“People worry that science in the kitchen will jeopardize the soulful parts of cooking,” says Austin native Ali Bouzari. In his work as a culinary scientist and educator, and in his new book, “Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food” (Ecco, 2016), he aims to prove that the opposite is true.
This beautifully produced volume—a rock-and-roll ensemble of accessible text (“humanspeak”), photos and gorgeously comic illustrations—charts new territory for better understanding what physically happens when we prepare food. It’s not about recipes—the book contains none—rather, it teaches us how to think, observe and react as we cook. “[The book] was designed,” Bouzari says, “to help you see the handful of simple patterns at play behind the vast universe of dishes that we cook and eat in kitchens all over the world.”
He explains that there are ingredients, such as butter, chicken and Brussels sprouts, and then there are what he calls “Capital-I Ingredients,” eight fundamental building blocks of food elements—each with distinct characteristics and behaviors—that separately, and together, help us recognize and work with immutable, universal patterns in cooking. The point is that when we understand the rules of what these ingredients are and how they behave, we can cook with greater skill, confidence, control and creative freedom.
Bouzari’s “Capital-I Ingredients” are water, sugars, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, minerals, gases and heat, and each commands its own chapter in the book, where he dives deep into its “personality,” how to manipulate it, where it’s found in foods and how it interacts with other elements. In the sugars chapter, for example, he explains that browning in food occurs “when sugars get so hot that they start to vibrate with energy. When they vibrate hard enough, they explode. Each microscopic piece of sugar shrapnel then explodes again, and those shards start smacking into one another, forming new compounds. This rippling cascade of reactions transforms sweet, colorless, odorless sugar into some of the deepest, most complex mixtures of taste, color and aroma in existence. Browning is a sugar supernova.”
While translating complex scientific concepts into lay language, Bouzari frequently employs metaphors. He sees the “Ingredients” as an “ensemble cast of actors to tell the story of any dish. Heat is the director, water is the stage.” Or, they’re “the gears that turn inside everything we eat, and heat is the energy that moves them.” This book will be useful to home cooks who want to improve their game and understand why recipes work and why they don’t, as well as to professional chefs seeking consistency, reliability and efficient solutions in creating something new. It can be particularly helpful for those cooking for segmented diets (gluten-free, paleo, vegan, etc.) or who aim to achieve particular flavors and mouthfeel using alternate ingredients.
For someone not yet 30 years old, Bouzari has packed a lot of experience in his kit, and his local connections played no small part in his culinary journey. He was born in Austin into a multilingual, food-obsessed family; his Texan mother, an ESL instructor, and his father, an Iranian-immigrant entrepreneur, met as University of Texas (UT) students in the 1970s when both were working at a local Night Hawk restaurant. The family moved to Denver when Bouzari was a child, but he later returned to Austin to earn an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at UT. Since high school, he’d worked in restaurants and catering operations and, as a student, he became the first intern at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. “The most valuable thing I learned from the Antonellis was training my palate,” he says. “I was able to make neural connections that I’ve used ever after. I was doing the job of selling people on cheese based on describing all of the different sensory experiences that each one had to offer. Over time, I started to realize that noticing the apricot aroma in a Swiss alpine cheese was no different than noticing bell pepper aroma in wine or coriander in a sauce. The neural connections were really just…learning a new skill; matching memories to what’s going on in your mouth is all there is to this fancy concept of a ‘good palate.’”
While an undergraduate, Bouzari played percussion in Austin jazz and blues bands, and he was also a salsa dance instructor. He spent a year in Madrid participating in the Trans-Atlantic Science Student Exchange Program (TASSEP)—studying science in Spanish, immersing himself in innovative cooking and talking his way into some of Spain’s best restaurant kitchens, such as El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. Later, when these Spanish chefs visited the U.S., he served as interpreter and translator. Bouzari credits cognitive patterns in music and language translation as interconnected to his understanding culinary science and explaining it in context to lay audiences. He emphasizes that eating can’t be separated from our emotions, memories and cultural influences. And he honors the collective and intuitive knowledge that cooks have developed over the centuries. “Scientists need to learn to respect chefs more,” he says. “Chefs need to pay more attention to science.”
Bouzari went on to earn a Ph.D. in food biochemistry at the University of California at Davis; his dissertation was on sous-vide vegetables. He collaborated in writing the food science curriculum for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa and he’s a co-founder of Pilot R+D, a food innovation and development enterprise that works with such notable restaurants as The French Laundry, Noma, Eleven Madison Park and Benu. He’s given two TEDx talks: one on how flavor influences and is influenced by our memories and overall interaction with the world, and one on the system of ingredients.
Since his book came out in September 2016, Bouzari’s conducted more than 50 workshops for chefs and restaurants across the U.S. In Austin, he’s worked with Uchi/Uchiko, Barley Swine/Odd Duck, Emmer & Rye, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop and Franklin Barbecue. Although now a resident of Northern California, he returns to Austin several times a year and finds the culinary scene vibrant and innovative. “The average restaurant cook in Austin is excited, knowledgeable and hungry to learn,” he says. “What’s going on here is as interesting as anywhere in the country.”
By MM Pack • Photography by Jason Jaacks