It’s not easy to look at a beet and see a myriad of possibilities. The root might as well be a rock when it’s dug up, needing extensive cooking periods to be chewable, let alone edible. This has not garnered a lot of love for the vermilion vegetable.
But Alex De Los Reyes and Julianne Scott, undergraduates in the Drexel Food Lab, have a great affection for beets. When Love Beets, a company that sells pre-cooked and marinated beets, asked the Food Lab to test how the flavor and texture of their product handled in various dishes, De Los Reyes and Scott knew exactly which culinary concoction they’d make: hummus.
“It’s actually a project very close to our hearts,” Scott said. “We love beet humus.”
“We were roommates last year,” De Los Reyes said. That was when an impulse grocery purchase turned into a shared snack preference. “We loved it so much we tried to make it ourselves. We eat it all in one day.”
Putting Love Beets products through their paces is not the usual Friday morning activity for the Food Lab. They usually spend this time developing recipes for nonprofits like cookforyourlife.org, a website for people who have specific dietary needs due to cancer.
But it’s not unusual, either. While the Food Lab is part of the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, the research group is self-supporting due to contracts with industry, collaborative grants stemming from pro bono work and revenue from developed food products. Large corporations like Hershey, small local businesses like West Philadelphia’s PB and Jams and government agencies like the EPA have contacted the Food Lab for consultation and development. Exploring the possibilities of food, whether it’s flour made of ground-up vegetable peels or the best way to combine chocolate and almonds, is what the Food Lab does best.
“Typically our clients find us,” said Ally Zeitz, Food Lab manager and 2015 alum. “They’re looking for culinary innovation, recipes and development. A big company, they have older people who are out of industry, thinking about what kids want to eat. So you might as well come to the Food Lab, where these students are the target audience. And they have great ideas.”
Indeed they do. In addition to De Los Reyes and Scott’s beet hummus, senior Dana Bloom whipped up some “old fashioned” red velvet cupcakes (the cake’s crimson color used to come from beets, before food coloring became more popular), senior James Capone mixed a quinoa, apple and beet salad and freshman Alex Schmaus and junior Emily Lloyd stirred a bombastic bounty of borsht. The impressive mix of classic and nouvelle flavors was not lost on the Love Beets representatives who were there to watch and taste.
“We reached out to Drexel’s culinary school,” said Natasha Shapiro, marketing manager for Love Beets. “At the time, we didn’t even know that the Food Lab existed, but we were excited to find out that it did and that Ally and her students were open and enthusiastic about using our beets for a class.”
They weren’t the only ones interested in the carmine culinary creations the Food Lab was concocting. Chefs from Sodexo, the company that runs campus dining, were very interested in the Love Beets products and the way the students were transforming them.
It’s this kind of interaction, the free exchange of ideas from people in the food industry, working chefs and culinary students, that is exactly what Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science, had in mind when he founded the Food Lab. The fact that the chefs in question are the ones in charge of feeding the students is icing on the proverbial red-velvet beet-cake.
“One of the things that excites me is the opportunity to improve campus dining through our research, in an organic way,” said Deutsch. The beauty of the Food Lab is that it doesn’t represent absolutes, but options. “We’re not walking in there and proposing all sorts of changes or overhauling anything. We’re just saying we’re a resource here on campus.”
That resource works both ways. Through their work at the Food Lab, De Los Reyes and Scott have discovered there’s much more to the food industry then just being a line chef. The Food Lab has allowed them to step into the shoes of consultants and other occupations on the business side of food.
Scott believes De Los Reyes has the right mindset for the more business-oriented side of the food industry. “She’s really good at making lists of things.”
“She’s definitely a better chef,” De Los Reyes said of Scott. “And I think that’s where we’re headed. We both came to Drexel thinking that we wanted to be one thing.”
Thanks to the Food Lab, they found far more possibilities than they imagined.