This summer, Rice chemistry student and aspiring medical doctor Tareck Haykal ’19 put his science knowledge to good use in the kitchen of a master chef. He’s in the midst of an incredible summer internship at Houston’s Underbelly restaurant, where he works with Chef Chris Shepherd, a recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award. Tareck shared with us how his internship is going.
During the second semester of my freshman year, I was enrolled in two amazing classes: NSCI 120 (Introduction into Scientific Research Challenges) and CHEM 154 (Honors Chemistry II Lab) where I worked for Underbelly doing food chemistry. I just happened to be placed on the food chemistry team in NSCI 120, and thus ended up working on the same project in two different labs. That allowed me to really immerse myself in the project. At the end of the semester, I accompanied my two professors from those classes to Underbelly to meet Chef Chris Shepherd and to discuss our class’s final results, and it was then that Chef Chris formally offered me a spot at Underbelly.
I have been given the rare opportunity — already — to apply the knowledge learned in my classes and understand what it feels like to work in an environment entirely outside of school.
As some may know, Underbelly buys its ingredients from local farmers. As a result, the restaurant typically buys out the entire stock of the product they want from those farms in order to ensure that the farm will continue to produce that same ingredient in the future and to help maintain the livelihoods of these local farmers. Underbelly, thus, has a large surplus of food that they simply don't know what to do with, but Chef Chris does not want to just throw it away and would much rather find a way to use it in some creative way.
That’s how our class’s vinegar project was formed. Chef Chris wanted to use up some of the extra fruits he had and use them to make a drinking vinegar call shrub. Unfortunately, Underbelly was not successful and ended up creating substances that resembled wine more than vinegar. Underbelly came to Rice for help.
Video: Rice students help award-winning chef support local farms
Throughout the year, the two classes worked together to find out what Underbelly was doing wrong. We eventually found out that they were missing a key ingredient known as a “mother,” or a colony of acetic acid bacteria. My job now is to figure out how much of that mother to add, when to add more of the alcoholic liquid they initially made to the mother, and to monitor the process of this new setup by testing for a number of factors, such as ethanol, acetic acid and sugar.
As of now, my primary setup is in Underbelly's kitchen, and I go to Rice whenever I need to run the more complicated tests. Overall, my first task here at Underbelly is to find out how to properly set up the vinegar production process and put the final touches on this project so that I can move on to Chef Chris' next idea.
My internship is still underway and could potentially even continue beyond this summer. This really has been an invaluable experience in a number of ways. I have been given the rare opportunity — already — to apply the knowledge learned in my classes and understand what it feels like to work in an environment entirely outside of school. I can’t begin to express my gratitude for this opportunity and all of the lessons ranging from science to priceless real-world experiences that it has afforded me.
After I graduate from Rice, I hope to move on and attend medical school, as it really has been my dream for a long time to become one of the best doctors in the world.
Tareck Haykal ’19