Ken Lee, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at what I have been persuaded to call THE Ohio State University, an institution presided over by the highest paid public university president, Gordon Gee. He has chaired the department and also directs a Food Safety Center. Ken is an ACE Fellow this year visiting the System Office of the University of Wisconsin, spends part of his time running a major center around Food Science, and is one of the few academics I have ever met who really does have a sense of humor.
Bibliochef: So, let’s begin with the basics! I know you are the director of a food safety program at Ohio State and that your work is in “food science.” Can you tell us a bit about what food science is?
Ken: Food science is everything from the farm gate to the dinner plate. It's the nation's largest manufacturing industry with more total value in shipments than automobiles or computers. Our graduates are employed by industry, by academia, and by the government. We are the people who make the food safer, tastier, longer lasting, more appealing, less fattening, or whatever people want to buy in the modern market. We are not chefs and are not food service.
Bibliochef: What led you to get involved in food science? In food safety?
Ken: The agriculture college at Rutgers had the highest admission standards so it was natural to apply there first and I was admitted via early decision. I discovered this unique major where students and faculty members enjoyed weekly field trips to bakeries, breweries and canneries. Food safety is more recent, with the global emphasis on food security that started post 9/11. Food safety is a international priority with very local impact.
Bibliochef: It strikes me that food is a highly interdisciplinary field – a historical, cultural, scientific, topic that requires a whole array of methods and perspectives to understand. As you have been working on the topic in various ways for quite some time, what is the most surprising thing you have learned? Does that interdisciplinarity make you see science differently?
Ken: Yes, you have that exactly right. In my years as a department chair, I hired faculty members with degrees in food science, nutrition, chemistry, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, psychology, physical chemistry, microbiology, and maybe a few others. We have not yet hired a historian but anthropological nutrition is an emerging sub-field! Food manufacturing hires these disciplines and more. There is considerable interest in culinary arts for obvious reasons, and many scientists end up with MBA or business degrees.
Most surprising? This discipline has some really great people. They have integrity, intellect and humor. So it is surprising when I hear muckrakers accusing the people who work in food as placing personal gain ahead of societal good.
Interdisciplinary work inspires innovation. That is a wholly different question. I have always viewed science as a team effort engaging the most advanced thinking toward a practical or esoteric problem. The food problem is large and global, but it is something science can solve with the right team.
Bibliochef: Food is at the center of a whole array of controversies these days – from whether famine and hunger are political products to the critique of factory farming and the argument for local consumption. In what ways, if any, is your work affected by the “politics of food”?
Ken: Chancellor Biddy Martin (UW Madison) picked one of Michael Pollan's controversial food book for the "big read" at UW Madison this year. I asked her if men with pitchforks and lanterns showed up on her lawn, and she smiled and said yes they did. The controversy itself performs a scholarly function. It advances thinking on both sides and eventually society will benefit. Even if the book has substantial errors we all benefit from understanding the counterpoints and acting (peacefully) to make it right.
Bibliochef: I suspect that readers live in a world very much affected by the work of centers like yours – and perhaps encounter the impact of your work every day without knowing it. Is that so? Can you give us an illustration of the quotidian impact of the work of your department?
Ken: Nice cogent use of quotidian in a sentence! I'm going to take you on a virtual tour down the hallway of my department. I have a project with the microbiologist next door to make whole shell eggs safe, meeting the goals of the US Egg Safety Action plan signed by President Clinton. In the next office is engineer Melvin Pascall, who is designing dishwashers for home and restaurant in partnership with Hobart that ensure food safety. Professor Vodovotz has designed a heart-healthy soy bread that meets the FDA rules for health claims, and her student started a new bakery, Bavoy, to get it on the market. Dr. Li is figuring out ways to inactivate norovirus, the most common cause of food illness, also known to some as cruise ship disease. Professor Schwartz has teamed up with medical researchers to design foods that prevent cancer. They had some success with tomato-soy that is the subject of a new streaming video at: http:vimeo.com/10561014
Dr. Balasubramaniam figures out ways that ultra high pressure can make food safe without heat-- this technology is already in use to make raw oysters completely safe without cooking them. Dr. Zhang built a pulsed electric field machine that was responsible for the resurgence of the Genesis Juice Corporation in Seattle, and won the Industrial Achievement Award of the Institute of Food Technologists. Dr. Alvarez is teaching prisoners to be productive in a penitentiary dairy plant and also runs a new business incubator for food entrepreneurs on the outside. This is less than half of what's going on but I'll stop in the interest of space.
Bibliochef: Okay, that is cool beyond belief. From what you just said (and a bit of reading), I know you helped to create one of the most demographically diverse departments at Ohio State – do you think that the focus on food helped make that possible?
Ken: No, food is not the key here, it is a conscious awareness that diversity brings new solutions and multiple paths to any problem. Cultural diversity brings fresh perspectives and new ways to challenge expired paradigms. Diversity breeds better science particularly for team based problem solving. I look at my answer to 6 above and notice there are two Hispanic-Americans, one African-American and three Asian-Americans that I hired. I don't subscribe to the shallow argument that there is an insufficient pool of women or minorities to hire for science positions today. I hired mostly females and minorities and the unit is a much richer and scholarly environment as a result. I would like to say in a jocular way that we at The Ohio State University are building an academic program that will make our athletes proud.
Bibliochef: Of course, as a faculty member, life is about more than research. I know you are also a respected and popular teacher. (Having heard you speak I would love to be in that class!) Can you tell us about one of the classes you teach – and about the students you have encountered over the years?
Ken: I gained fame but not fortune by being among the first faculty members at UW Madison to put a class on local cable television. This was before PowerPoint was invented, so I hired a graphic artist for slides and started experimenting with the Mac II for animation. My wife and I did the course "headers" meaning the one-minute video show that introduced each lecture. Enrollments grew to over a thousand students per semester so I regret it was not possible to be on first name basis with my class. Decades later I still run into people who viewed my class. Once I forgot my ID at a checkout and the cashier said she knew who I was from the TV class. There were rumors of watching parties in the dorms, so I was reaching students who were not even enrolled. The real value of this kind of instruction was on-my-time learning. Students could come to class, but many liked to view the tapes at the library or set their VCR's for nightly rebroadcasts. I had a full time airline pilot in my class, and he really appreciated how the class was compatible with work.
I was enthusiastically greeted by several students at a professional meeting in Chicago. I asked when they were enrolled at UW Madison, and I got an embarrassed reply. It seems that somebody at their campus (not UW at all, but can't say where) recorded all my lectures from cable TV and was giving credit for my course on a campus where I never set foot, nor did I give permission. So much for intellectual property rights! I thought this was unethical but in a way it was a compliment.
I know you asked for one class, but at Ohio State I am teaching a small senior contemporary issues course called Alcohol and Society. Students learn about rampant and random affects of alcohol abuse, and the science of manufacture. A lot of bad stuff happens on campus where alcohol is involved, like sexual assault. We need to get awareness and moderation going nationwide.
Bibliochef: A colleague of mine also teaches a course on alcohol; it is a team course with a social scientist and a chemist; I am totally with you on some sort of reasonable efforts to move away from alcohol abuse. Anyway, so does your work affect your choices about what you eat? How you grocery shop or order in restaurants?
Ken: Yes, work makes me hungry. lol. I try to buy something I have never seen before when I shop. I tend to order stuff I never heard of before in restaurants. I think we are fortunate today as there is a culinary revolution underway, due in part to the cultural and ethnic diversity of our nation.
Bibliochef: So, do you cook? If so, would you share you’re a recipe?
Ken: Food scientist are not cooks or chefs. That is a different field entirely. Nonetheless my favorite is cheesecake. Three Philadelphia cream cheeses, five eggs, 1.5 cups of sugar, 1c sour cream, 1 tsp vanilla, lemon to taste, poppy seeds and chocolate chips optional. Use the J-hook on the Hobart and blend all ingredients creamy warm. Press chocolate chip cookie dough in the spring-form for the bottom crust. Bake it all at 350 F for an hour, kill the heat and don't refrigerate it until morning.
Bibliochef: Okay, okay. Not a chef! But I love cheesecake too so thanks for the recipe. And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Ken: I was a board member of the Food Update Foundation. It's annual meeting featured a narrated dinner by some of the best chefs from RCA (Research Chefs of America). This is where each chef would announce what was special about this particular course as it was served. When one of these chefs visit a kitchen, it is a really big deal and inspires the hotel staff to give it their best effort. So the presentation, the creativity of the chef, the efforts of the staff, the excellent company at the table, and the resort setting makes it a best ever meal.
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why?
Ken: I plead the 5th on books since your website pretty much covers it. The History Channel did a great job with their food series, as I am a sucker for the plant tour. Their Modern Marvels videos on alcohol and on nuts comes to mind. I like anything that is factual and does not try to scare people with misleading innuendo.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Ken: My academic ranks are from UW Madison in Babcock Hall, where all the ice cream was made. Have you ever enjoyed fresh ice cream before it is frozen hard? Outrageously good stuff. When Nixon normalized relations with communist China, the US delegation included UW Chancellor Shain, where they asked him for ice cream before he was off the runway. I like coffee ice cream, but vanilla does well inside a turtle sundae. I was at a dinner when former four term WI Governor Tommy Thompson walked in many hours late, delayed as that was the day TSA banned fluids in air travel. He ordered a big dish of ice cream instead of dinner. That was politically astute comfort food at its best.
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes? If you have never been there, what about a favorite restaurant elsewhere?
Ken: My grandma was always able to pinpoint the absolute best restaurants in NYC Chinatown. She did this by knowing the location of the best chefs, not the restaurants. These chefs moved around a lot, so there were times it was a different restaurant every month. So this question is a bit like asking what is your favorite movie theater. It's what appears on the screen that really counts. I sometimes ask who's in the kitchen and find the cooks at Cameron Mitchell restaurants in Columbus (Ohio) to be consistently good at it.
Bibliochef: What am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer?
Ken: This is the same last question that Jim Collins and his team asked top corporate executives when researching Good to Great. Maybe you can compile your interviews like Collins did and sell the text "Good to Eat." Instead of Level Five Leadership, we can research and define Level Five Eateries. The chapter on Confronting the Brutal Facts could be Confronting the Buffet Foods. A Culture of Discipline could be... you guessed it, yogurt! Anyhow you see how I ducked the question... by allowing letters and call-ins in my TV class I think I have heard every question and could write a book about that.
Bibliochef: Wow, I had no idea Jim Collins used my question! (Kidding of course! I must have missed that when I read his book. . . .A vague sort of floating memory is. . . ) Anyway, thanks for the great interview! Not to mention the book suggestion. . . .Hmmm. Culture of discipline, indeed!