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Ali Bouzari opens his 2014 Tedx talk with a question about dessert. “Who here has had a really tasty cookie?” he asks the crowd, and then, after allowing the audience to acknowledge their assent (who hasn’t had an extremely tasty cookie? Who doesn’t remember it as one of the finest pleasures in life?), he hits them with another question: “Why?”
The “why” here, if you’re not familiar with Bouzari’s work, could come across as judgmental. If you didn’t know that the award-winning chef (his cookbook, Ingredient, recently won the IACP award) was also a doctor of food biochemistry, no one would fault you for thinking that he was about to launch into a full-scale attack on sugar or start discussing America’s obesity epidemic. But Bouzari’s question has nothing to do with personal choices or shaming. Instead, he wants to get granular about why the cookie tasted good — what mixture of ingredients, what baking methods had to be brought together in order to make each bite so delicious.
Bouzari is the co-founder of San Francisco-based food development company Pilot R+D — a research lab of flavor. As such, the chef spends his days exploring the intersection of art and science at the frontier of the food industry.
“I think that we’re fortunate to be in an era where people are increasingly curious and interested in getting more educated about what’s in our foods,” Bouzari says. “They want to know both how to make food delicious, but also how to have it work with their own bodies.”
Pilot’s CEO, Dana Peck, co-signs this thought. “We need to think about food more holistically,” she explains. “Our goal is to really think about it both from a flavor and culinary standpoint and from the food science standpoint, so that it can be both delicious and be engineered to do what it needs to do, whatever that goal is.”
If the word “engineered” alarms you when it comes to food, it’s probably because you’ve seen the same word scrawled on protest signs, demanding that chemicals be kept off your plate. It may be hard to imagine that your mom’s famous cookies would have anything to do with the beakers and lab coats we usually connect with the s-word, but at a core level cooking, baking, and any other form of food preparation is science. It’s based on reactions of disparate elements under the force of catalysts.
That idea may seem intimidating — until you think of sugar, egg, flour, vanilla, and chocolate chips as the elements and an oven as the catalyst.
“One of our foundational principles is that the science behind a roast chicken is the same as the science behind the Pringle,” Bouzari says. “There’s nothing devious or weird or sterile about the science of crispiness. It’s a question of how you apply that science.”
Rather than being the end all and be all, Peck and Bouzari simply see food science as another tool in the chef’s toolbox. A resource that can add new inputs in the quest to make flavors pop. They have no interest in taking the “cheffing” out of food.
“The way that you make science most potent is when you’re already a chef,” Bouzari says. “The idea of being trained in just the science of food is absurd, because food is more than just these fundamental principles and these fundamental base ingredients.”
Food, as we all know, is a sensory, psychological, and emotional experience. While some dystopian novels predict that we’ll all be eating gray sludge to meet our dietary needs a century from now, that’s not how the team at Pilot R + D sees it. Instead, they view the intersection of science and food as an opportunity for more innovation.
“The artistry and science of food are inextricably linked,” Peck says. “You can’t make great foods with either one alone. That’s the approach that we want to take. We love the entire spectrum. We want to make great food across it, and so we need to really understand it, and be creative while understanding the fundamentals of it.”
So how does the team execute that goal? First, a client comes to the company to let them know what they want to create or perfect — maybe a restaurateur wants to standardize their pizza crust across their franchises, so that diners have a more uniform experience (and you know crust is important); or perhaps a snack manufacturer wants to keep the taste of their snack but lower the sodium, or remove a filler. Next, the Pilot team steps in with questions and tries to figure out the “why” behind the desired experience.
“In the pizza scenario,” Peck explains, “we have to start thinking about what makes a great crust great? What is the difference between the hydration levels of the dough? What difference does it make what kind of cooking surface we use? But then, we also need to be creative about what makes great pizza taste good. We have a great dough, then what? How do we layer flavoring, create complexity, and differentiate this between all the other pizzas out there?”
This is where the “feel” of a chef gets combined with the science of a research lab.
“There are a ton of different ways to make a pizza sauce that is delicious,” Bouzari continues. “There are a ton of different ways to create flavors, create aspects of taste, aroma, texture, color, that will give you the sensory bang for your buck.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever worked on a food project where there was one single silver bullet, where we said, ‘Aha! We’ve found the molecule,’ and added it, and then all of a sudden it was delicious and shelf-stable and perfect,” Bouzari says. “One of the biggest differentiating factors in the way we approach things, is that we come from a world of being in fine dining restaurants, so we are used to being crafty and resourceful, and looking at every possible angle for fixing something, rather than just the easy, quick fix.”
Peck and Bouzari are quick to highlight that this is an exciting time for food science. Dietary restrictions (and preferences) are shifting the landscape, but the desire for rich, deep flavors still abides. This change has already sparked huge waves of creativity in the field — most notably the “Impossible Burger” that bleeds plant hemoglobin.
Bouzari, a graduate of UC Davis, says that the best thing that anyone interested in entering the field should do is step outside the classroom (or laboratory) and immediately begin gaining experience in an actual working kitchen:
“You’re seeing more and more food scientists take a summer off to go cook in a restaurant. Rather than do an internship where you’re in yet another lab somewhere, go do an entry-level learning experience at a bakery, or at a restaurant, or a catering company, or a cheese shop, something where you can be reminded of why all of this matters, and of the beautiful complexity of what it takes to get it right.”