Chemist as cook

Hi ho there folks. This is the first of a two-part series about cooking and chemistry, a lovely guest post by the illustrious Chemjobber. So without further ado…

Imagine, setting stuff on fire and that not being a bad thing. Perk. Image by flickr user 7bikeframesweldedtogether.

Leigh’s profiles of people are typically folks who use the problem-solving or thinking skills they learned from being chemists and applying them to other equally cerebral tasks. But what about the equally important hand skills that chemists develop? The hands that can pull TLC spotters, poke them through a tiny 18-gauge needle into a reaction and spot them on a TLC plate can surely do something equally complex, no?

One of my favorite books of all time is Bill Buford’s Heat, where Buford tells about his adventures in being a prep and line cook at Babbo, the flagship restaurant of celebrity chef Mario Batali. In it, Buford goes from complete newbie (slicing himself while deboning duck leg quarters) to being able to hold his own in the middle of a rushed meal service; to me, that sounds like the process of becoming a chemist in a busy laboratory. Buford mentions a few things common to cooking and chemistry:

Repetition: “I was reminded of something Andy (a more senior chef) had told me. ‘You don’t learn knife schools in cooking school, because they only give you six onions, and no matter how hard you focus on those six onions there are only six, and you’re not going to learn as much as when you cut up a hundred.’ One day I was given a hundred and fifty lamb tongues. I had never held a lamb’s tongue, which I found greasy and unnervingly humanlike. But after cooking, trimming, peeling and slicing a hundred and fifty lamb’s tongues I was an expert.”

Complexity in combinations: Buford describes the grill station prep: “There were 33 different ingredients, and most had to be prepared before the service started, including red onions (cooked in beet juice and red wine vinegar), salsify (braised in sambuca), and farotta (cooked in a beet puree). There were six different squirter bottles, two balsamic vinegars, two olive oils, plus vin santo, vin cotto, and saba, not to mention the Brussels sprouts and braised fennel and rabbit pate – and damn! Today, I look at the map and am astonished I had any of it in my head.”

Image by flickr user staxnet.

The joy of creating: “I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy. If, on a busy night, I made, say, fifty good-looking plates, I had fifty little buzz moments, and by the end of service I felt pretty good.”

Cooks, of course, need to please their customer’s tastes; chemists, I suspect, are subject to less pressure there. Batali mentions that in his explanation to Buford about what he’ll learn: “As a home cook, you can prepare anything any way anytime… Here people want exactly what they had last time. Consistency under pressure. And that’s the reality: a lot of pressure.”

Now I’m obviously not saying that a chemist could jump into a busy 3-star Manhattan kitchen and start pitching in. There are differences in the hours (can be brutal), the pay (may be really low) and the lifestyle — and you might have to go to culinary school. But I suspect that line cooking is something that would be familiar and even a bit homey to an experienced bench chemist.

Super-duper thanks to CJ for both writing this post, and bringing up the topic. In part 2, I’ll be breaking down the sames and differents between a synthetic chemist and a line cook, via an in-depth exclusive interview with a self-taught chef with over 20 years in the biz. Stay tuned.

Author: Leigh Krietsch Boerner

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  1. My husband has a PhD in chemical engineering. And, from the very first complicated dish he tried making — homemade sea-bass ravioli! — he is an utterly *awesome* cook. He attributes this talent to his training in the lab.

  2. Well, you don’t have to go to culinary school…

    And the rise of places like The Fat Duck, El Bulli and Alinea already showcase a “less traditional” applucation of physics and chemistry in the kitchen.

  3. Squirt bottles – the friends of chemists and line cooks alike.

    Ever checked out “What’s Cooking in Chemistry?” I thought it was a great idea – get the favorite recipes of prominent organic chemists. I’ve been meaning to try Dave Evans’ “Lonely Soup”

  4. @JaySeeDub I agree that you don’t have to go to culinary school. You’ll see why in the followup post.

    @James, no I hadn’t seen that. Thanks for the tip!

  5. @James, @Leigh: It IS a pretty nice book. I personally enjoyed the diagram for lasagna from an Italian group.

  6. Fun post.
    Interesting to run a poll of how many chemists also considered cooking as a career at some point?
    A good friend of mine, a soon to be ex chemist in San Diego, is setting up a cake business. The skills really are transferebale, at least going by how fantastic tasting her cakes are. Plus, she is one of the few bakers who does fun, science themed cookies and cupcakes – great for team meetings.


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