Connecting with students in today’s fast-paced environment of instant “facts,” social media stimulation and short attention spans can be a real challenge.
This is especially true when it comes to messages and information that can’t be delivered in a simple sound bite. As a chef instructor, I can attest that teaching in the food and culinary arena is no different than any other science-based discipline.
I recently watched an educational animation on umami from the people at MSGdish. The short video packs a lecture-full of information about the 5th taste in just under three minutes and is actually quite enjoyable to watch. And in the process, it gives interested students the foundation they need to critically evaluate much of the deeply entrenched misinformation about the ingredient monosodium glutamate, or MSG, they often foster when they enter the classroom. Watching the video made me think about how my perception of MSG has changed. Today, in part because of my deep dive into the science and experience of umami, I view MSG completely differently than when I started out in the profession. I see it as a tool in the arsenal of the chef–a tool that can be used along with other important tools such as sugar, salt, acid, and bitter.
“To do that, we use the equivalent of the painter’s palette, except our palette is filled with interesting tastes, aromas, and textures.”
I try and impress upon my students that it is our job to create flavors that are complete, compelling, and ultimately satisfying. To do that, we use the equivalent of the painter’s palette, except our palette is filled with interesting tastes, aromas, and textures. We put them together in unique combinations to create an intriguing sense of balance. In the kitchen, chefs know when it is best to add acidity in the form of lemon juice or a sprinkle of citric acid in a specific recipe. Each has its place in different preparations, depending on the desired outcome. Similarly, chefs can add salt to recipes or employ salty ingredients like olives, capers, cheese, etc. to achieve the necessary level of salinity and the flavor profile that the chef desires. Either way, it is NaCl. In the same way, umami is an integral taste in many preparations. It can either be added along with a food that is high in free glutamate or through MSG, which contributes a pure umami burst. The choice is that of the chef, but both have their place in different preparations.
As a chef instructor, it is important for me to disseminate straight information to my students in ways they can remember. Pertinent and sound YouTube clips, infographics and other social media can be among other excellent educational tools in the classroom. Students need to be taught the role that all foods and ingredients can play in developing different dishes with complex flavor profiles. How and when they choose to use any ingredient is ultimately their artistic decision—but all decisions should be based on sound fact. We need to continue to develop entertaining and effective tools that use contemporary language to break through some of our ingrained paradigms.