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Chemist as cook–part deux

Chemist. Cook. From Chemjobber’s previous post, it seems like the two professions do have some things in common. But is there any more to that? To get the dish on the details, I had a bit of natter with local area chef Nels Boerner, who happens to be my husband.

So yeah, we’re married. He knows what I do. I know what he does. Plus Nels just likes the chemistry. So between the two of us, we were able to come up with several additional ways that chemistry and cooking are the same. But also different.

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A recipe log is totally like a lab book

I don't have a chefy picture of Nels, but he kind of looks like this, minus the decapitated Stormtrooper. Image by flickr user Brintam.

Nels was the executive chef at a French/American/Creole restaurant here in town for a number of years, which means he was in charge of developing new recipes to put on the menu. Record keeping for this process was done in a recipe log, which sounds a lot like a lab notebook to me.

“When you set out to create a recipe, you start and you write down everything you put into a dish, then you make it, then you evaluate it,” Nels said. If it’s not so good? Then you start making changes. “But not too many changes at once,” he said. “Then you evaluate it, and if it’s still not what you want, you make more changes.”

It goes on a while like that, he said. Change, record, change, record.

“You need exact repeatability,” Nels said, so the cooks on the line can make it the same each time. And for each recipe, “you go through at least three iterations, and some times as many as ten.”

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Making new molecules is NOT like making new recipes

So how many times have you walked into the lab and thought, “Gosh! I’d better use up the rest of that n-butyl lithium before it goes bad!”

This is actually how a lot of new recipes get made in a commercial kitchen. It’s a matter of necessity, Nels said.

“You may have x amount of an ingredient in the restaurant that you have to use up, and it’s not enough to make some other recipe, but you don’t want to just throw it away,” he said. “So you take that ingredient and make something with it.”

A lot of knowing what kind of tastes to pair with what comes from experience, but to create something totally new? That takes working with something Nels calls his “mind’s taste.”

“I start out with the main ingredient of the recipe and I imagine in my mind what it tastes like,” he said, “then I got through seasoning containers and open them up and smell them and imagine what they would taste like with that specific ingredient in mind, if they would go together well.”

This also works if he’s trying to recreate a recipe that he’s had somewhere else.

“You think back in your taste memory about all the flavors were in that dish, and think back in your taste memory what’s in your pantry,” he said.

I don’t recommend coming up with new molecules this way.

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Working on a line is sorta like working at your hood

A line cook, like CJ was talking about, is “very much an assembly job, kind of the equivalent of a technician,” Nels said. You don’t need those recipe creative tools mentioned above, because in most cases, you’re just doing exactly what the sous chef is telling you to. You need basic cooking skills, but not the creativity and knowledge of a higher-level chef.

There are a lot of chemists like this, sure. But I think most of us have much more brain going into our syntheses.

Another thing that’s different is the time pressure. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had my PI stand over my shoulder and yell, “I need five grams of 2,3-disubstituted tetraphenylporphyrin NOW, Leigh! NOW!”

Shouting doesn’t happen in every kitchen, Nels said, although “loud vocalization” is quite common.

Knives are a cook's best friend. Image by flickr user greg.turner.

But one thing that’s really really important in a kitchen, like a lab, is organization. Because of the time pressure and high need for repeatability, you have to know where your tools are, be they knives, ingredients, or towels (Nels is very particular about his towels). And this is something that most people just don’t have innately, he said.

“I’ve worked with lots and lots of graduates from the best cooking schools, who were just complete idiots (in this regard),” he said. (Did I mention that Nels is self-taught? He started out as a dishwasher at the restaurant where he came to be executive chef.) “They could produce one dish at time just fine, but when asked to make forty at a time, they didn’t know where to begin because they weren’t organized.”

Standing at a hood doing a very time-sensitive reaction, or running multiple columns at once requires similar organizational skills. You need to know where that syringe or flask is to get the next step done in a timely and efficient manner.

But probably the most import skill you would need, besides the organizational thing, is knowing how to use a knife properly.

“How to use a knife is first and foremost,” he said. “But really all you need is a little bit of instruction and a lot of practice.”

A lot of community cooking schools offer knife skills classes, but Nels said he taught himself to use a knife. “I saw other people using knives much better than I did, and watched them and did what they did.”

So could a chemist go work in a kitchen? With practice and training sure, Nels said. And if you already know the basics of how to cook, culinary school is optional. Besides, if you finished grad school, you’re already used to the really long hours and crap pay that goes along with most cook positions.

And working in a dangerous place? Got that licked. Check out this Battle Scars from the Culinary Front feature from the New York Times. Nels is wise enough that he hasn’t filled me in on all the carnage he’s seen, but he does claim to know by sight when someone needs stitches. *shudders*

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