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Final Banquet Closes First Science of Cooking Class

Final Banquet Closes First Science of Cooking Class

Freshmen designed dishes and cooked for a banquet, which served as their final exam.

April 24, 2013 |
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Final exams can be nerve-wracking, especially when 60 sets of eyes -- including those of deans and department chairs -- are upon you.

For students in the Chemistry and Physics of Cooking, Chem 89S, the exam was a five-course dinner. The freshmen worked with chef Justine de Valicourt to design the dishes. Then they turned The Cookery, a Durham culinary incubator, into a banquet hall, cooked for 60, served the five-course meal and gave a short presentation about each dish.

"At the beginning of the year when we were told that for our final project we would have to create a new concept for a dish, I did not think that I would be able to do it, let alone be able to prepare it for a banquet," said freshman Emily Kragel. "But the class prepared us well for both the final project and the banquet."

The students' midterm was to write a paper describing a new, alternative dish using the concepts they learned in class. The final menu was developed using the students' ideas.

Kragel's dish inspired the meal's first course, a sweet potato mousse with stuffed blinis. "The hardest part was knowing that we would not be able to enjoy the meal along with our guests," she said, yet "serving the food and seeing the guests' reactions to our dishes was really exciting and a rewarding experience."

Banquet guest Robert Calderbank, dean of natural sciences, said the event and the class serve as good examples of how to encourage students to think about a career in the sciences. 

"If you arrive at Duke knowing that you want to major in chemistry you will find that we have a curriculum waiting for you to explore. But if you did not arrive at Duke with chemistry in mind and you signed up for the Chemistry and Physics of Cooking, then you might be tempted to explore chemistry further," he said. "It serves as a portal course for chemistry, and we need more portal courses across the sciences."

Chemistry chair Steve Craig also attended the banquet and said it "speaks to what can happen when you combine bright and energetic Duke students with talented and enthusiastic faculty in an environment where they can be creative in how they apply knowledge."  

Craig said the opportunity to be creative is the reward that comes with being a scientist, and finding more ways to bring that aspect into the early science curriculum can only be a good thing for helping scientific leaders of the future identify themselves.

Many of the students said they are now more interested in chemistry and physics than they were before they arrived at Duke. A few are considering a major in one of the fields, and those who aren't have a much better appreciation of the science of food and the effort that goes into running a restaurant.

"When else will we be able to be chefs, waiters or waitresses, and hosts all in one night?" said freshman Maria Kohlbrenner, who  developed the concept for the dessert, an apple creme brulee, which replaced the traditional egg with rice flour and pectin. 

"Although I had researched and understood everything about the apple creme brulee that I proposed, actually creating it and watching the guests enjoy it was a remarkable experience," Kohlbrenner said. "It was fun to see them marvel over the dishes and actually think about the science that had gone into the meal."

One of the key features to serving 60 was building the two meat plates in an assembly-line fashion. "Working on the assembly lines really brought the Chem 89S class together in a way that a normal group project or assignment doesn't have the capability to," said freshman John Park. "It was so much more about serving our guests and friends than it was about trying to get a good grade or get the approval of our professor," said Park, whose concept dish inspired the fish course called On the Beach.

"That genuine motivation to serve others proved to be strong in the end," Park said, adding that it was "so cool to see ideas that we had in our heads or had written about for our final paper really be manifested and tangible."

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