The story behind the Mel and Janet Mickevic Collection

This virtual museum exhibit is based upon the Culinary Curiosity Exhibition at Chicago’s Kendall College. With its displays strategically located throughout the halls, classrooms, and kitchens of this world-class culinary arts school, the exhibit comprises more than 200 objects drawn from the personal collections of Mel and Janet Mickevic, veterans of the food processing industry. Both the virtual and the physical exhibitions represent the Mickevics’ passion for, and deep understanding of, the processes used to prepare food.

In this age of molecular gastronomy, food microbiology, and sensory analysis, food science is a well-established and diverse discipline. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the late 1800s, the Paul F. Beich Company of Bloomington, Illinois, made chocolate only in the winter because there was no way to keep it from melting in the summer heat. The rest of the year the company made only hard candy. Air conditioning had yet to be invented, and the need for a science of food was painfully obvious. Much later, Janet Alikonis Mickevic’s father, Justin J. Alikonis, became the director of research for the Beich Company where he oversaw the development of many solutions to food industry problems.

Mel Mickevic first met Janet Alikonis as a direct result of his insatiable appetite for the collection of all things culinary. One of Mel’s first jobs after serving in World War II and finishing his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was traveling the country selling candy-making equipment to food manufacturers. In his spare time, he pursued his hobby of collecting historic food processing implements.

On one such trip, Janet’s father offered Mel some antique candy rollers and other confectionary tools in order to clean out an old shed. Thus began a lifelong professional relationship between the two men, as well as a lifelong personal partnership between Mel and Janet.

Mel went on to a distinguished career as a food scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur that spanned more than half a century. He founded several successful food processing businesses and held numerous patents in food technology.

Mel’s enduring curiosity and enthusiasm for food science technology was the driving force behind the Mel and Janet Mickevic Collection, the Culinary Curiosity Exhibition at Kendall College, and this companion website.

A tireless promoter of higher education, Mel liked to say, “It all about jobs!” And, as modern food science stands on the shoulders of the technology of the past, it was the Mickevics’ hope that these collections would present students with inspiring insights into the evolution of problem solving in food processing and engineering. The spirit of inquiry, technical knowledge, and innovation embodied in these objects should encourage today’s culinary students to effectively partner with industry and to apply food science to the invention of products and services that meet tomorrow’s needs.

Mel, who passed away on August 5, 2010, believed that “Innovation is the result of the interaction or blending of disciplines.” He hoped that the Culinary Curiosity Exhibition, both at Kendall College and online, would offer a sense of history and context to spark entrepreneurial curiosity in students, visitors, and viewers.