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Consider the Sauce: Chemistry Major Began as a Chef

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You may not have the palate for this, but chowing down on a grasshopper got the attention of the producers of the television cooking show “Chopped” for then eighth-grader Lucy Felong ’21. Her daring move won her a chance to audition and earn second place in her round.

“I actually applied to ‘Chopped’ as a joke after I met the host of the show, Ted Allen, at a book signing,” Felong said. “I had completely forgotten about that. When I got a call from someone at Food Network, I thought it was my friends playing a prank on me.”

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Lucy Felong

After Felong finished filming she was approached by one of the judges, whose interest led to an internship and eventually a job at one of his restaurants on New York’s Lower East Side. There she began honing her culinary skills and growing as a chef.

It wasn’t until two years later that Felong realized it was the chemical reactivity in cooking food that fascinated her. That, and the fact that her mother was a laboratory technician at a local school, led her to pursue a degree in chemistry at Stony Brook.

This in turn resulted in undergraduate research at the Meng Lab in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where she conducts research on triple negative breast cancer, and at the Boon Group, where she is currently performing research pertaining to antibiotic resistance in biofilms.

“I’ve also had the opportunity to meet others who love chemistry as much as I do and work with many of them on the Eboard for the Undergraduate American Chemical Society,” Felong said.

But let’s toggle back to her early career, which had its roots in grade school. “I have been interested in cooking since I was a young kid, probably at about 6 or 7,” she said. “I started slowly, watching my parents cook and trying to follow along with them until I was able to follow recipes on my own. Some were very good, and include dishes I still make today, while others were less of a hit with my family and we wound up eating pizza for dinner. What really stood out to me were my sauces, since you can build flavors in increasing levels of complexity. They were always popular when I made them to pair with something.”

Felong demonstrated the link between chemistry and food by using food-safe liquid nitrogen to make ice cream in a matter of minutes rather than hours — at the revamping of Bob’s Grill this past October. Bob’s Grill was named for esteemed Chemistry Professor Robert Kerber, who served as president of the College of Arts and Sciences Senate, President of the University Senate and President of the Faculty Student Association.

As Felong pointed out, it’s the low boiling point of liquid nitrogen (-321 degrees Fahrenheit), which enables the ice cream base to freeze quickly.

Your garden variety chef probably doesn’t think like this though. “I realized how interested I was in reactivity while watching meat cook and then learning about the oxidation of myoglobin and how that is responsible for the changing color in cooking red meat,” said Felong.

Will she ever again don the toque blanche and white double-breasted jacket again?

“I might if I find that the job focused on molecular gastronomy. But it’s unlikely because my heart rests with research at the moment,” she said.

— Glenn Jochum

 

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