On this season of the reality TV program “MasterChef,” Hetal Vasavada wowed judges with a jelly-filled peanut butter cookie. “I had a lab notebook and everything!” the biochemistry graduate tells C&EN about the process she followed while perfecting the confections.
“MasterChef” pits amateur cooks against each other in a variety of challenges, such as creating a meal from a fixed set of ingredients or making a standard but challenging dish—or three—within a limited time. With the help of the cookies, Vasavada survived many rounds of competition to become one of the top six contestants of the show’s current season, its sixth.
Vasavada, who calls herself a “huge science nerd,” majored in biochemistry and minored in forensic chemistry at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia. As president of the American Chemical Society student chapter at the school, she created a periodic table composed of nine different types of brownies representing the different types of elements. The chemistry department still re-creates the table every year to celebrate National Chemistry Week.
Vasavada was drawn to biochemistry because of the idea that “one small chemical change can make a huge difference in your body,” she says. Also, “the first time you titrate and the solution goes from blue to purple? That is awesome!”
While working on organic synthesis and pharmacokinetics research projects in college, she got satisfaction from documenting observations and methods in her lab notebook, Vasavada says. Less satisfying was doing the same experiment “over and over and over again” to figure out why it wasn’t working, she says. “But the moment I figured it out—that Aha! moment—made it all worth it.”
Vasavada also struggled with isolation while working in the lab, so she eventually decided that she would be happier supporting science through administrative and business roles. After obtaining a master’s degree in biomedical sciences with a focus of organizational development and leadership, she went on to work on the business side of health care organizations.
After a few years, though, a love of cooking instilled by her mother led Vasavada to shift her career goals once again. In addition to appearing on “MasterChef,” she is now applying her food knowledge and business management background to start-up food companies.
She approaches cooking like a scientist, she says. Just as a chemist has to understand the reason for using a particular reagent in a reaction, she tries to understand the science of why foods are cooked in a certain way.
Vasavada is a mushroom-allergic vegetarian, so knowing some food science was particularly helpful when “MasterChef” trials required her to cook what she couldn’t taste. She had to prepare those dishes entirely using other senses combined with her cooking knowledge. Whether because of innate talent or observation skills honed in the lab, she succeeded, creating both a beef Wellington and an Indian-spiced fried chicken that “MasterChef” judges deemed delicious.
But it was in a challenge to make something using peanut butter and jelly that Vasavada’s skills really shone. She baked two varieties of cookies, one of which was the peanut butter cookie stuffed with jelly, akin to a mini jelly doughnut. She had developed the cookies prior to the show, when she was considering starting a cookie business. They weren’t easy to perfect, she says, because as the jelly heats up, it produces steam that can cause the cookies to explode. She won’t divulge her secret to baking them, but they helped earn her a win for that round.
Cookie success notwithstanding, Vasavada subsequently was eliminated from the show when she lost to her competitors in a test to make three different pasta dishes in an hour. Being on “MasterChef” “was so extreme, but so worth it,” she says, noting that she came out of it feeling both humbled and more confident.
Now, she’s keeping up her blog, Pretty Polymath, with recipes such as nut butter and chocolate bars and a panna cotta flavored with saffron, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg, and fennel seeds. She’s also working with food start-up companies. One is developing an appliance to make a crepe called dosa, which is traditionally prepared in South India from fermented rice and lentils. “I’m taking my management background and helping with research and development, public relations, media, and recipes if needed,” she says. Additionally, she’s working with another company to figure out how best to pack and transport its food products.
She enjoys what she’s doing because it brings all her worlds—science, business, and food—into one. Also, “I am definitely a cheerleader,” Vasavada says. “I like to help other people achieve success and reach their goals.”