Student Pastry Chef Elizabeth Nalbandian Finds a Sweet Spot between Science and Hospitality

By Sue McMurray

Elizabeth prepares chocolate for Crimson Confections truffles.
While growing up in the ancient city of Jerusalem, Elizabeth Nalbandian often helped her mother and grandmother make food for traditions spanning thousands of years. At 12 she learned to make pastries; as a bored 15-year-old, she read recipe books in class whenever her grammar teacher wasn’t looking. After high school, she became intrigued by the idea of combining food, science, and culture into a career path.

How a 17-year-old wound up over 6,700 miles from home to study hospitality, culinary arts, and food science at WSU is a story as sweet as chocolate.

When it came time for Nalbandian to attend college, a long-term friendship between Carson College Executive Chef Jamie Callison and Dale and Leah Wall, Nalbandian’s aunt and uncle, created a connection to the Palouse. While living and working in Edmonds, Callison, and his wife Tanya, met the Walls through mutual friends. After Callison joined WSU, they stayed in close contact over the years. Knowing Nalbandian was seeking a hospitality degree, the Walls suggested she consider WSU and arranged for her to visit them and tour the University.

Discovering WSU to be the whole package

Elizabeth tests the water content in truffles with a water activity meter instrument donated by Meter Group.

Nalbandian was apprehensive about being isolated from her family. But there was something special about WSU that she felt right away. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” she says. In 2017 she enrolled on the Pullman campus and began working toward dual degrees in hospitality and food science. In 2018, she began working in the American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship Certificate Program. She is also a student in the WSU Honors College.

“After I moved to Pullman, the culture shock and homesickness were hard, but becoming involved in the WSU community and student clubs and getting a job on the catering team were key to resolving that,” she says. “Also, I went through a long process to get to the United States, and I wasn’t about to give it all up.”

Others soon noticed Nalbandian’s work ethic and love of learning. One day while working on a catering project, she jumped in to help package chocolates for Crimson Confections, a student-run business based out of the Carson College teaching kitchen. Curious about the water activity and shelf life of chocolate she’d heard about in a food science class, Nalbandian asked to learn more about the confectionary process. She later began teaching other students about tempering chocolate and developing flavors of ganache for truffles that have a longer expiration date. Today she is the lead chocolatier for the confection business.

A mix of global experience, cultural understanding, and world appreciation

The Aqua meter tests the chocolate ganache for water activity and determines the shelf life of the truffles.

Learning by doing is something Nalbandian values very much. She chose to study abroad in the Carson College’s faculty-led Food and Wine Program, spending eight weeks in Florence, Italy, and Lyon, France, cooking authentic foods and discovering winery practices from world-class experts. Though challenged by the experience, the transferability of her culinary skills and knowledge gave Nalbandian confidence. “It was cool to see what we do at WSU is done elsewhere in the world,” she says.

After finishing the program, she stayed in Europe six more weeks to complete a pastry internship at a Switzerland bakery. Rising before dawn each day, she rode her bike from her apartment to start work at 4:00 a.m. While some might cringe at the early hour, Nalbandian, who speaks four languages, says the only hurdle was her inability to speak German, so she learned largely by watching and gathered ideas to bring back to Crimson Confections.

Finding the sweet spot between science, hospitality, and industry

“What I love most about my WSU programs is the direct tie to industry,” she says. “Nowadays to be a successful chef, you have to know how to cook well AND run a restaurant. She says her three areas of study complement each other nicely.

The finished product: an assortment of Crimson Confections truffles.
Her food science experience with different types of flour, for example, has benefited her recipe development in hospitality and culinary classes as well as her catering work.

The culinary certificate program taught her how to write rationales for equipment requests that will serve her later in her career. Communication and interpersonal skills learned in hospitality classes and industry learning experiences bring balance to the science mindset, she says, and will help her relate to future clients.

Nalbandian plans to maximize the value of her WSU education by working in research and development for a food company after she graduates in 2022.

“I see myself developing products to help developing countries with nutritional problems,” she says. “It’s a way to give back on an international level.”