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Mind, Hand — and Stomach: East Campus learns how to cook

Victoria Davenport, senior administrative assistant to the Dean for Student Life, offers her professional culinary skills in a cooking class for the students of East Campus.

Here’s a recipe for MIT: Take a dorm kitchen, add a warm-hearted staff member with culinary training, mix in 14 students eager to learn, and stir together for six weeks.

It’s a dish that was on the menu this fall in the East Campus dorm — a cooking class with Victoria Davenport, the senior administrative assistant to the dean for student life. On Wednesday evenings, her aspiring achefs gathered in a first-floor kitchen, assembled their ingredients, and prepared a meal under Davenport’s supervision.

The result was one part MIT, one part Julia Child. “It was really great because [Davenport] has this amazing skill and was excited to share it with us,” says Nicole Berdy, a senior physics major. “It was more a sharing of passions than ‘I’m going to teach you things.’”

Using equipment that Davenport brought from home, their own kitchen implements, and whatever they could find in the East Campus kitchens, the students tackled a different theme each week. Menus ranged from Americana to Latin flair to Italian; students brought their own supplies based on recipes handed out the previous week.

Each class was an exercise in organized chaos as much as cooking. Groups of three or four students clutched recipes as they swarmed around a few stoves and counters, simmering sauces, measuring ingredients, and chopping vegetables. Davenport whirled through the crowded kitchen answering questions, calling out instructions, and offering encouragement.

Davenport attended Newbury College’s culinary program, specializing in baking. She baked for the Boston Bread Company, which is Star Market’s bakery, and was the baker for a Hilton Hotel in Dedham, Mass. Then, in 1997, Davenport had to give up the profession after brain trauma from a car accident left her unable to withstand the high heat of a professional kitchen.

Despite her all-around training, Davenport still labels herself a baker. “I’m a baker because I’m meticulous,” she says, “whereas chefs can look in your refrigerator and come up with an idea. I don’t have the culinary imagination.”

But she tells the students that they don’t need a title to cook, just enthusiasm. “You don’t have to be a chef to be a culinarian, to prepare food, and to love eating,” she says.

The class reflected this philosophy. Rather than merely following recipes by rote, students learned about kitchen management, cooking tools, and basic techniques. They learned Davenport’s simple maxims such as the only tool in a kitchen allowed to have only one use is the fire extinguisher and the FIFO rule, or “first in, first out” when stocking a refrigerator.

Davenport, whose only compensation was reimbursement for parking, supplemented the student’s equipment with gear from her home, and the Office of Residential Life subsidized some of the food costs. Davenport even toured the MIT Produce Market with students to talk about how to select vegetables. “I didn’t just say, ‘Hi! This is how you make macaroni-and-cheese,’” she says.

Embedded in the different themes were fundamental lessons about cooking. When the class made macaroni-and-cheese, they weren’t just serving up an American comfort food — they were also learning how to prepare a béchamel, one of the five “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine.

The students took to cooking in typical MIT fashion. “Quirky. Funny. Inquisitive. Imaginative,” Davenport says of the group. “The night we made lasagna, we must have made four or five different types.”

After the hard work came the reward: eating. Sharing their creations with each other was not a problem. “Everyone could sample my eggplant lasagna,” said Berdy. “It’s a 9-by-13 pan, and I’m not that big.”

The last class — desserts — was among the most popular. Students made treats such as apple crisps, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, scones, and cheesecakes made with cookie dough instead of a pie shell. This freedom to experiment is what makes Davenport a wonderful teacher, says freshman Josh Oreman. “She’s not overbearing,” he says. “She doesn’t try to control us too much.”

At first, Davenport was worried that there would not be enough student interest to fill the class, but she ended up with a lengthy wait-list. Now, ask both student and teacher whether each would participate again, and the answers are as consistent as cake batter:

“In a heartbeat,” says Davenport.

“In a heartbeat,” says Berdy.

And so Davenport is planning to teach a class during IAP and another full session in the spring. She says she would love to teach baking to MIT students someday. This first East Campus class, however, will always have a special place in her heart. “They were really a joy,” she says. “And they have a real love for cooking. I’d like them to take it further.”

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