Reed Chef Shows Students How to Top Ramen the Healthy Way

Reed students learn critical knife skills in this cooking class organized and led by Bon Appétit.

When I was in school, I didn’t start cooking meals for myself until I moved off-campus at the end of my college career. Frankly, I had no idea how to cook on a budget, in the small campus kitchens, in a way that fit into my busy schedule. Back home, Mom usually cooked for our family of four, moving gracefully between the fully stocked fridge, the cutting board, the oven, and the dinner table, whereas I fumbled my way through it all.

If college students are going to cook, they need it to be simple, affordable, and efficient. And Bon Appétit’s Executive Sous Chef at Reed College, Jenny Nguyen, came up with a great idea for a cooking class that would achieve just that — with a healthful and easy twist on making top ramen, the quintessential college student’s meal.

The top ramen you buy from the grocery or convenience store is cheap, cooks in 3 minutes, has everything you need in one packet, and tastes good. But at upwards of 1,000 mg of sodium per packet and next to no nutritional benefits, it isn’t what anyone would call a quality meal. So when the ten students showed up for class, the first thing Jenny had them compare was what $50 would buy at the grocery store if it was spent on premade, processed meals versus whole ingredients. The list was shocking: the students could get so much more food if they bought whole ingredients!

Executive Sous Chef Jenny Nguyen demonstrates how easy it is to cook up fresh vegetables.

Once she’d convinced them that cooking from scratch could be cost effective, Jenny’s next goal was to show that it could be quick and tasty, too. She’d prepared a pan for each student with an onion, bell pepper, cilantro, ginger, garlic, and a tomato. Jenny then talked about how to properly cut and prepare whole vegetables, she shared different variations on ways to do a stir-fry, and she demonstrated cooking techniques and tricks of the trade. She suggested using the noodles from the ramen, but replacing the flavoring packet with fresh vegetables and simple sauce made from whole ingredients.

When we sat down together to enjoy our meal at the end of class, it was clear the students had learned a lot, loved the food, and had a great time.  Reed student Zak Garriss said, “It was a perfect storm of educational, fun, and tasty. I’m already planning steak stir-fry for dinner tonight.” The students are interested in turning this into a regular cooking series so that they can advance their skills. With the help of chefs like Jenny, they are well on their way to mastering the art of cooking simple food!