Secret Sauce to Achievement

Hari Pulapaka in the classroom
Hari Pulapaka
Hari Pulapaka

Stetson math professor Hari Pulapaka measures his time in the classroom and at his restaurant. The numbers add up nicely.

Hari Pulapaka, Ph.D., specializes in dishing up food for thought as an associate math professor at Stetson.

But when he’s away from his classroom, he usually can be found in the kitchen at Cress restaurant in downtown DeLand, creating dishes that have made him one of the most acclaimed chefs in Florida.

His impressive accomplishments include being named a James Beard Award semifinalist four times since 2011 for Best Chef South and People’s Best Chef in 2012 and 2013 by Food & Wine magazine. He’s also the author of the books “Dreaming in Spice” (2015) and “Sinfully Vegetarian” (planned release spring 2017).

Nine years ago, already an established professor at Stetson, Pulapaka, a certified executive chef, decided with his wife, a surgeon, to open a restaurant during the Great Recession, putting his previous culinary school degree to use.

Cress restaurant
The Cress restaurant in downtown DeLand has won many awards.

“It’s challenging to say the least,” said Pulapaka, who was born in Bombay, India. “There is a routine like teaching. No two dishes or days are the same, just like no two customers or students are the same.”

He shops and buys his own produce, mostly from local farms, and prepares and cooks the meals himself at the restaurant, which is open for dinner Thursdays through Saturdays.

“Why did I do it? Three words. Professional midlife crisis. It was my first and will be my only restaurant,” he said with a grin, seated at a table in the small, simply furnished dining room, before heading back to the kitchen to prepare the night’s fare that included duck, rice and crème brûlée for dessert. “It wasn’t difficult to do. I just needed to be sure I had enough sense to know what I was getting into.”

Pulapaka, a Ph.D., is in his 17th year in Stetson’s mathematics department, teaching a number of courses for students, freshmen through seniors. He encourages them to focus on creative ways to reach a solution to a problem, rather than seek and memorize a single process.

He sees a similar, creative parallels in his two careers.

“Both require a lot of attention to detail. You can mix in several ways to come to a solution in math or in food,” he said. “I cook by feel and tasting. Math also has a lot of feel. It’s not black and white.

Hari Pulapaka
Hari Pulapaka

Pulapaka teaches a full class load four days a week usually from early morning through mid-afternoon. Then he heads to his restaurant, cooking, taking orders and serving food, usually until closing around midnight.

His dishes often have Indian and French influences. Although he has no signature meal, he is best known for his inventive seafood preparations. “My food tends to have bold flavors. I have a French cooking degree,” he said. “My style incorporates classical techniques with progressive flavors … seasonally bold food.”

At press time, Pulapaka was awaiting word about being named a James Beard Award regional semifinalist, after being nominated by peers, food writers and customers.

“No one in our region [one of 10 nationwide] has ever won. Just being on the list is an honor,” he said. “This is a food-strong region that includes Miami and New Orleans. That’s a hard nut to crack.”

Pulapaka said that if he won it would also bring greater recognition to DeLand as a culinary destination. “You can’t predict with awards. It’s so subjective. If it happened, I’d be gratified, not only for me, but also for our small community,” he said.

In addition to his chef and teaching duties at home, Pulapaka is affiliated with the MIND Research Institute’s Taste of Math program in Irvine, California. He visited in November and has been invited back this month to help establish ways to use food to improve mathematical thinking with students.

“To get out of the box and rely on intuitional thinking in math,” he said. “That’s what we do with food.”

Meanwhile, Pulapaka said he also is in the “candidate pool” to become a certified master chef through the American Culinary Federation.

With his 51st birthday in March, Pulapaka is becoming well aware how his two careers tax both the mind and body. He said he doesn’t think he will be able to continue many more years as both a math professor and chef. But at this point, no decision is forthcoming.

“Teaching is tough, and teaching math is even tougher. It is harder than cooking for me. But I enjoy both in different ways,” he said. “I don’t know. Eventually, I have to face the music. My body is getting tired. My mind is still strong. Something will have to give. I’m not sure which.”

-By Ray Weiss