Daniel Heron

Robyn Metcalfe


Photo Credit: Food Lab at UT | Daily Texan Staff

The University opened registration Sunday for the UT Food Lab Challenge, an international competition focused on the evolving food industry. 

Sponsored by the University’s Food Lab, the competition is centered on developing food industry startups, Robyn Metcalfe, lab director and human ecology lecturer, said. According to the University, applications will be accepted until Sept. 30, after which 20 finalists will be announced on Nov. 1. After the finalists are chosen, the 20 teams will be paired with mentors, who will provide feedback before the final presentation day on Feb. 14, 2015. Winners in each category will receive $5,000 and one team will receive the grand prize of $10,000.

Metcalfe said she has seen a growth in interest for food startups — especially from festivals like South By Southwest.

Metcalfe sees the competition as an opportunity to focus on the differences between most startups and businesses that are food-related since food is a perishable commodity, often controlled by government regulations.

“We really felt that, although there are common things food startups need to know in general about starting a business, there are some things really specific to food startups,” Metcalfe said. “We thought, first of all, igniting some interest around food startups was really important for that reason, and we can provide that kind of support for that kind of knowledge related to specific food startups.”

Daniel Heron, a UT alumnus who cofounded the Food Lab in 2012 with Metcalfe and still works with food startups at Tech Ranch in Austin, said he thinks the competition is a new opportunity for food entrepreneurs to get involved in the startup community and raise venture capital.

“I think it’s really cool because it’s focused on ‘How do we feed the city?’” Heron said. “It’s focused on the food system and how it refers to feeding urban populations, and that’s a very focused group.”

Metcalfe said that although Austin has numerous startup hubs, the Food Lab offers more tools for food-related entrepreneurial ideas in early development.

“The other thing is the idea came that, although there are numerous incubators and accelerators in Austin, what we can do is support really early stage startups. Those that are simply an idea,” Metcalfe said. “They don’t necessarily even have their long-term team assembled. They may not even have a good financial strategic plan, and we can help with that early stage.”

The competition is not restricted to students or those in Austin, and teams can be made of contestants from different countries.  

Nutrition junior Salima Bhimani said she likes the competition’s different themes — inputs and production, storages and distribution, healthy eating and food education and processing, packaging and safety — because of the flexibility it provides contestants.

“It’s a great way to get different ideas into the food industry,” Bhimani said. “Every individual has his own ideas, so it’s a cool way to acknowledge them.” 


Daniel Heron has no interest in being a commercial cook. The UT alum and Austin-based entrepreneur believes that food goes beyond the industry — it is a platform for different cultures to connect and understand each other.  

Heron is an instructor at Austin-based Cooking Up Cultures, a nonprofit that offers a fusion of language and cooking classes. These classes allow participants to learn a language in a kitchen environment, using food as a way to understand the basics of a language quickly.

When he studied at UT, Heron co-founded The Food Lab, a UT think tank that generates awareness about food systems, food justice issues and food politics. He also created the UT Food Studies Project, which allows students to focus on how food can be used to control nations and how to think about food from different angles.

Heron, who considers himself a food-loving global citizen, said he first discovered his passion for languages and culture during his time in Latin America. 

“From my experience in Brazil, in poverty, some of the foods that we eat in abundance and with ease here in the U.S. can be really used as a method of helping your brain deal with your economic status,” Heron said.

Heron is also the brainchild behind a monthly soup party called “Global Soup,” which he said he started to celebrate Austin’s diversity. Each month, Heron and the team at Cooking Up Cultures choose one language and cuisine to highlight, and a local chef prepares a soup based on a recipe from that chosen culture.

This month, “Global Soup” celebrates Latin American culture with chefs from Austin’s El Naranjo restaurant cooking a black bean soup with pasilla de Oaxaca chiles. The soup party will be Sunday at in.gredients, an East Austin zero-waste microgrocer.

“We wanted to do more outreach events,” Cooking Up Cultures founder Casey Smith said. “Even if you don’t want to sign up for an entire class, you can still experience the cross-cultural influences through one monthly event.”

Currently, Cooking Up Cultures offers language learning classes in English and Spanish with “Cooking Up Arabic” beginning in May and other classes in French, Russian and Chinese that will be launched soon.

“We have so many languages in the world today, so we were thinking about which ones we are were going to focus on,” Heron said. 

Smith and Heron decided that the easiest way to choose the languages they wanted to offer would be by choosing the six official languages of the United Nations.

Food, for Heron, is a way to overcome the common fear of other cultures.

“Moving to Texas was a radical change for me,” Heron said. “I was an obese person for most of my childhood. I knew my mom wasn’t going to cook for me anymore. Once I began cooking, I started seeing the world through the lens of food, in everything that I did. I now want to use food as a platform to build community and bridge cultures.”

Immersion-styled language learning is what makes “Cooking Up English” and “Cooking Up Spanish” a fun experience, according to Heron. “This way, no matter where you are at, you are always going to get something out of it,” Heron said.

The five-week classes have been structured to allow people to start learning recipes from day two of the class. Participants are discouraged from translating from English or Spanish to their native languages and are allowed to do so only when they truly do not understand what the instructor is asking them to do.

Spanish instructor and Cooking Up Cultures board member Adriana De La Cuadra said the whole idea of the class is to learn as you go along.

Cuadra, an Austin entrepreneur, is also co-founder of Lista, a web application to make it easier for people to cook at home.

“Language brings you closer to cultures,” Cuadra said. “The combination of cooking and language classes brings out the complexity of a culture through cooking.”

National dialogue about food production and consumption hits home with UT students in the new Food Studies Project.

The group held a live viewing party of the Jan. 21 TEDxManhattan conference, “Changing the Way We Eat,” as its first public event of the semester. Founder Daniel Heron, a Spanish and Portuguese senior, has been involved with food advocacy on campus for a while. He said the idea for the new student-run group came to him during a recent road trip with a friend.

“We had this coming together moment and said, ‘Why aren’t we discussing food and food subjects in our studies?’” Heron said. “‘Why isn’t there a program to discover the deeper meaning of food?’”

Heron used this idea to help form the Food Studies Project, a new organization of UT students working to bring people together to discuss current food issues and share a common love of food.

“Austin is a foodie city,” Heron said. “Last spring, we launched our public campaign to have a new institute at UT to bring food studies here It’s been going well since then.”

Heron said the organization is putting together an academic advising committee to reach out to other students, who can attend weekly meetings and get-togethers with local restaurant owners.

“Our main goal is to look at food holistically, coming from all perspectives,” said Brittany Smith, Food Studies Project’s lead editor of publications. “It’s been a fun process watching it grow. The interest is really kind of snowballing.”

Smith said the Food Studies Project aims to address topics like nutrition as well as political issues and moral questions involving food production.

“We ask, ‘Is the system we have bad?’” Smith said. “We’re approaching some of those problems and trying to come up with solutions.”

Heron said the project shares common interests with issues discussed at the TEDxManhattan conference in New York City. The seminar addresses topics such as abuses in the poultry industry, impacts of a high meat diet on the nation’s health and the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

Heron said he saw the conference as a way to link the Project’s interest in food with a growing national awareness on these types of issues.

“Their goal is similar to ours,” Heron said. “They want to start collaboration in the work field, we want to do it here on campus.”

The Food Project’s outreach director Ronak Patel said he hopes the TEDxManhattan conference will draw more attention to issues the project members hope to address at UT.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to start off the year,” Patel said. “I think it will generate a lot of hype here in Austin.”

For all the important issues the project addresses, Heron said its main purpose is simple.

“It’s really about bringing people together,” he said. “We want students to come and connect with working professionals to see what we can implement here.”

Printed on Tuesday January 24, 2012 as: Student group explores importance of food