Of Chefs and Scientists

Last night I was watching Iron Chef America and there was a young aspiring chef pitting her culinary skills against Iron Chef Bobby Flay. I am always amazed at how the Iron Chefs prepare and pair their ingredients for the five courses. I started to ask myself, where do the ideas come from? How do they choose the color and the flavor for each dish? How do you choose the method for preparation and presentation?

When I woke up this morning, these thoughts insisted in occupying my mind. Lily and I spend some time discussing the kind of training and dedication that it took to gain a mastery of the skills necessary to achieve the title of chef. There is only so much that you can learn in a classroom.  The lessons learned in the o are then performed and perfected through practice and patience.  I remember my short time as a line cook and of the skill that was needed to keep track of the orders, to assure that the food was well cooked, and to make sure that a whole ticket came up at the same time, no matter how many things were on the ticket. I was really good on the line, but I did not come close to having the skill set or knowing the techniques that separate the good from the great.  I learned very valuable skills for food preparation and  presentation, but I never had the chance to apprentice, to follow a master and learn the secrets of great food design.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had a very different experience with my scientific training.  I have received some of the best academic training one could ho.  The interactions I experienced with my fellow graduate students and with the professors at MIT have honed my analytical and observational skills.  Working in the laboratory and developing the methods that allowed me to look at scientific questions using the best and latest tools gave me the confidence and the courage to branch out and try new research topics and fields.  Life as a postdoctoral associate is furthering my set of tools and tricks.

The real test of a chef’s skills are not on the line, but in how they can assemble ideas, ingredients, and skill in their head to give us dishes that inspire and complement our love for life.  Just like a chef, a true test of a scientist’s skills are not at the bench, but in how they can harness a hypothesis and through their skill, design well throughout experiments that increase our understanding and awe of the world around us.