Michael Klopfer blazed his way into an episode of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters” with a butane torch. Now the UC Irvine graduate student in biomedical engineering wants to take what he learned to public schools. His vehicle: Iridescent, a science-education nonprofit that promotes science, technology, engineering and math among high school girls and minority children and their families.
But first, back to the food.
Klopfer, who researches cardiac imaging in Professor Sabee Molloi’s lab, found out from his Iridescent colleagues about the chance to appear in the “Blinded Me with Science” episode of “Top Chef Masters.” The hook was that scientists would pair up with chefs to illustrate some aspect of food science.
An engaging guy with a warm grin, Klopfer auditioned with a five-minute presentation on the properties of whipping cream prepared with oxygen, carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide. Out of 30 candidates, he won a spot along with scientists from UCLA, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Show producers matched him with chef Floyd Cardoz.
And that’s where the butane torch came into play. Klopfer was assigned to demonstrate the Maillard reaction – a type of nonenzymatic browning similar to caramelization caused by the chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat. Over the course of the 16-hour taping, Klopfer repeatedly applied the torch to a nice cut of beef and – voila! – browning occurred. The episode ran in June.
Cardoz, formerly of the Indian restaurant Tabla, in New York, eventually bested California chefs Traci Des Jardins and Mary Sue Milliken for Season 3’s $100,000 first-place prize.
Meanwhile, back at UCI, Klopfer is looking to establish an Iridescent chapter and parlay his knack for simplifying sophisticated science into Orange County outreach efforts. His former mentor in engineering, Goran Matijasevic – now director of UCI’s Chief Executive Roundtable – says Klopfer has “distinguished himself as a passionate leader” and is, therefore, uniquely suited to the task.
Founded by Tara Chklovski when she was an aerospace & mechanical engineering doctoral candidate at USC, Iridescent trains engineers from academia and industry to teach science to underrepresented minorities in summer camps, classrooms and family sessions. The goal is to nurture curiosity and show how knowledge can be empowering.
“I know a lot of grad students are looking for ways to give back, to reach out,” Klopfer says, “and this is a good way to do it. But right now, the organization is really centered at UCLA and USC, and that’s a long drive.” (There are chapters in the Bay Area and New York, too – longer drives still.)
“I hope to start a chapter at UCI and use it to draw kids to science,” he says. “We can play with everyday concepts like cooking to get them inspired and to understand that they can have a career and a future in science.”
And if a nicely browned steak enters the picture, so much the better.