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Cooking is Chemistry

Ruth Reichl applauds the chemistry behind the challenge's top dishes -- and the lack of it between Hugh Acheson and his partner.

By Ruth Reichl


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I wish you could have been there when the kids came rushing into the room; they were curious and excited about this science fair. And they were hungry.

Cooking is chemistry –- we all know that. But this challenge gave the chefs a chance to demonstrate their science savvy –- and so much more. They also had an opportunity to show that they are still open to learning, how well they work with others, and whether they could walk that tightrope between pleasing a group of ravenous teenagers and a panel of picky critics. What amazed me was the huge gulf between the chefs who did well and those who did poorly.

Consider Hugh. This was the moment when we found out that he really does not play well with others. Teamed up with a smart scientist eager to strut his stuff, what does Hugh do? Turns him into a lowly prep cook. He’s not about to share the stage with anyone. He’s not about to admit that he has anything to learn. And even though we critics knew nothing of the little drama between the two men when we were standing at their station, we could absolutely taste it. This salad lacked passion. It was certainly not a salad that was going to wow a anyone –- least of all high school students –- and no one eating it would have any reason to wonder about emulsions. Hugh took the easy way out, and for sheer absence of curiosity he absolutely deserved to lose. 

Mary Sue, on the other hand, went at this challenge with typical enthusiasm. She asked questions of her partner, used her expertise. And she knew exactly how to pull the students into her demonstration. She began by feeding them something that would excite them; nobody could eat those little churros without wanting more. I was doubly impressed because her assignment –- viscosity –- is so hard to demonstrate. If you doubt this, ask yourself what you would have done. it’d be hard to beat that race to the bottom of the petri dish. 

You’d expect Floyd to do well –- after all, he’s Mr. Science, and he was clearly comfortable with his partner. But his demonstration of the Maillard reaction was –- as James would say –- a lightbulb moment. It was a really smart demonstration –- and really smart food. Both those dishes were both delicious. More please!

Then there is Traci. A few weeks later I ran into her at the James Beard Awards, and I watched as she and her young son shared a plate of food. It was a lovely moment. Maybe Eli’s such an adventurous eater that Traci’s forgotten that the average American teen prefers his tuna in a can. If they’re forced to eat it fresh, they’d rather have it cooked. I really liked my ceviche, but as I was eating mine one girl looked at my plate and said, “pretty gross.” Traci might have factored that in.

As for Naomi, her demonstration left me baffled. I just didn’t get it. The pizza pockets were pleasant enough –- I even liked the much-disputed melting gelée –- but by the time Naomi had thrown out her handful of ideas –- plasticity!, elasticity!, springiness! –- I had forgotten what she was trying to demonstrate. Still, you have to love the way Naomi throws herself into every challenge. And you have to acknowledge her heart. But sometimes Naomi, less is more. 



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