If you knew that a 20-something food Biochemist was influencing your menu at The French Laundry (should you be so lucky to snag a table) would that raise your eyebrows? Elite culinary establishments such as The French Laundry, Benu of San Francisco, The Restaurant at Meadowood, and the world’s premier culinary college, The Culinary Institute of America, are experiencing the influence of Ali Bouzari, food scientist, chef, innovator and thought leader. Ali is one of the instructors and creators of the culinary science curriculum at the CIA, a PhD student in biochemistry at UC Davis, and a Culinary Science and Menu and Research and Development Consultant for some of the most prominent dining establishments in California.
Ali gives a Ted Talk at UC Davis on May 4, 2014. (Starting at 3:13:00)
As Harold Import Co. grows in the food service and supply industry, we are delighted to have the opportunity to connect with passionate, trend setting culinary professionals like Ali, who in turn push us to critique and improve our own creative processes and raise the bar in all that we do for our Customers.
The Interview – Getting to Know Ali Bouzari
Nicole Herman., of HIC: Ali, I want to first thank you for taking the time to share with us. I think our readers are really going to enjoy learning about you and your unique approach to all things culinary.
Nicole: When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
Ali Bouzari: The best way to answer is to say when I first started to cook in restaurants, which I did in high school. My choices were to wait tables, be a host, or cook. I started cooking in an orthodox Jewish catering company where I learned more than basic knife skills – I learned how to make Jewish delights and how to prepare kosher food. We did bar mitzvahs, parties, and sometimes 500 person events. I realized I really enjoyed this, and learned that if you can cater a Passover dinner, you can pretty much do anything
Nicole: Who or what has been the most influential factor in your life, personally and professionally?
Ali: Personally, the reason food has been on my radar is because of my dad. He was an excellent cook. His family is from Iran and the culture there is obsessed with food, it’s an all consuming part of life, and it’s really fun. There is a joyous attitude toward food, they don’t take it seriously. I grew up with crazy Iranian dudes eating great food and making it fun, and it was refreshing to focus on. Professionally, I’ve had people help me along the way – My professor at UC Davis, my boss at the Culinary Institute of America, they were amazing facilitators. Chefs that have driven me – one is Thomas Keller. At the first fine dining gig I had as a line cook, my chef gave me a copy of The French Laundry cookbook. He said, “check this out, this is why we do everything that we do.” I learned good habits from this book, and I imprinted on French laundry culture.
While I was in Spain for a year in undergrad, it was right after the peak of the Spanish avant-garde movement. I saw Ferran Adria of elBulli talk once, and it was crazy eye opening. This was my first time realizing that having a meal taste and smell really good was not the only important thing. Emotion and nostalgia can enter in too… and unless it tastes good, it doesn’t matter. The creativity was inspiring. Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking written in early 1980’s set a lot in motion. I read it in undergrad when I was cooking part time and studying biochemistry. I found that with this knowledge I could cook better than I thought I should be able to. I would look under the hood of what I was working on. Then I Googled books on the science of food and kept finding Harold McGee’s book. I read it cover to cover. To this day, I start with this book when researching. My guidance to students at the CIA – If you read this cover to cover, you will be a better cook than your peers, it teaches you the rules of the game.
Nicole: What is your favorite meal to make? And To eat?
Ali: Most meaningful – An old Persian standby, the shish kabob, basmati rice with saffron, and traditional accompaniments. The shish kabob is made of ground beef, sumac, black pepper, onions and shallots. It’s formed onto a skewer that hangs horizontally. The trick is to get the right ratio of fat and protein, it must cling to skewer and not fall into the fire. It needs to brown well. I like this because it feels very old world, and I made this with my dad for our friends growing up.
Nicole: You’ve been called both a scientist and a chef. Do you identify with one more than the other?
Ali: No. My whole career is predicated on the belief that I am not ever going to be the world’s greatest chef or scientist, but I can do both together pretty well, and that enables me to do some cool stuff. I try to keep one foot in the culinary world and keep those skills as honed as possible. If I walk into The French Laundry to teach them anything, I owe it to the team there to know what’s going on to the point that I could at least hack it being a prep cook. Scientists need to learn to respect chefs more, too. As an educator and scientist, I think it is easier to understand the food if you’ve touched it, keeping your cook side very current.
Nicole: What is your cooking philosophy?
Ali: A couple. In general, one of my favorite things as a home cook, and as a single college age guy, there are a lot of leftovers in my life. Great advice I heard – Don’t just reheat food, recreate it. I might make basmati rice one night, then turn it into soup or fried rice the next night. This is a good culinary workout for the brain. My more over arching cooking philosophy – Pay attention to the rules of the game you’re playing. Know the basic behavior of the basic ingredients you’re working with.
Nicole: We tend to be creatures of habit, and revert to eating what we know and is quick, especially when life gets hectic. What advice would you give a home chef to help get them out of their cooking ruts, without needing to make an especially time consuming elaborate meal?
Ali: Get in touch with age-old culinary mantra of “mise en place.” This is a French term chefs have all over their brain. It’s the idea that you should be prepared, given what comes your way in the kitchen. The real cooking happens during prep. If you have leftovers, you can just add prepped foods – I’d add things with a lot of flavor, like preserves, pickles, fermented things. You can take something as simple as roast chicken, and add pickled onions or a little miso, or cherry relish that are already really flavorful, and make something amazing in a little amount of time.
Another philosophy – A chef told me once that at least every dish on his menu had at least one ingredient that took a lot of time to make, with complex deep flavors. If you can make this type of food in batches and keep it around, then you have a giant bar of great ingredients to pluck from at your will. Start with a couple different pickles. Fermented beets, fennel, even vinegar pickles. Roasted garlic, pesto, a nice stock. Then you have a wide palate of foods to pull from and create something wonderful, with out a lot of time.
Nicole – So, it’s all about the prep.
Ali – If you live in a place like California, subscribe to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, where you pay a local farm a lump amount, and they drop off fresh produce at your door, filled with what’s at peak freshness for that time of year. This is a great forcing function to learn how to cook a variety of things. (Kolrabi anyone?)
Nicole: What kitchen tool do you find indispensable, that might come as a surprise to people?
Ali: 2 – One is kind of obvious – A spoon. The untold love story of the kitchen. A chef on their game will have 5-10 different spoons on hand that they will pet before they go to sleep. This reflects the dual nature of a chef: A knife, which is essential, represents how a chef has to do superhuman tasks under pressure, and the spoon represents how chefs have to be at the same time gentle, nurturing. A Knife is penetrating and aggressive. A spoon is supportive, gentle, finessing. I really like spoons. A lot of chefs really love the “Kunz” spoon, named after Gray Kunz of Lespinasse. Chef of the old guard, a perfectionist, a formidable presence in the kitchen, had these spoons designed for his staff. His cooks had a serial number identified spoon designed with balance, proportion, a perfect bowl at the end, wide enough to use as quasi spatula.
I also like a heat proof spatula. It needs to be rigid yet bendy. Every restaurant has a myth about how using spatulas saved some company a bazillion dollars, minimizing waste by getting every bit out of a container. I love spatulas for stirring things. There is no place for a wooden spoon for me. Every grandmother who stands by using a wooden spoon, just hasn’t used a great heat proof spatula yet.
Nicole: Do you have a dream or goal for the culinary world?
Ali: Yes! The culinary world is unique in a lot of ways. It’s an industry based on a medium that is inherently dependent on scientific principles but has turned a blind eye to acknowledging the principles for fear of upsetting the tradition and artisanal nature, they are afraid science will do away with this. It’s like saying that by understanding how the English language works, you won’t be as good of a poet. You can learn the rules, and then break them. Learn the science, then do crazy stuff. The irritating thing about humans in artisanal fields is when they reject progress. People will say, “I don’t want to do anything with science in the kitchen.” Too bad, science is always in the kitchen. Whether or not you want to acknowledge it is the question. This is not avant-garde stuff. There is so much chemistry and physics going on in the kitchen, if the average line cook understood the “why” of roasting a chicken vs. how, we’d all eat better and our culinary staff would be better equipped. I’d like to raise the scientific literacy of the culinary community. Knowledge makes it better.
Contributed by Nicole Herman of HIC, Harold Import Co.