A FOUR-STUDENT TEAM from the Department of Chemistry, The UWI, Mona, beat 11 other international teams in March to win the American Chemical Society Food and Agricultural Division’s Communicating Chemistry: Caribbean Cuisine competition in food chemistry in San Diego, California, USA.
The students walked away with the main prize of US$750 per team member, conference registration and four cookbooks.
The team’s entry included the Jamaican national dish, ackee and saltfish; fried breadfruit, jerk chicken, gizzada, sorrel and pelau, a savoury one-pot Trinidadian favourite.
California Polytechnic State University came in second.
An elated Dr Andrea Goldson-Barnaby, Programme Coordinator for the MSc in Food and Agro Processing Technology, offered at the Department of Chemistry, told UWIMONA Now that the students, Shorna Smith, Nadine Whyte, Mario Christie and Rajeve Brooks were exceptional. “The presentation of the meals in terms of the garnish and style was A1. They also had the edge over the other teams based on the quality of their powerpoint presentation, and also because they prepared multiple dishes and explained the chemistry of what was actually happening.”
Goldson-Barnaby said before the competition the students were judged on the original proposal submitted as well as a video clip. “They were also judged on the meals prepared, their presentation of the meals, and details regarding the chemistry behind the preparation of the meal,” she added.
And the chemistry behind the preparation of the meal was not lost on team member and MPhil student Mario Christie, who underscored its importance.
“Food chemistry is the study of the components of food, how these components interact and change during processing (cooking) and how they interact with the body,” he explained.
“Food chemistry is very important as it spans not only manufacturing but is also applicable to health, agriculture and tourism. By understanding and applying principles of food chemistry in these spheres we are able to offer products and services at the highest quality and increase global competitiveness as a nation,” he added.
Reflecting on the steps to success in the competition, final-year food chemistry student Shorna Smith noted that although the process was demanding, she found it interactive and interesting. “What I enjoyed the most was the positive feedback. The audience was thrilled with the unique flavour of our dishes, our knowledge of the chemical aspect of the meals and the method of presentation.”
She credited the Institution’s win to team effort, determination and motivation from the outset.
For her part, Nadine Whyte, a second-year Microbiology undergraduate, was tasked with researching ackee for the group’s report and fried breadfruit for part of its oral presentation.
“It [research] was quite tedious initially with regard to preparation to go to the US; it required full understanding of the chemistry in order to explain it effectively. So I was constantly researching to broaden my knowledge,” she recalled.
Like Whyte, Christie said the research for the written proposal was intense. “There was so much information out there; having to determine what was relevant to give us the competitive edge was a bit of a challenge, but we were guided by our Advisor Dr Goldson-Barnaby and we were all happy with our product in the end.”
The judges, too, were happy with the presentation.
“We presented on the chemistry of ackee through its stages of maturation and what happens during preparation. We spoke about the caramelisation reactions when preparing gizzada and the maillard-type (browning) reactions which are primarily responsible for the flavour of roast breadfruit and jerk chicken,” Christie recalled.
Rajeve Brooks, second-year undergraduate student who focused on Biotechnology and Food Processing, was responsible for communicating the chemistry behind jerk chicken and the pelau dish from Trinidad. “Focus was placed on protein denaturation. My presentation highlighted how high heat during cooking alters chemical bonds within proteins in our food. Emphasis was also placed on flavour development and the ease of digestion brought on by the denaturation of the protein molecules,” he said.
The takeaway for Brooks from the competition was the reinforcement of the importance of understanding the chemical processes involved while cooking as this was essential to producing finished products of the highest quality. “I was also made aware of how food items being made available in stores due to an increased shelf life are possible due to food chemistry,” he said.
International judges included: Jason Knibb, Executive Chef Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar, Terry Acree, Professor of Food Science at Cornell University and Sally Mitchell STEM Educator and Albert Einstein Fellow.
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