Why We Crave Certain Food and Other Eating Mysteries Unraveled by Our Culinary Scientist

How does a teenager who spent his Friday nights at home baking cookies become a culinary scientist who makes sense of things like trigeminal stimulation? Well, Sam Lopane can tell you. The 24-year-old resident of Washington, D.C. traces his passion for food back to his childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. His grandfather was a nutritional biochemist who helped Lopane view food as both an art and a science.

After getting his masters in Food, Nutrition, and Culinary Sciences (and continuing to test homemade recipes in his kitchen) he joined the Freshly team in 2018, becoming our culinary scientist. With his acute understand of flavor and taste, Lopane helps us make our meals more craveable. “I enjoy helping people eat and feel better without having to wade through an inordinate amount of sometimes contradictory information about nutrition and health,” he says.

We chatted with him about his unwavering belief that eating healthy shouldn’t be a herculean task—and of course, the science behind why we crave foods like chicken teriyaki.

Q: When were you first drawn to food? 

A: There wasn’t any one single moment—it’s a result of growing up in a food-centric family that traveled a lot. My maternal grandfather, who worked on nutrition and R&D for Kraft Foods and the National Dairy Board showed me that all food is essentially biomolecules, so cooking can be understood and analyzed through the lens of biochemistry. For many years, my dad’s side of the family managed restaurants and a hotel in Ohio, where I picked up on the role of food in the hospitality industry. I was struck by the ability to make people feel truly welcome through food.

Q: What was a staple in your kitchen growing up?

A: Pecorino Romano, which is similar to Parmesan cheese but is made from sheep’s milk and has a sharp, nutty flavor. My father’s side of the family is from Italy so I grew up accustomed to eating really good Italian food at home and grating a ton of Pecorino Romano over whatever pasta dish my mom had cooked. I would go over to my friends’ homes, and their parents would make pasta and hand me a little green plastic container that said “Parmesan” but it wasn’t—it was fake cheese. I’d be like, “What IS this?”

Freshly culinary scientist Sam Lopane. | Credit: Freshly
Freshly culinary scientist Sam Lopane. | Credit: Freshly

Q: How has your family’s—and your own—love of traveling impacted your culinary interest?

A: My family and I traveled around the US and also visited Europe, Central America and the Caribbean. Regardless of our destination, my parents insisted that we eat its local cuisine. Wanderlust as an adult has taken me to 46 of the 50 US states, Africa, and Asia. I continue to view food as a way to explore different places and understand diverse cultures. When you’re welcomed into someone’s home with food or beverages, that moment has the beautiful ability to break down barriers between people. 

Q: What’s something you always keep in your kitchen? 

A: Bread. I love a good grilled cheese sandwich so my pantry is always stocked with country bread from a neighborhood bakery or Dave’s Killer Bread because of its hearty texture and whole grains. I also keep eggs on-hand. They’re versatile and handy, whether you’re making an old-fashioned diner breakfast or a bibimbap. Plus, I stock up on homemade or jarred pickles either for a snack or as a cool and tangy complement to my meals. 

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Q: Do you listen to music while you cook?

A: Definitely. I play with an indie rock band called Monsoon Room so I gravitate toward indie and surf rock. While I was working on our upcoming Baja Mahi meal, I was jamming to the Bossa Nova album, Getz/Gilberto.

Q: How did your granola business get off the ground?

A: I actually started Mount Gilead Granola by accident. I was baking granola in my college apartment in 2014 because my tastes were evolving beyond what I could afford. I decided to test out some batches, and realized one day that my granola was pretty good! I started giving it to friends as gifts and one of them said, “You’ve got to sell this.” I was noncommittal, but he called me a week later and said that he’d scored a spot at a farmer’s market. I baked some, we showed up with granola in mason jars—and promptly sold out. Billiam-6.jpg copy

Q: Why does working at Freshly excite you?

A: This is my dream job: I have the opportunity to make a real impact by combining my culinary knowledge and scientific understanding of food and applying that to the Freshly meals I’m developing. It’s an incredible feeling to come up with a dish, help ideate on its name, determine the quantity of various ingredients that go into it, and then walk around the facility and see that meal getting ready to be shipped out. It’s incredible to be part of an innovative company that is showing people that eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to compromise on flavor or convenience. 

Q: What does healthy eating look like for you?

A: People have, for a very long time, tried to fit nutrition and healthy eating into this “calories in versus calories out” equation. But, the human body is much more complex than we still fully understand. So I’m a proponent of taking a holistic view of health, not putting ourselves in boxes, and being more forgiving of ourselves. Understand that we absolutely need to eat vegetables of all colors, but sometimes also just have to go for the donut. 

Q: How is Freshly making healthy eating more approachable?

A: The Super Pesto Fusilli is a great example: We took kale—an ingredient that people either love, hate, misunderstand or are intimidated by—and cooked it down a bit before transforming it into a delicious pesto packed with nutrients.We didn’t get rid of the Parmesan—we simply added broccoli and kale so the pesto would have more nutrients. Sure, some people like to eat kale as is, but many others can’t digest that much roughage. Putting it into a pesto that goes on top of pasta makes it easier for people to try—and, hopefully, love. 

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Q: What’s your favorite Freshly meal?

A: The Homestyle Chicken. I enjoy the flavor and heartiness of the chicken and green beans, and the mac and cheese is decadent, delicious and made with butternut and cauliflower. I love that!

Q: What’s a contribution to Freshly meals you’re proud of? 

A: The garlic green beans in the Low Country Boil and Homestyle Chicken. Our original cooking method involved heating oil, adding garlic to it, and then tossing in the green beans last. That works, if you’re going to eat the food right then and there. But over time, the beans in our meals were losing some of their moisture. So I created an emulsion (the technique that all salad dressings rely on), helping us coat the green beans so they retained their moisture and the flavor was delivered across the vegetable’s waxy exterior. It was a win-win!

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Q: Is it challenging to develop meals within the parameters of Freshly’s banned ingredients?

A: It is challenging, but I love the problem solving that comes with it! Rather than using preservatives like sodium erythorbate, we use time-honored traditions and natural ingredients. When it comes to flavor, instead of adding MSG, we use shiitake mushrooms, tomato paste, and other ingredients with natural glutamates that enhance both the flavor and nutrition of the meal. Ultimately, cooking with a clean label just requires being smart and leveraging a solid understanding of both food science and culinary art, which our team has plenty of!

Check out the flavorful fruits of Lopane’s labors in our new Chicken Teriyaki with Brown Rice and Veggies meal.