In preparation for this evening’s Meal Madness competition, we talked to seniors Sean Quan, a philosophy and psychology major, and Jenny Phan, a psychology and legal studies major with a cognitive science minor, of the Green Team. Both are involved the new student organization Cookology.
Northwestern Dining: What cooking memory stands out the most to you?
Sean: For me, it was watching my mom and dad cook at home. They never involved me greatly in the kitchen – maybe washing the occasional stick of celery or bok choi – but I’ve always wondered how they knew what to do to make food smell and taste delicious. “How do they know to fry off the garlic, ginger, and scallions before adding the other ingredients?”, “Why did they always make a small hole in a mound of flour before adding the wet ingredients when making dough?”, etc. In college these old memories resurfaced and developed in me a passion for food and cooking.
Jenny: For me, it was when my grandmother taught me how to make a simple Chinese rice porridge when I was 5. My grandmother took care of me during the daytime because my mom worked a full-time job, and she often made me rice porridge for breakfast. I was really surprised by how she made it in a way that involved just changing the ratios of water to rice. (I had always thought it was an entirely different process when I was young.) She even knew just how much salt to add: didn’t measure, didn’t hesitate, just did. It was inspiring to me not only to see how one small thing could change an entire dish, but also how intuitive her cooking was. It really drove home the idea that every ingredient and every technique, no matter how small or simple, matters when cooking.
ND: What do you love most about cooking?
SQ: It involves all the senses. You feel the ingredients before and after you’ve prepared them. You hear the tantalizing sizzling when something hits a hot pan. You smell the delicious aromas from the bread in the oven. You see the golden carmelization on a perfectly cooked steak. And of course you taste the amazing symphony of flavors which can be combined in an infinity of ways.
Also food, because it is so fundamental, leads into nearly every other field that humanity takes interest in. It leads one to chemistry as one tries to understand the whys of the kitchen. It leads one to love language and culture as different ethnic cuisines are explored. It leads to history and current events as one tries to understand the ever changing trends in taste preferences. And so much more. I could write a book on this subject if so many weren’t already written.
JP: I love creating; I grew up drawing, writing, and designing. To me, food is a medium that many people don’t think of expressing themselves through. Food can be art and still hold its function. Food is sustenance but fully our creation, and because this is so, we teach others about ourselves through what we cook and how we cook it. There are also so many dimensions to food and you can approach it from so many different disciplines—from chemistry to psychology to economics to history, etc. As such, it is the true universal language. No matter where we are or who we’re with, when we eat together we inevitably end up talking about things we have in common.
ND: What’s your favorite thing to cook?
SQ: I love to cook simple things. Ingredients that are so high quality that you don’t really need to do much to them. A beautifully aged steak with just salt can be one of the most delicious things that can grace one’s palate.
JP: I enjoy cooking very technical foods. I love the idea of having all these separate steps and seeing them all come together at the end to make a singular, well-rounded dish.
ND: What about Meal Madness are you most excited for?
SQ: The opportunity to cook alongside others who love food and are passionate about cooking… and then annihilating them.
JP: The ability to interact with the chefs on campus and to show our fellow students what food and cooking means to us.
ND: What are you most nervous for?
Both: Nothing. We’re bristling with anticipation.