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In Coming Food Fight, UC Students Seek the Sweet Taste of Victory

It’s a national food fight to the finish as University of Cincinnati students cook up an idea to best rivals from the East Coast and the South.

Date: 2/22/2007 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover

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The nation’s first-ever “culinology” product development/cook-off contest is sure to generate heat when the finalist teams mix it up in New Orleans on March 8, 2007.

The challenge for the three teams – representing the pioneering culinology programs at the University of Cincinnati, Cornell University and the Culinary Arts Institute at the  Mississippi University for Women – is one that daily faces professionals in the emerging field of “culinology:”

The contest, sponsored by the national Research Chefs Association (RCA), exemplifies the growth in the new job classification – culinologist ™ – and the recent rise in the number of academic programs offering culinology training.

A culinologist stands somewhere between chef and scientist, a professional with culinary preparation and presentation skills along with training in the hard sciences related to food chemistry and nutritional biochemistry as well product innovation and marketing. Thus, culinologists whip up new food products going straight from the laboratory to the dining-room tables, seeking to offer ready-to-eat frozen, refrigerated or store-shelf products that truly taste as though made from scratch.

The nation’s first culinology program was founded in 2001, and there are now seven such programs, most of which combine a two-year culinary degree from a community college with two years of study in the hard sciences at a local university.

The seven existing programs are

Michael Bunn, Haim Grinspan and Catrina Leatherwood
UC students, from left, Michael Bunn, Haim Grinspan and Catrina Leatherwood at work during a practice session for the national competition.

Most of these schools plus a number of others with traditional culinary programs entered RCA’s first-ever Student Culinology Competition with its first-place prize of $5,000 to the winning team (while the second-place team wins $2,500, and the third-place team wins $1,500.)

Behind both the competition and the growth in culinology programs are accelerated food trends within the larger society, often due to advances in science. These trends encompass a wide array of benefits in terms of taste, texture, ease of preparation or other advantages. For instance, one new trend is the addition of nutri-ceuticals (ingredients like anti-oxidants) placed within foods to provide benefits beyond nutrition.

Other examples: Restaurants are now creating “foam” sauces in which a sauce is infused (mixed) with a gas (like nitrous oxide) in order to both sharpen the flavor and release  aroma molecules. Or, the process of making ice cream (which would normally take hours) is reduced to 10 minutes by mixing the sweet, base cream sauce of the ice-cream product with liquid nitrogen. The treated cream base becomes very smooth, rich and thick within 10 minutes vs. the traditional form of ice-cream making which requires hours of churning and cooling.

“And,” explained Grace Yek, visiting assistant professor and coordinator of the Culinary Arts and Sciences Program, part of UC’s College of Applied Science, “The science-enhanced method of producing ice cream actually means a superior product in terms of quality. That’s because the more quickly a food cools (or crystallizes), the finer its crystals. The finer the crystals, the creamier the taste and the smoother the texture.”

The basic aim of the new trends in food science where the kitchen is now a science lab is  to take the despised frozen dinner of 20 years ago – and still requiring refrigeration today – into a shelf-stable “gold standard.” That’s coming ever closer to reality – where a frozen or shelf-stable entrée is as good as restaurant prepared items because scientific advances are increasing, changing the functional characteristics (texture and flavoring) of foods so that packaged entrees really do taste as good as the real thing.

And that’s also the goal of the March 8 competition. Students from across the nation were asked to create a nutritionally balanced, main course dinner entrée with chicken. The student teams then had to freeze the pre-portioned entrée and appropriate side orders and ship them to New Orleans.

On March 8, the finalist teams will gather at the Hilton Riverside Hotel and recreate fresh versions of their frozen foods. And judges from the RCA will taste both the fresh and frozen versions to determine which team best stepped up to the plate in creating a frozen option that tastes as good as fresh.

The UC team created “Zorro’s Pollo,” a chicken resting on a bed of Romesco sauce blending pomegranate juice and flavorings. Side dishes consist of rice with lemon scent, almonds and sun-dried tomatoes; and asparagus encrusted with Manchego aioli.


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