps of some of the world’s best chefs. Inspired by an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” where the contestants had to communicate an element of food science through an Edible Science Fair, Miller’s students used food to introduce people to the impact of science – and particularly chemistry – in their daily lives.
“Low-carb diets, trans-fats, protein-laden energy bars, sugary energy drinks: these all involve chemical concepts,” explains Miller.
Demonstrations such as the volcano taught participants about carbon dioxide production, and urged people to read nutrition labels more carefully than marketing messages and explained the nuances of organic foods, pesticides and artificial sweeteners.
Much like the syndicated “Top Chef” series and others like it, Miller will soon take his show to a national audience. He and Associate Professor of Food Science at Cornell University Gavin Sacks have developed a student competition, “Communicating Chemistry: Cajun Cooking (C4),” which will take place during the 245th meeting of the American Chemical Society this spring in New Orleans.
The theme of the meeting is food and energy. Student teams will make live, interactive presentations that convey critical topics in food chemistry in the style of popular food science television shows such as the Food Network’s “Good Eats.” Miller and Sacks designed C4 to encourage student members of the American Chemical Society to develop their science communication and teamwork skills in a creative environment while also learning about chemistry through the lens of Cajun cuisine.
“Ever since watching shows such as the ‘Top Chef’ with its edible science fair and Alton Brown’s ‘Good Eats,’ it has struck me how well you can use examples from food to explain sound chemistry concepts,” says Miller. “What we do in the organic chemistry lab is essentially cooking – mix, add, separate, cook for a while, let cool – we are literally trying to make things. We just don’t get to eat them.”
Undergraduate and graduate student teams of up to four members are invited to enter the competition. They will be tasked with explaining the chemistry of a technique or dish featured in Cajun cuisine. The focus may be on a well-known Cajun dish, a technique important to regional cooking, or on chemical transformation that unites the cuisine. Three teams will be selected as finalists and receive complementary registration and travel vouchers to the spring American Chemical Society meeting. The final competition takes place Tuesday, April 9, 2013, concurrent with the meeting, at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau Restaurant (French Quarter, New Orleans).
“I love the idea that we’re doing a competition on food chemistry, but taking into account the location. Not only is there a required focus on the cuisine of the area, it will be held in the newest restaurant by Dickie Brennan -a famed New Orleans restaurant family,” explains Miller. “The fact that chefs are welcoming chemists into their kitchen highlights how well the relationship between food and chemistry has advanced. There’s recognition between the fields that we need each other.”
In addition to opening his kitchen to chemists, Darin Nesbit, executive chef of Dickie Brennan family of restaurants will participate as a celebrity judge. Other celebrity judges include Terry Acree, professor of food science at Cornell University; Shirley Corriher, author of “Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” and “BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking;” and Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.”
“Communicating Chemistry: Cajun Cooking (C4)” is being presented with a Technical Division Innovative Projects Grant of the American Chemical Society. The event is also sponsored by the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society. For more information, contact Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Sacks, email@example.com. Deadline for student entries is Feb.18, 2013.
In the photo above, Associate Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller tosses a pizza during the 2011 Edible Science Fair at HWS.