Chef Weiner’s dad has chemical-engineering degrees all over his wall, written hundreds of articles and flown around the world to advise companies, yet his cooking was never as good as that of Weiner’s grandmother, who only made it through the second grade.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
“Food is love.”
—Culinary instructor Adam Weiner
“Cooking is a mistake, baking is a science.”
—Elihu Kittell, chef for the County of San Mateo and longtime friend of the author
“Cooking takes advantage of many basic science principles that apply in the kitchen and throughout the universe. Knowing these principles will enable you to perform endless culinary experiments, and to view the world through the eyes of a scientist.”
—Page 7 of The Epicurean Laboratoryby Tina Seelig,1991
In January 2013 I tackled the controversy of whether culinary instructors need to emphasize technique or recipe. Please see my 50-Minute Classroom articles on Reading and Writing Recipes, Braising, Baking, Sauté, Steamingand Grilling.
It is now time to address the culinary teaching dilemma of whether we should be teaching food science in our classrooms. I am not a newcomer to science. I grew up in a chemical lab, as a matter of fact. My father was one of the top chemical engineers in the United States for many years, and I spent much of my childhood in his laboratory. One of my first jobs was driving all over Los Angeles collecting chemical samples from electroplating shops and bringing them back for the chemists to analyze, while I washed the beakers, graduated cylinders, etc.
When I wrote about teaching recipes versus teaching technique, I found that almost all culinary instructors I spoke with came down rigidly on one side or the other. I have found the same thing about teaching science. It seems that many culinary instructors believe that no one can be a good cook unless they know the chemical fundamentals behind their ingredients and their cooking techniques. This group emphatically feels that unless you know how gluten behaves when worked, that you can never make good bread or pie crust. The other group feels that teaching science ad nauseum to students who are probably not college bound is a waste of time. Instead, you can teach someone how to feel the bread to know if it has been kneaded enough or how not to overwork pie crust.
As with the issue of teaching recipes over techniques, both groups get entrenched. The funny thing to me is that it seems the pro-science group tries to prove their point by going more scientific. For example, every year my students bake approximately 10,000 cookies for the inmates at the local jail. The only holiday present they can receive are cookies from an approved source. Last November, as we were gearing up, a friend who is a firm believer that you can’t be a good cook unless you thoroughly understand all of the science involved sent me a 28-page article on why chocolate-chip cookies rise! That article was longer than the 10 different recipes we used, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta combined!
Although I have no scientific proof of this, I think the trend toward feeling that everyone has to know the chemistry behind what they do stems from Alton Brown’s “Good Eats.” When the show first came out I was an instant addict. My wife bought me more than 20 DVDs and I have my students watch his shows on Food Network’s website. I got hooked on “Good Eats” because, as I told my students, “for years we were taught how to do something, but now we are being taught why.” However, the name of the show was “Good Eats,” not “Alton Brown the Food Scientist.” In other words, at the end of the day, the taste of the food ruled.
My readers, my colleagues and anyone who has tasted food prepared by my students know I believe that food has to contain love. (You can use the words passion or pride instead, if you choose.) My dad has chemical-engineering degrees all over his wall, written hundreds of articles and flown around the world to advise companies, yet his cooking was never as good as that of my grandmother, who only made it through the second grade.
The bottom line is that I think students need to be taught enough science so that they make fewer mistakes in the kitchen. Teaching too much science will turn most students off wanting to pursue cooking. Like teaching culinary math, you have to walk a thin line of teaching what needs to be known versus turning off your students by teaching too much. Or as one of my students concisely put it: “I know my taste buds are on my tongue, but I don’t need to know how they work to know if the crawfish etouffee I made tastes good.”
Next month we will explore what I think needs to be taught about culinary science. Plot spoiler: my first scientific issue will be … the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you eat.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.