On Food and Education: Jonathan Deutsch

For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for fostering a healthier relationship with food. Here: Jonathan Deutsch, founder of the Drexel Food Lab in Philadelphia, whose culinary studies program is about culture, gastronomy, food science, business, food design – and cooking.

The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that that means just cookery lessons?

Jonathan Deutsch: I don’t think we should minimise cookery lessons. Everyone should learn to cook, it’s a life skill. If you think about it, food is the only truly interdisciplinary subject: humanities, social sciences, arts, and hard sciences, food touches everything. It’s also the only academic subject I can think of that safely uses all five senses as tools for inquiry.

If you think about it, food is the only truly interdisciplinary subject: humanities, social sciences, arts, and hard sciences, food touches everything.

I don’t distinguish between culinary education and food studies, I think that’s a big problem in our discipline. Food Studies is not just about history and literature, we also have to understand food. Food scholars can be just as obtuse and theoretical as people who are studying criminology, philosophy or any other academic field. The problem with that is it has taken us far away from the materiality and the hands-on connection to actual food. 

Student at the Drexel Food Lab, founded by Jonathan Deutsch photo © Craig Schlanser, courtesy Drexel University
Student at the Drexel Food Lab, founded by Jonathan Deutsch, photo © Craig Schlanser, courtesy Drexel University

We’re now at a level of maturity with food studies where we can say there’s no need to prove our mettle and be overly theoretical and abstract. We can investigate through the materiality of food. We can cook and think and learn all together.

Anyone who knows anything about memory knows that that smell (and taste a little bit) is so instrumental. When we’re teaching, we’re trying to get people to remember things, right? Not just vocabulary and labels but concepts and discoveries as well. I think food is instrumental to that. 

For example, we taught a class last summer with a wonderful philosopher named Craig Bach, about meat ethics. He led the ethical readings. And I did the hands-on component which included some really intense things like visiting a slaughterhouse where we chose the chickens to be slaughtered, one conventional and one organic, watched the process and then cooked and tasted them. 

It is my belief, and I think our students would agree, that’s much more resonant than a straightforward intellectual journey through the ethics of meat eating in a seminar discussion where there’s no meat, no death, no smells and no tastes. It’s a wildly different experience.

That’s much more resonant than a straightforward intellectual journey through the ethics of meat eating in a seminar discussion where there’s no meat, no death, no smells and no tastes.

The Common Table: What are you doing/have you done to change understanding related to food?

Jonathan Deutsch: One thing I’ve done is to focus on breaking down the didactic professional silos that make up a typical university food education. Usually with culinary or food science, you do your classroom training and learn the theory, then go out and do some sort of internship experience and, at the end of your studies, get a job and become a professional. Maybe you will come back for some additional higher-level theory with a postgraduate certificate or graduate school or something like that.

One thing I’ve done is to focus on breaking down the didactic professional silos that make up a typical university food education.

Students are increasingly questioning the relevance of this system, especially in culinary education. Who wants to learn culinary skills from someone like me, an irrelevant, old white guy who has been out of kitchens for decades? You want to learn from the guy with the beard and tattoos, who’s the hottest chef in the town right now, right?

I don’t see those two ways as mutually exclusive. I think we can conflate them quite a bit. The way we do it at Drexel is that if a food company, government agency or nonprofit external to the university has a challenge or a problem, our students can try to help with that problem. And while they’re doing that, they’re learning the practicalities they will need for the industry. But they’re learning it in such a way that they have the time, patience and expertise from the faculty and structure to slowly gain experience and have space to make mistakes.

Instead of saying, “I’m going to teach you chemistry, biology, history and cooking, then in four years, you’re going to combine all this stuff and somehow be a professional”, we’ve taken the educational, the experiential, and the professional, and collapsed them into something that is inductive rather than deductive. 

We’ve taken the educational, the experiential, and the professional, and collapsed them into something that is inductive rather than deductive. 

Our students are given problems like, for example, How do we create a new, healthy, yet indulgent snack for a consumer who has certain characteristics? Then they have to think about things like: How is this snack going to be stable from a food science perspective? How is it going to be culturally appropriate or relevant or fit into people’s lifestyles? Students have to draw upon gastronomy, history, and social science to solve the problem – incorporating their schooling organically in the process. Not to mention accessing and drawing on additional resources to generate sensory studies, design the packaging and so on.

Drexel Food Lab student prepping food with visiting chef Brian Lofink, photo © Craig Schlanser, courtesy Drexel University
Drexel Food Lab student with visiting chef Brian Lofink, photo © Craig Schlanser, courtesy Drexel University

The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach? And why?

Jonathan Deutsch: We do a lot of food product design at the Lab, but our real product is our future students and future professionals. When I started my career in the 1990s, there was no place to learn this kind of culinary science education. Or if there was, I wasn’t aware of it. Back then, you trained on the job as a chef in a restaurant or a hotel and when your knees and your back hurt too much, and you had gathered some skills and contacts you might make it to getting a job at a food company.

We do a lot of food product design at the Lab, but our real product is our future students and future professionals.

Now there’s an intentionality that the students can go through and they can get to a more sophisticated place by learning food science, gastronomy and other disciplines along the way. We can model food product design and development with students in our lab but the real goal is for them to go out and surpass what they’ve done with us in the industry, or as entrepreneurs.

Our growth now is focused on reaching more students. I’m particularly interested in the non-culinary students who join some of our courses. If I can get a medical student, nutrition student or data science student to understand what we’re doing and apply that in their profession then that is great. Because we’re a comprehensive research university, if we can get students, who have depth of knowledge in other disciplines, to also understand what we’re doing in food, then they’re going to be a new model in the industry.

The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field? What are your goals? 

Jonathan Deutsch: One goal is to help other institutions. We’re currently doing a project in Israel at Ben Gurion University where they’re starting a food lab. It looks and feels quite different from ours but is doing some of the same work. We have another project with the Institute for Culinary Arts and Nutrition in Rwanda. Closer to home we’re working with Chatham University in Pittsburgh and looking at doing something more statewide in Pennsylvania.

Another goal is better integration. Right now, the Food Lab is a sort of appendix to an academic department. I think we could better integrate the lab with the university’s academic program. We still have to do some work on restructuring but we’re already broadening our curriculum. We have just changed our Master’s in Food Science to Culinary and Food Science, for example. So we’re slowly integrating food product design and gastronomy into fields that were traditionally hard science-driven, without the cultural component or design components. If a food scientist is passionate about working with us, that pathway exists for them. In the future, it will be a requirement that if you study with us the understanding is you’re going to get this more interdisciplinary approach.

If we can get students, who have depth of knowledge in other disciplines, to also understand what we’re doing in food, then they’re going to be a new model in the industry.

The Common Table: What is the big-picture perspective in terms of the future of food education and where is it coming from?

Jonathan Deutsch: I’ll speak specifically about culinary education here. There’s still an undercurrent of feeling among chefs and food professionals that you don’t need to go to culinary school because you can learn on the job – that culinary school isn’t relevant. Unfortunately, in many cases, that’s true. If all you’re doing in culinary school is learning to cook, and not learning these other skills, then absolutely don’t pay me $50,000 to teach you to cook, go earn $20 an hour learning to cook from someone else. No one, including me, (especially me!) would disagree with this. But if you want to learn culture, gastronomy, food science, interdisciplinary food design, as well as cooking, then you will not learn that on the job. If you do want to learn those things, you’re gonna have to figure them out on your own time, which you really don’t have because you’ll be too tired from cooking. 

If all you’re doing in culinary school is learning to cook, and not learning these other skills, then absolutely don’t pay me $50,000 to teach you to cook, go earn $20 an hour learning to cook from someone else.

And so it’s on us, the educators. The fact that people are saying you don’t need culinary school is an indictment of the poor quality of culinary education in this country, which is focused too much on basic cooking and not enough on integrating entrepreneurship, food, science, gastronomy, and so on. Part of the reason for that is a lot of chef instructors are not conversant with those topics. I think we need to break that cycle and make culinary education relevant. Then no one will question the value because there will be things that you can get in culinary school that you can’t get in industry.

Jonathan Deutsch is a Professor in the Department of Food and Hospitality Management in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University. He is the Founding Program Director of Drexel’s Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship Programs and  Vice President of the Upcycled Food Foundation. Previously, he was the inaugural James Beard Foundation Impact Fellow, leading a national curriculum effort on food waste reduction for chefs and culinary educators. Before moving to Drexel, Deutsch built the culinary arts program at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York (CUNY) and the Ph.D. concentration in food studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and School of Public Health. At Drexel, he directs the Drexel Food Lab, a culinary innovation and food product research and development lab focused on solving real-world food system problems in sustainability, health promotion, and inclusive dining. He is the co-author or editor of eight books including Barbecue: A Global History (with Megan Elias). A classically trained chef, Deutsch worked in a variety of settings including product development, small luxury inns and restaurants. When not in the kitchen, he can be found behind his tuba.

Title image courtesy Drexel Food Lab

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