Student Peter Murphy (left) looks on as Rolando Robledo (right), the head chef at "Clover" in Harvard Square, leads a lesson for Harvard University's Science and Cooking for Kids program this summer. Photo by Brock Parker.
When chef Rolando Robledo quizzed students in Harvard’s science and cooking lab last week why he soaks chickpeas in baking soda to make hummus, he had the class stumped.
The head chef at “Clover” in Harvard Square waited patiently as several students guessed incorrectly, and Robledo encouraged one who was just off the mark when he suggested the baking soda would improve the flavor.
Finally, the chef revealed to the attentive class of 9- to 13-year-old students that baking soda is used to break down the hard outer shell of chickpeas and keep hummus from being gritty.
“When you soak [chickpeas] and cook it in a little baking soda, it will sort of break that down and the hummus becomes creamy and really, really soft and delicious,” Robledo said.
For the past two weeks, Robledo and other local chefs have teamed with Harvard scientists to teach young children from Cambridge, Boston and the surrounding communities about the math and science behind cooking.
The free, two-week course, called Science and Cooking for Kids, is modeled roughly on a class taught to Harvard undergraduate students during the school year but re-tooled this summer to teach about 15 younger students.
“Our approach is encouraging them to be more comfortable with science and math and more excited with science and math,” said Kathryn Hollar, the director of education programs for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Somerville cheesemaker Lourdes Fiore Smith shows children the process for making string cheese. Photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer.
The summer program aims to inspire children to think about the science behind food preparation and the math needed to make and follow recipes. At the same time, kids who don’t necessarily have a scientist, engineer or mathematician for a parent get to spend time in the classroom with different role models.
White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses helped kick off the summer program this July, and other local chefs, including Gabe Bremer of “Salts Restaurant” in Cambridge and Jason Bond of Bondir Restaurant in Cambridge, have pitched in with lessons about everything from pickling foods to acidity, texture and the blending and mixing of foods and liquids.
Robledo said he was drawn to helping out with the course about the science of cooking in part because as his career has progressed as a chef, he’s become more interested a deeper understanding of cooking.
“I always did understand that I was a scientist to a degree, even though I was cooking,” he said.
Naveen Sinha, one of several Harvard graduate students who help explain the science of cooking to the kids, said students also get short math lessons each day on topics, such as the number of calories in food.
While the science of cooking class for Harvard undergraduate students includes much more math, Sinha said the class catered to kids for the summer program includes many of the same principles.
The kids also participate in physical education each day as part of the program, and of course get to sample everything they cook.
Kwame Awudo, a 13-year-old from Dorchester who is enrolled in the summer program, said he came into the course more interested in science, but he’s enjoyed applying science to cooking.
“You get to go deeper into the food,” he said. “It’s really fun.”
Natasha Mitchell, who lives in Mattapan and has three children ages 9 to 12 years old in the summer program, said the cooking lessons have sparked a new level of interest in cooking for her kids.
“They come home every day with some new something they want to try,” Mitchell said.