A Healthy Challenge

DATE: Friday, April 28, 2017

Course teaches Culinary Arts students about nutrition

HCC Culinary Arts student Scott Buchanan of Ludlow serves mini carrot muffins to guest judges, President Christina Royal and her staff assistant Nelson Lopez.

Professor Laura Christoph runs her "Nutrition for Food Service Professionals" class kind of like an episode of "Chopped," one of the Food Network's popular cooking competitions.

On "Chopped," contestants receive a mystery basket of mandatory ingredients and must prepare an original dish — before time runs out. A panel of judges evaluates each one on presentation, creativity, and taste.

Losers are "chopped" until one chef remains.

Christoph's cooking challenge isn't so draconian.

Each week, she presents her students with a list of readily available ingredients. Working in small groups, they must create an original recipe and have one hour to cook it.

Volunteer judges - anyone at HCC who shows up in the Picknelly Dining Room on Monday afternoons - offer opinions on creativity and flavor. Christoph grades on how well those dishes incorporate weekly lessons.

This contest is more about learning than losing. No one gets chopped.

"They're really making up their own stuff," Christoph said. "I am not a culinary artist. I'm a nutritionist, so this is a way that they can use their skills to create something new, but using their nutrition knowledge."

Students in the class are all part of the Culinary Arts program, training to be chefs or work in the food service industry. Each week in her class, they study a different nutrient. It might be a macronutrient, like carbohydrate, protein or fat, or a micronutrient, like a vitamin or mineral. On Mondays, they cook.

"They're learning how to cook for special populations," Christoph said. "That special population might be a lifestyle choice, like vegan or vegetarian, or it might be medical necessity, like someone with a heart condition or someone who needs to eat a gluten free diet."

Along with the recipes they prepare for the cooking challenge, students must also write a short paragraph to accompany their dishes, give a brief oral presentation in front of the judges, and answer questions from Christoph.

"They have to mention whether or not their recipe includes those lifestyle factors, and they have to talk about the things that are good about their recipe, in terms of nutrients," she said. "They also have to mention if their dish has some added sugar or solid fat in it and how it could be altered to make it a little healthier."

Josh Perreault, a 21-year-old Culinary Arts student from South Hadley, said the weekly cooking challenge has been an "absolutely incredible" experience.

"I've been cooking for five years now," he said. "This is the first time I've ever had to think about making my dishes healthy. Where I work it's really just about how it looks and how it tastes."

Perreault has been one of the cooking challenge champions. "He keeps winning for presentation," Christoph said. "Week one he had access to quinoa and some carrots. They only protein was an egg, and he made this gorgeous quinoa pilaf with the most beautiful poached egg I've ever seen on it."

Other standout dishes, she said, were a black bean burger and a savory oatmeal made from quinoa and oats with eggs on the side.

"The students are all given the same ingredients, and it's just amazing the variety of things they come up with," she said. "They do some really great stuff."

The class has also been partnering this semester with the Thrive Financial Success Center at HCC on a Service Learning Project. Thrive helps students who are struggling financially by helping them manage their budgets and referring them to other service agencies.

The ingredients Christoph chooses each week for the cooking challenge "baskets" are mostly inexpensive, nonperishable items you might find in a food pantry or could buy fresh from a local farmers market, such as oats, raisins, carrots, potatoes, lentils, quinoa, spinach, and apples.

The class is collecting the recipes they've created this semester into an e-book they plan to make available to Thrive center clients. By the time the semester is over, the cookbook will be more than 100 pages.

"The format of the class brings it back to home, how you can do really good cooking inexpensively," said Scott Buchanan, a 60-year-old Culinary Arts student from Ludlow.

The last cooking challenge for the semester is Monday, May 1. Students present their dishes from 3:45 to 4:15 p.m. in the Picknelly Dining Room, Frost 265.

Whose final meal will be best?

You be the judge.

STORY and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Thumbnail) Culinary Arts student Johanna Velazquez of Westfield prepares gnocci for her weekly nutrition class cooking challenge. (Thumbnail) HCC Culinary Arts student Scott Buchanan of Ludlow serves mini carrot muffins to guest judges, President Christina Royal and her staff assistant Nelson Lopez while Professor Laura Christoph looks on.