Caltech students have many unique opportunities—they can take a class with a Nobel laureate or do original research at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—but one activity that certainly ranks among the most special is cooking dinner for Stephen Hawking. On January 25, 36 undergraduate students whipped up an elaborate dinner of Indian cuisine for the eminent theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author, who was visiting the campus.
The students, dressed in white chef's coats and hats, not only cooked for Hawking but sat down for dinner with him, too, in Chandler Dining Hall. These students were born at about the time that Hawking's bestseller A Brief History of Time was first published, and for many of them, he's an icon.
"I'm super excited," said astrophysics major Radka Dancíková. "I've always known about him, so it's awesome to be here and to cook dinner for him. I've told all of my friends from home. They're super jealous but also excited for me."
Hawking, now director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, has spent about one month each year at Caltech since 1992. In 2000, four students asked if they could cook dinner for Hawking, and the event was so successful that it has become an annual tradition. It's now part of a popular cooking class taught by Tom Mannion, senior director for student activities and programs at Caltech.
Mannion's course is taught each semester at his home, and on the afternoon of the Hawking dinner, it was packed with students, student assistants who are cooking-class veterans, and alumni volunteers. They were busy chopping vegetables, blending ingredients, and stirring simmering pots of seafood and vegetable curry, cabbage, pork vindaloo, and other delicacies.
The recipes were provided by Caltech alumna Rosemary Macedo '87, who also directed the cooking. Macedo has been cooking Indian food for more than 20 years, having learned recipes from friends and their relatives. She's overseen five dinners for Hawking, who is partial to the spicy regional cuisine.
When the dishes were ready, the students carried steaming pots and trays down the block from Mannion's house to Chandler. Hawking soon arrived, accompanied by friends and colleagues, including Kip Thorne, the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus. Caltech alumni and other friends of the Institute also filled the two long tables.
At the conclusion of the meal, Thorne stood up and, speaking for Hawking, thanked Macedo and the students. "For Stephen, me, and his friends, this is always a highlight for Stephen's visit here," he said. The dinner was a highlight for the students, as well, and before the night ended, there was one more thrill. Hawking posed for a group picture, and then for one with each student. Sophomore Wade Hann-Caruthers put it simply: "This is a lot of fun."