Volume 30 · Number 3 · Spring 2013
Here come the foodies!
Magic happens when food science and culinary art mix at UC Davis.
Graduate student Anna Hjelmeland ‘08 was a chef at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in the Napa Valley before returning to UC Davis to earn a doctorate. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
For decades, UC Davis has trained some of the brightest chemists, engineers and molecular biologists and sent them out to revolutionize the food industry.
Scores of innovations, from frozen orange juice and California’s unique low-fat milk formulas to whey-based films that mimic plastic wrap, originated in UC Davis laboratories. And many of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies now have Aggies in their upper echelons.
During the past two decades, however, the ranks of food scientists on campus have increasingly been invaded by a new type of student — young people who grew up with the Food Network — as enamored of Alton Brown as they were of Big Bird.
Meet the foodies.
They’ve followed different paths, but each journey has led to the same destination — UC Davis — where these foodies hope to marry their love for food, flavor and cooking with a fascination for the science that lies behind it all.
“I always loved food — I’ve been a complete food-o-phile,” says graduate student Anna Hjelmeland ’08. Just two classes short of her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at UC Davis, she tossed aside medical school plans to dive into the culinary world.
Leaving school, she apprenticed first as a pantry chef and prep cook at The Waterboy Restaurant in Sacramento and later moved on to Thomas Keller’s acclaimed Bouchon Bistro in the Napa Valley. But she returned to UC Davis after three years as a professional chef left her stressed out, starved for intellectual stimulation and eager to meld her passions for food and science.
She found that opportunity in the laboratory of food chemist Susan Ebeler, a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology. Hjelmeland is working on her Ph.D. as she explores different methods for measuring glycosides — plant-based compounds that play an important role in aroma — with a special interest in table grapes and wine grapes.
Also in the Ebeler lab is graduate student Arielle Johnson, who began exploring the culinary world as an undergraduate at New York University, where she majored in chemistry with a double minor in English and food studies. During her sophomore year there, she joined a diverse research collective of faculty, students and chefs that was bound together by their common interest in “pushing the boundaries of cooking.”
Graduate student Arielle Johnson is intrigued by “the unanswered questions about deliciousness.” (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
As a member of the collective, Johnson probed the texture properties of an amazingly stretchy Turkish ice cream called maras dondurma. Upon completing her undergraduate program at NYU in 2009, she headed west, impressed by the reputation of UC Davis’ viticulture and enology department and hoping that the affiliated agricultural chemistry program would give her the flexibility to explore the gastronomic sciences.
To broaden her horizons, she worked last year as a flavor chemist in Copenhagen’s innovative Nordic Food Lab, conducting research that applied fermentation to Nordic crops and cuisine. The lab was cofounded by Rene Redzepi, head chef of the restaurant Noma, which Restaurant magazine has ranked as the best in the world.
Returning to UC Davis, she is pursuing a doctorate and studying how different aroma-producing compounds interact to impact food and cooking.
“I see science as a fantastic tool for exploring all of the unanswered questions about deliciousness,” Johnson said. “It illuminates an area of culture and nature that is poorly understood.”
And then there is Ali Bouzari, the University of Texas-trained biochemist who has been everything from a line cook to a cheese monger. Now teaching part time at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in the Napa Valley, Bouzari is working on a food biochemistry doctorate in the laboratory of food science professor Diane Barrett. He also is the rallying force for foodie students in the food-and-wine-related departments. (See “Recipe for a Perfect Food-Science Fusion.")
“I’m constantly looking for culinary applications for everything I come in contact with,” says Bouzari, who started cooking classes for the Food Science Graduate Association. Demonstrating pastries, pie crusts, Cajun gumbo, beignets and more, he looks on the classes as professional development for both the foodies and their more science-minded peers.
Where they are now
Numerous Aggies from a variety of disciplines ranging from English to zoology
have gone on to become chefs or restaurateurs. Here’s a glimpse at a few alums from
food science, nutrition and related majors.
“A lot of times, food scientists are really either chemists, biologists or engineers who just happen to be looking at food,” said Bouzari. He and his fellow foodies are dismayed by food science students who have little interest in cooking or flavor and seem to have missed out on the very soul of food — much like writers who scorn reading or engineers who never played with Legos.
Professor Hildegarde Heymann, a sensory scientist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology, says that students like Hjelmeland, Johnson and Bouzari are “food nuts in the best sense of the word.”
Sharing their interest in food and flavor, Heymann regularly opens her home for dinner parties for students in her lab and the other foodies who have joined in.
“These students ask questions you would not ask if you were just looking at the food microbiology or food chemistry,” Heymann said. “They keep us honest; they remind us that food is supposed to give pleasure, not just provide nutrients.”
“Their passion for food drives the questions, and the only way to answer those questions is with the chemistry and the engineering and the microbiology,” she said. “The best thing is when you put the food science and the culinary together — magic happens.”
The foodie students mirror a societal trend that has swept the United States and is largely a product of economics and culture, says longtime Food Science Professor Charles Shoemaker.
“The genesis of the phenomenon may have been in the 1980s, but it really came about in the 1990s and 2000s,” Shoemaker said. “Before that time, we had two types of restaurants — fast-food and what I call white-tablecloth restaurants.”
The fast-food restaurants had limited menus and relied on food items that were prepared at a central location and distributed to the franchises, according to Shoemaker. They required many cooks, who needed little training. The fine-dining restaurants, on the other hand, prepared almost all of their dishes on site, but were small and could be staffed by just one or two chefs.
Gradually, Americans began to dine out more and, today, spend nearly half of their food dollars on meals prepared away from home, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“As a result, there has been a growth in the mid-level restaurants that offer a wider range of menu items and attempt to serve some of the dishes you would historically expect from the white-tablecloth restaurants,” Shoemaker said.
Mid-level restaurants began to develop dishes that could be prepared on site, meaning chefs needed more food-science training. And the large food companies, eager to market products to the burgeoning restaurant industry, began hiring more research chefs to create dishes that could be reproduced throughout 1,000-restaurant chains.
“You began to see the worlds of food science and the culinary arts coming together,” Shoemaker said. “You had chefs trying to learn about food science and the food companies trying to train people with more ‘foodie’ sensibilities.”
And then came the Food Network.
Launched in 1993, the Food Network has in two decades become a wildly popular staple of television entertainment with its daytime instruction programs and nighttime competition shows. It enjoyed its most-watched year in 2012, with a nightly average of 1.1 million total viewers, making it a top 10 cable network for the fourth year in a row. It has been in this dining-out world of celebrity chefs that today’s students were raised.
“The Food Network humanized people in the food industry by putting forth individuals with big personalities who were passionate about food and attractive to younger people,” Shoemaker said. “That passion was the magic that woke people up to the possibilities in the food industry that we as a general public were not aware of.”
To be sure, there were celebrity chefs before the Food Network. Think Julia Child, Graham Kerr (the “Galloping Gourmet”) and, of course, UC Davis’ own Martin Yan.
UC Davis alumnus and celebrity chef Martin Yan recently opened a new restaurant, M.Y. China, in downtown San Francisco. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
An acclaimed chef and restaurateur, Yan ’73, M.S. ’77, began apprentice cooking in Hong Kong when just 13, trained at the Overseas Institute of Cookery in Hong Kong, and came to UC Davis in 1972 to obtain a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in food science.
“Cooking is not only an art; it is also a science, and if you understand the science, you’ll be a better chef,” Yan said during a recent interview at M.Y. China, his new restaurant in San Francisco’s Westfield Plaza on Market Street.
“And, having a culinary background gave me, as a food scientist, a better idea of how we can create a product that not only has a longer shelf life but also tastes better,” he added.
Yan recalls cooking for his lab mates and professors while at UC Davis, and teaching Chinese cooking classes at the campus Coffee House to earn money for tuition. He launched his now famous Yan Can Cook daily Chinese cooking program on public television in 1978, long before Guy Fieri, Paula Dean and Rachel Ray became household names.
Today, Yan travels worldwide, consulting with food companies and corporate chefs. He recently returned from Vietnam, where he filmed a new cooking show that will be aired in Asia. During his recent check-in at M.Y. China, he was quickly spotted by passersby who recognized his familiar face and trademark smile.
“I never wanted to be a media sensation; I just want to be their friend,” said Yan, after pausing for photos with a spontaneous gathering of fans. “That’s why people relate to me not as a celebrity, but as a friend.”
Few UC Davis graduates will find — or seek — the level of public attention that has come to Yan. But many are finding it quite possible to successfully combine their passions for both food and science.
Student clubs, speakers at UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and collaborative projects between campus and the Culinary Institute of America, all offer on-campus experiences in addition to the normal labs and lectures. And some foodie students have decided to top off their UC Davis degrees with a bit of formal culinary training.
Alumnae Christina Ramsay, who earned her bachelor’s degree in food science in 2009, and Anne Slisz, who received her master’s degree in food science in 2012, are now enrolled in the Accelerated Culinary Arts Program at the Culinary Institute’s Greystone campus in Napa Valley. The eight-month series of in-kitchen training is open to people who already have degrees in related fields. When they graduate this spring, they expect to have culinary knowledge and skills that will enhance their marketability as food scientists.
“Going into the program, I was thinking that it would be perfect for product development, because a lot of food companies are looking for people with culinary experience,” Slisz said. She found the in-kitchen experience so rewarding that she is now also considering future jobs in restaurant menu development.
Ramsay, who interned last year for the product-development firm Mattson & Co, is still mulling her career options.
“The only important thing is that I’m working with food and somehow enabling people to eat healthier,” she said. “I really want to help people understand what I love about cooking and enable them to take part in it.”
Ramsay and Slisz are part of a trend that is far more than a passing fad, says Assistant Professor Charlotte Biltekoff, an authority on the social and cultural aspects of eating habits in the United States.
“This is a trend that has real legs,” she said, tracing the roots of the food movement to the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s and its keen interest in ecology and the environment. She speaks with behind-the-scenes experience in the restaurant industry, having worked for six years as a line cook — primarily at San Francisco’s Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason — before going to graduate school.
“Food is so symbolically rich that it allows us to articulate how we feel, for example, about our highly industrialized, technological world,” Biltekoff said. “We can express broad political views through the language of food.”
“And food allows us to relate to a world that is very big and complex,” she said. “We want to better know and understand how our world works and how we fit in. The local food movement is one way that people situate themselves and recreate their world on a scale that makes sense.”
Food also provides an outlet for passion and creativity, which can be seen in the new generation of chefs that is now coming of age, says Jot Condie, president and chief executive officer of the California Restaurant Association.
“There is a changing of the guard in the industry — the young chefs are motivated by their romantic vision of being a chef and producing creative products, but they also are more in tune with sustainability and to locally sourcing their foods,” Condie said.
The emphasis on locally grown foods was a paradigm shift of the 1990s for the restaurant industry, he said, offering restaurants the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint, identify less-expensive foods, and develop new marketing tools.
“And it’s great because it means that these restaurants are creating — in a business sense — new micro-ecosystems for operators of small farms, linking them into the food-distribution system,” Condie said.
He and Biltekoff agree that the foodie movement is not going to be just a passing fad and point out that UC Davis is located in the academic and geographic heart of the movement.
“Like everything related to food and restaurants, the trends start in California and move eastward,” Condie said, noting that the locavore aspect of the movement is particularly well-suited to Northern California, where farmers markets are “ubiquitous.”
With growing student interest in food-related programs and historic strengths in everything from agriculture to food processing to nutrition, UC Davis is well positioned to do far more than just ride the wave of the food movement, Biltekoff said.
“Add in the social sciences and humanities, and UC Davis should be leading this movement,” she said.