Lebanon Valley College (Taste Lab)

TASTE LAB

E.A.T. (Engage, Analyze, Transform) is an undergraduate research group designed to help students develop year-long research projects in collaboration with the college’s dining service provider. For the past three years, E.A.T. worked with Metz Culinary Management to run the Taste Lab project, which uses sensory science to improve the offerings in Lebanon Valley College’s dining hall. The Taste Lab is managed by one undergraduate researcher per year, who works with the E.A.T. director and Metz’s head chef to develop bi-weekly taste tests for students in a controlled setting. The focus each year is slightly different, but the overall approach has been to use the taste lab to help Metz Culinary gather student opinion as they strive to offer healthier, tastier, more international, and more sustainable dishes.

Overview

  • Project Coordinator: Robert Valgenti (valgenti@lvc.edu)
  • Participants: Dining Services, Faculty, Undergraduate Students
  • Dining Service Provider: Outside Contractor (Metz culinary Management)
  • Timeframe: Ongoing, year-long projects within student/instructor course load. Individual Taste Lab events are held every 2-3 weeks.
  • Funding: Dining Service Operations, Internal Grant

MOC Principles Engaged

  • 1. Be Transparent About Sourcing and Preparation
  • 4. Leverage Globally Inspired, Plant-Forward Culinary Strategies
  • 6. Grow Everyday Options, While Honoring Special Occasion Traditions
  • 7. Lead with Menu Messaging Around Flavor
  • 9. Celebrate Cultural Diversity and Discovery

Strategies for Collaboration

  • Student project leader meets regularly with head chef and EAT program director to develop taste tests to achieve a particular goal.
  • Project ideas are solicited from dining services (what are their needs, interests, etc.) and also from faculty and students who have interests that arise from curricula, class projects, service groups on campus, etc.
  • The lab allows the culinary staff to be creative and explore students' tastes and preferences without the risk associated with failed menu items.

Outcomes

The Taste Lab has allowed Metz Culinary management to test a number of healthier “comfort foods,” respond to student comments and criticisms, and explore dishes from cuisines unfamiliar to the student body. The most successful use of the Taste Lab brought about the transformation of the school’s beloved chicken tender from a highly processed and carbon-intensive product to one that is local, cooked from scratch, and never frozen (story from Chronicle of Higher Education here). A full collection of the outcomes from every taste lab (over 30) can be found on the EAT blog page.

Challenges

Matching a researcher’s controls and parameters with a chef’s desire to be creative and please the diner is the true point of collaboration in this project. Communication is essential, and over the years E.A.T. has learned this through trial and error, as only a minor change in the preparation of a sample can jeopardize the results of an experiment. It is also a challenge to get students to take 5-10 minutes out of their hectic schedules to volunteer for the Taste Lab, and as we E.A.T. leaders have noticed over three years, increasingly so. Most of the tasters have been return customers—so trying to capture the preferences of less adventurous eaters (the audience the E.A.T. researchers would really like to change) has been a consistent struggle.

Links and Contact

A full description of the EAT Research Group, including past projects, results, assessment reports, news stories, etc. can be found on the blog page: http://www2.lvc.edu/ea