Community Work

Young Chefs: From Cooking to Science

Inspiring Success in the Classroom, Kitchen, and Beyond

Watch the TED talk “Cooking as Kitchen Science, A Recipe For Change” by co-founder Vayu Maini Rekdal. This talk highlights some of the big-picture themes that motivate our community work.

Program goals:

1. Empower students with tangible culinary skills and knowledge to foster healthy relationships with food and promote healthy eating behaviors.

2. Use cooking to engage students with scientific concepts and methods and enhance academic learning in the physical and biological sciences.

3. Provide underserved youth with college-aged role models and mentoring relationships to build confidence beyond the classroom and kitchen.

How we got where we are:

The afterschool program Young Chefs started in 2011 with the aim of empowering and inspiring youth through cooking. At the program’s outset, students at the middle school in Northfield, MN, got together with volunteers from Carleton College to explore the basics of nutritious and delicious cooking. The weekly after-school classes gave hands-on experience with a range of culinary techniques and ingredients, integrating skill-building into a creative process. Whether focused on salsa-making or flavor pairing, each class represented a unique opportunity for students to build not only culinary skills and creativity, but also important relationships with college-aged role models.

The program evolved alongside these relationships. As students quickly grew more confident in their own cooking abilities, we opened up for greater freedom in the kitchen, guiding students through a process where every failure was regarded as an opportunity to learn something new. These explorations fostered a deep engagement with cooking and a profound curiosity for seeking explanations behind everyday kitchen phenomena. What happens if you add more salt to cabbage? Mustard to oil and vinegar? Why does bread rise? In their quest to create delicious foods, students also sought to understand the principles governing the edible outcomes. In other words, students wanted to learn not only what happened in the kitchen, but also why and how it happened.  They were hungry for the science that supported the cooking.

Science and cooking are beautifully interconnected. Cooking was perhaps the first form of science that humans explored, and is the science that billions of people around the world unknowingly use every day. Common food ingredients and cooking processes hide a tremendous wealth of scientific concepts; the making of a salad dressing can illustrate the principles governing miscibility of liquids; the baking of bread can highlight the process of respiration, to name a few examples. Beyond illustrating scientific concepts, cooking embodies the scientific method as practiced by scientists; it is a highly experimental process, guided by trial and error. Cooking requires people to make predictions, collect observations, and draw conclusions on the road to discovery. However, just as cooking can teach us something about science, science can also teach us something about cooking. A fundamental understanding of the science at play in the kitchen moves the process of creation and manipulation to new dimensions of texture, flavor, and sensations. Cooking and science are inseparable, working in concert to support each other.

The close interrelationship between science and cooking lies at the core of the Young Chefs program today. We use cooking to engage students with scientific techniques and concepts, and use science to inspire culinary creativity. The program has grown from a cooking program to an interdisciplinary experience that integrates mentoring, cooking, and science to empower students in the kitchen, classroom, and beyond. We have primarily run our program with at-risk middle school students in multiple schools. The students have reported increased confidence in their science and cooking abilities after participating in the program. We have also tested our program with other age groups, especially younger students. Together, these experiences have confirmed how cooking can engage students with food and science in unique ways. In a similar vein, our work has also underlined the versatility of our program: it can be adopted as an enriching academic after school program, as a supportive measure to the standard science curriculum, or just as a one-time activity, with many more possibilities. Whatever the format, we believe that our model has the potential to engage students with the food they eat and the scientific topics they learn in the classroom.

Cooking bridges gaps between academic learning and personal experiences by inviting students to make connections between everyday experiences with food and unfamiliar scientific concepts. Cooking provides a tangible platform for interactions with science, encouraging students to use all their senses as they cook their way into a better understanding of the workings of the natural world. In addition, science in the kitchen is portable and accessible. It can not only be adapted to classrooms that may lack sufficient science equipment, but also allows students to conduct experiments outside traditional laboratory settings. We are always amazed when students tell us they have tried our experiments at home, sharing their enthusiasm with friends and family. As an unintended consequence, this enthusiasm has nurtured a curiosity among students for about human interactions with food from a scientific standpoint. How does digestion work? Why is it important to eat different colored foods? In answering these questions, we have been able to demonstrate the scientific basis of health, providing students with creative ways to think about and approach nutrition.

Overall, perhaps our greatest lessons belong in less tangible realms. In our work with Young Chefs, we have realized how cooking can connect us with the natural world and our inner creative spirits, but we have also learned how it can bridge new relationships between individuals. Our students ask us about cooking temperatures and scientific measurements, about life in general. “How does one become a professional chef?” “If I want to be a scientist, what should I focus on in school?” “What is college like?” Science in the kitchen brings cooking to life in a unique way, adding new dimensions to a universal language capable of facilitating relationships between individuals of different backgrounds, ages, and passions.