PASADENA, California (Reuters) - Sarah studies observational cosmology, Glenn experiments with fluid dynamics and Marlena is making a computer tablet. But these students at Caltech, one of the most challenging universities in the world, struggle with a recipe for corn pudding.
Such is the irony of “Cooking Basics” — one of the most popular classes at the California Institute of Technology, in which the final exam-meal is judged by a Nobel laureate, one of the six on the faculty and 30 in the history of the university, located in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena.
“We have amazingly gifted people in science and engineering and they are viewed by many people as nerdy,” said Caltech’s French-born president, Jean-Lou Chameau.
“But at the same time, they are still young people, they want to learn about life, they want to do different things,” Chameau said as he observed 20 students tackling this week’s lesson — Southern U.S. cooking.
This being Caltech, there is a great emphasis on the science of cooking.
Course professor Thomas Mannion lectured on the “collagen breakdown” of barbecuing meat and recommended the book “Molecular Gastronomy.” The course textbook, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” was written by Caltech alumnus Harold McGee.
Mannion, Caltech’s assistant vice-president for campus life, started the course for academic credit last year to polish “some of the brightest kids on earth” before they go out into the highly competitive world of jobs and research grants.
He teaches the course at his home, with a professional kitchen, well-stocked pantries and a golden retriever who patrols for scraps.
“Many of them haven’t had exposure to some of the things that lead to success, like how to open a bottle of wine or cook for someone at their home or host a dinner,” said Mannion.
That is because they were too busy studying. To be admitted to Caltech, candidates need a near-perfect college entrance exam score, straight As in high school and a scientific feat under their belts. Only 200 are admitted each year.
Yet even these overachievers complain of the rigors of a school often described as “hell,” where studying until 4 a.m. is the norm.
“It is really high-intensity. There is a lot of demanding class work,” said Sarah Stokes, a physics major who mixed up the sugar and the salt quantities for the corn pudding.
Even though Mannion wants to make serious cooks out of these whiz kids, students say they enjoy the fun and relaxed atmosphere and amazing food.
“One thing we do a lot is herb-crusted beef tenderloin, which is really tasty and everyone loves it,” said junior Nicholas Galitzki, a physics major who is now a teaching assistant after taking the cooking course last year.
After three hours of preparation, the class and guests — including two recruiters from the Internet company Google — sit down to savor the classics of Southern cooking, like buttermilk biscuits, cheese grits and pulled pork.
Mannion’s students have prepared and served meals to illustrious visitors like physicist Stephen Hawking, to Caltech’s top management and to the newly arrived president, a demanding gourmand.
Chameau — who also backs students making their own olive oil from campus olive trees and brewing five types of beer — hopes Caltech’s fledgling love for food will be a lasting legacy.
“It adds to the mystique of Caltech,” said Chameau. “You don’t expect a university to do this, especially Caltech.”