Every Friday morning in the Paul Peck Problem Solving and Research Center, a small group of about seven students gather to make up the Drexel Food Lab.
The Food Lab started in the spring term of 2014 when Director of the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management Jonathan Deutsch and a small group of students committed to doing recipe development for a small nonprofit called “Cook for Your Life.” All previous experimentation had been informal.
“That really changed us from being a really sort of impromptu, ad hoc, that worked whenever we had a project, to something with a steady schedule. So we started meeting weekly and started paying students, and really formalizing our process,” Deutsch said.
The mission of the Food Lab is to get culinary students to apply their cooking skills to solve real world problems. To do this, the lab works with industries, projects for non-profits, and it even develops its own products.
Their most recent work with the anti-poverty Bethesda Project, “My Brother’s House,” included creating low-cost and low-budget recipes from canned ingredients the homeless shelter gets on a regular basis. The shelter normally has a budget of only $600 a month.
“They’ve been doing recipe development for our canned vegetables because they’re kind of the hardest to work with,” Larry Russock, program coordinator of My Brother’s House, said.
According to Ally Zeitz, senior culinary arts major and Drexel Food Lab manager, “The challenge is working with the quality of the canned substances and making a recipe easy enough that [people] can multitask while doing it — which happens in a busy environment like a homeless shelter.”
The house employees have to take care of all 20 men that live there and do chores around the entire house — not just the kitchen. Their culinary skills vary, and often the “cooking” involves heating the canned food up and serving it as it comes.
“They don’t know what to do with the cans; they just open them and put them out. Which, the men don’t eat it — and then it’s waste,” Zeitz said.
“They shouldn’t be wasting food because they don’t have a lot of food, so they wanted us to make them some easy recipes with the cans,” she continued.
“You know, just because you’re in a bad situation financially doesn’t mean you’re going to compromise on good-tasting food,” Peter Schoemer explained. The culinary arts has worked in the Food Lab since its opening.
Using canned ingredients they picked up from the shelter itself, the lab created quick and simple recipes for the shelter’s employees.
For example, “Smooth Alaskan Peas,” one of the many foods the shelter receives produced for quantity rather than quality, comes out of the cans completely soggy and waterlogged. Zeitz came up with simple recipes like shepherd’s pie and pea soup — transforming the peas into something more appetizing.
“Just pour the can of peas into the pot, add a couple more things and then it becomes something that is recognizable, from these peas that don’t look appetizing,” Zeitz explained.
Canned spinach, another difficult ingredient, was transformed into things like spinach pie, spinach strata, and even saag paneer — an Indian dish with spinach and cheese.
“I like being given an ingredient and then getting to play around with it,” Schoemer said.
Through their work with My Brother’s House and other industries and organizations, the Food Lab is trying to establish itself as a valuable resource for industries and non-profits.
“I want students to apply what they’re learning and to solve real world problems and that’s not done at most culinary schools so I’m really proud of the work these students are doing,” Deutsch explained.
“We’re exposing these students far beyond anything they would get at a typical culinary hospitality education,” he continued.
The lab has also worked with Cook For Your Life (a website developed to help people with cancer find nutritious recipes), the Environmental Protection Agency (helping to create simple and healthy school lunches for kids), different industries that want recipes for their products — like onions, tomatoes or olive oil — and they even have an “Allan Kalish Food Innovation Fund” that supports students in developing their own recipes.