New Upper School Faculty Explores How Food Influences Human Interaction

Balakrishnan “Bala” Selvakumar joined Poly’s Upper School faculty this year as a science teacher, but you may not be aware of his deep appreciation, academic research, and teaching about how food influences human interaction.

Food was the entry to many cultures for Bala dating back to his childhood in India. Living near Pondicherry, a former French colony, the place had an influence on his childhood through its food and language. His interest in French cuisine grew while earning his PhD in cell biology when a friend gave him a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, and he began more seriously exploring gastronomy.

Later in life, he and his wife were deciding whether to save for a house or travel the world. They chose the latter and made a stop at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where he learned about the HEG or Hautes Etudes du Goût (Advanced Studies of Taste) program. There, with the help of a scholarship, he wrote a university thesis about how food influences human interaction from a multidisciplinary perspective.

“The space where a meal is shared can foster diverse voices,” said Bala. “Letting each voice be heard allows the person to feel like they want to do it again and come back to the space. They feel like they belong and that what they’re saying has value.”

Bala moved to Poly due to his interest to continue to work for Ara Brown. He was attracted to the sense of community at the school and was pleasantly surprised to learn about Child's time at Poly and proximity to her childhood home in Pasadena. He is enjoying the conversations about food in the Poly community, especially, with the students. He is also enjoying discovering the culture of food in Los Angeles.

His interest in food and people has also influenced his courses in independent schools, allowing him to teach on the subject and bring in original research. Notably, Bala is currently teaching a course at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development entitled “Food, Community, and Neuroscience.” The interdisciplinary course looks at how food influences human interaction and is based on original research and personal interest in the subject. 

“I have a student where, every time she cooks roasted garlic pork ribs she is transported back to her grandmother's home in China, to a wooden table in the kitchen where they would cook. The memory is helping the student adapt to a foreign culture in a foreign land while maintaining close ties to the comforts of home far far away.”

We look forward to Bala’s further research on food and human interaction and its influence on his courses in the Upper School.