Students Test Out Their Food Creativity in New Falk Kitchens
In the new Falk College kitchens, creativity is unbound. Chef instructors and professors encourage students to experiment using the latest high-tech kitchen equipment, ingredients and cooking methods—and their students are taking up the challenge.
Nutrition major Mary Mik ’19, who is taking Restaurant and Food Services Operations (NSD 216) this semester, loves the space and equipment that can’t be found in a typical home kitchen.
“When I cook at home, I feel limited. But there are so many resources in the new kitchens to use: water faucets above stoves, food processors, a stove that heats water in around a minute. The list goes on,” Mik says. “Chef [Mary] Kiernan allows her students to try new equipment and foods simply just to experiment and get familiar with what else is out there beyond the few things we may have at home.”
First opened for classes in fall 2016, the Susan R. Klenk Learning Café and Kitchens in E.I. White Hall showcases the latest cooking technology in a laboratory setting to prepare students in both traditional and emerging food and nutrition competencies for careers in food, nutrition, dietetics and public health.
The new experimental food lab kitchen—which is set up in pods to accommodate 32 students—and commercial kitchen immerse students in a hands-on practical setting that many will be involved in when they enter their professional careers.
“The kitchens allow students to value trial and error and understand that critical importance of knowledge application,” says Mik, who is studying to become a registered dietitian.
Along with the kitchens, the new facility includes a baking nook, café and video camera system that can broadcast classes, food demonstrations and seminars to anywhere on campus or across the country.
(Those interested in testing out the facilities for credit can take a Maymester course in two separate courses. See below for more details.)
“Working in the commercial kitchen sets up our students to be able to walk into a commercial or industrial kitchen anywhere and feel more comfortable, less intimidated,” says Kiernan, a chef instructor in the Falk College. “This gives our students a bit of an edge.”
A stand-out feature of the new kitchens is the power of the equipment. “It’s vastly different than anything they’ve seen up to this point,” says Kiernan, who teaches the Restaurant and Food Services Operations course in which students prepare their own menus and are divided in groups to each handle one aspect of restaurant operations over the course of four services.
The use of the technology has been a learning experience for the instructors and students alike. For example, Kiernan lets her students do their own experimentation working with the ovens—which have many features—such as learning how to steam in the oven, not just on the stovetop.
“Those are the kinds of things they are learning with the technology, just the awesome power and the heat, so safety is really important,” Kiernan says.
Susan Fukes ’18, who is a lab assistant for courses that have included Kiernan’s Restaurant and Food Service Operations, agrees the new high-tech ovens are a top feature—allowing different foods to be cooked at different temperatures at the same time, which was especially helpful during service days. She also appreciates the amount of space in the new kitchens.
“When the kitchens were located in Lyman Hall, there wasn’t a lot of space to work in when preparing the food and there wasn’t a lot of storage space either,” says Fukes, who is majoring in nutrition. “The open space of the new kitchens improves the experience of the teacher and the students.”
Fukes has seen students grow in their abilities and self-assurance as they’ve worked in the new kitchens. Her favorite experience as a lab assistant was in the Restaurant and Food Service Operations course.
“Going through the class myself, I understood the heavy workload involved. What I really enjoyed was giving assistance to the students, providing them with helpful tips but also allowing them to work through the process on their own at times,” Fukes says. “It was great to watch their confidence build throughout the semester as they learned new and exciting ways of preparing foods; understanding food service operations, which gives them a greater appreciation for dining out themselves; and learning to work together as a team.”
In the hands-on Farm to Fork course, taught by Assistant Professor Evan Weissman and Kiernan, students learn about alternative food systems—in this case, community-supported agricultural programs (CSAs)—and work with local, seasonal foods as part of the students’ membership in CSA programs with local farmers.
“The kitchens allow us to not just engage with questions theoretically but also to gain opportunities for hands on exploration,” Weissman says. “The students gain culinary skills needed to be active food citizens, really participating in a food system. It is necessary for consumers to have culinary skills to allow them to work with regional produce and have much more direct control over foods they eat.”
The kitchens allow us to not just engage with questions theoretically but also to gain opportunities for hands on exploration.Assistant Professor Evan Weissman
Without knowing ahead of time what fresh local produce will be delivered, students have to think creatively about how to transform the ingredients and be creative, while Weissman and Kiernan provide the basic techniques and culinary skills and offer ongoing assistance.
The new teaching kitchens provide a spark to help students think big.
“We’ve got these new educational spaces that are lively and vibrant with cutting-edge technology. They are welcoming and create excitement around the program, while supporting our program goals,” Weissman says. “Students have the necessary resources and technologies to engage the class material in creative and innovative ways.”
For example, the wok station is perfect for seasonal vegetables, and the large cooking areas allow for preparation of large community meals for the whole class. The teaching technology in the café allows students to engage in lectures, while the modular features facilitates class discussions and group work.
Students have been mindful of the sustainable use of resources, using all they can of a food product, such as the trimmings on radishes and implementing the different technologies to help reduce waste of the product. Weissman has also seen some creative dishes, such as beet cupcakes and pizzas: “They used local flour to make the dough and then all regionally produced toppings. There were some creative pizzas coming out of those ovens.”
Kiernan sees the students’ creativity in action all the time, such as when a group was tasked with making strawberry ice cream. She encouraged them to try different things, like heating the strawberries and pureeing them before they are blended with the ice cream versus chopping up fresh strawberries and incorporating them in the ice cream.
“Whenever I can allow that to happen, they do it both ways; it gives them a benchmark, and they realize the parts per million on flavor happens differently when you handle the ingredients differently,” Kiernan says.
Mik, whose group in the NSD 216 course served Chancellor Kent Syverud at one of the meal services, looks back on the course experience as having taught her many complexities of food preparation. “For example, I have gotten to understand how and why certain flours work for cake and not bread, what happens when I mix muffin batter too much, and how to prep and serve food on a large scale,” Mik says.
As she pursues her studies toward eventually becoming a registered dietitian, Mik expects her internship will include a variety of areas in which dietitians work: clinical, community and food service. “The new Falk kitchens and NSD 216 gives me a view of what the food service side will look like in my internship and possibly what it will look like in my future as a dietitian,” Mik says.
For students, faculty or staff interested in taking food preparation courses, testing out the kitchens and getting credit, two courses are being offered during Maymester:
- Introduction to Culinary Arts (FST 222): Culinary theory paired with plenty of hands-on practice. Everything you need to prepare any recipe you encounter.
- Professional Baking (FST 201): From ingredients and measurements to mixes and dough. Experience bakeshop production and satisfy your sweet tooth.
The courses are in high demand during the fall and spring semester but room is available during the Maymester sessions.
View a tour of the Susan R. Klenk Learning Café and Kitchens below.