Associate Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller co-created a competition to encourage student members of the American Chemical Society (ACS) to develop their science communication and teamwork skills while also learning about chemistry through the lens of Cajun cuisine.
Miller and Associate Professor of Food Science at Cornell University Gavin Sacks debuted their unique student competition, “Communicating Chemistry: Cajun Cooking (C4),” during the 2013 meeting of the ACS, which took place April 7-11 in New Orleans, La. 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 and Sacks created a competition to use food to introduce people to the impact of science – and particularly chemistry – in their daily lives.
Last year, Miller launched the idea asking students in his “Bonding with Food: The Chemistry of Food Preparation, Production and Policy” course to offer food chemistry demonstrations to community members at an event in the Vandervort Room on campus.
“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,” Miller says. “What we do in the organic chemistry lab is essentially cooking – mix, add, separate, cook for a while, allow to cool – we are literally trying to make things. We just don’t get to eat our products.”
The “food and energy” theme of the national ACS meeting seemed to be a perfect time to present his idea nationally. Following the launch of the idea, student teams from around the country pitched their idea via entry videos. They were tasked with explaining the chemistry of a technique or dish featured in Cajun cuisine. The presentations focused on a well-known Cajun dish, a technique important to regional cooking, or on a chemical transformation that unites the cuisine. The final competition took place on Tuesday, April 9, at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
“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 is being held in a restaurant owned by Dickie Brennan – a famed New Orleans restaurant family,” Miller explains. “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 participated as a celebrity judge. Other celebrity judges included 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.”
Competition finalists included a graduate student team from Cornell University, who explored the role of metals and proteins in setting the gel in a perfect pecan pie filling; an undergraduate team from Fresno State, who discussed the chemical changes responsible for the nutty aromas, darkened color and thickening properties of roux, an essential component to many Louisiana dishes including Gumbo; and an undergraduate team from College of the Ozarks, who explored Crawfish Etouffee, a classic Cajun seafood stew, and discuss the effects of the cooking process on the multiple components of this dish, including changes to shellfish color, stew thickness and vegetable texture.
The competition included two phases, first a formal presentation from each team and then an interactive session with all three teams in the style of a science fair. In the formal segment, teams presented for 10 minutes on an aspect of food chemistry related to C4 to a panel of culinary and chemistry professionals, and before an audience of ACS members. The presentation was in the style of popular food science television shows, such as the Food Network’s “Good Eats,” and include live demonstrations and explanations.
Following the formal presentations, the three student groups invited the audience and judges to visit their interactive displays, sample their dishes and talk with them about their projects.
“Communicating Chemistry: Cajun Cooking (C4)” was presented with support of a Technical Division Innovative Projects Grant from the American Chemical Society; the event was also sponsored by the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division of the ACS. At the national meeting, Miller presented his research into possible anticancer therapies, an interdisciplinary research effort supported by the National Science Foundation.
Miller joined the Chemistry Department at Hobart and William Smith in 2004 and also teaches introduction to chemistry, and various levels of organic chemistry. He earned his A.B. from Princeton University, his Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his postdoctoral from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.