By: Erik Jones
At Pilot R+D, culinary and scientific expertise drives food forward. The team is Kyle Connaughton, Ali Bouzari, Dan Felder, and Dana Peck. Pilot R+D collaborates with restaurants and food companies, from small startups to global corporations, either as an advisor or an external research and development team to improve existing products and techniques or provide the creative force to generate new ideas and drive those ideas through formulation to production. Pilot R+D has been instrumental in the development efforts of some of the world’s top restaurants and food companies, including Exo made with Cricket Flour, Bar Tartine, Oliso, Shed: A Modern Grange, WoodStone ovens, Avenir Culinary Systems, Sprig food delivery, Momentum Machines, and Maestro Smart-Oven (Now called Tovala).
Ali Bouzari is the Chief Science Officer and a Co-Founder of Pilot R+D. As a culinary scientist, he has the ability to translate complex scientific concepts and esoteric culinary ideas into language that is approachable and accessible. Ideation is an integral part of every Pilot endeavor, and Ali leverages his background in scientific research and development to help the Pilot team devise creative and concrete solutions to culinary obstacles. The Pilot team regularly calls upon Ali’s expertise in ingredient functionality to develop techniques that enhance and streamline production processes without compromising flavor.
Ali began cooking in restaurant kitchens while studying biochemistry as an undergraduate. In 2011, he started teaching at the Culinary Institute of America while pursuing his Ph.D. in Food Biochemistry from the University of California, Davis. For his dissertation, Ali stayed true to his roots as a cook and collaborated with the Three Michelin Star French Laundry to study a uniquely culinary topic: cooking vegetables sous vide. This interaction jumpstarted his career as a consultant to the culinary industry, allowing him to work closely with some of the most innovative restaurants in the country, including working as the Culinary Scientist for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, a position created to utilize Ali’s unique skill set. Ali is writing a groundbreaking book on how food works, to be published by Ecco in 2016. He is also a contributor to the forthcoming edition of Modernist Cuisine.
Ali has recently been honored on both Zagat’s and Forbes’ 30 Under 30 lists.
Erik Jones: What projects are you working now?
Ali Bouzari: We have projects all over the place. We are working on interesting high quality bottled beverages, bottled coffee, sodas, products that have been traditionally pretty much a commodity product. We are taking those types of products out of the “frozen orange juice” realm into something that resembles high quality beverages you might find in fine restaurants and cafes.
We are also working with Kyle Connaughton to open Single Thread Farms Restaurant & Inn this summer. We are doing culinary development of course, but also engineering specific equipment needed to execute those dishes like custom silicon molds.
Lots of snack food projects. In the past snacks were indulgent items like potato chips and candy bars. Then the low-fat craze hit and flavorless kale chips were popular. Now and in the future snacks are simply “good food that’s portable.”
EJ: What do you think we will be eating in 2050?
AB: It’s hard to say, but less meat without a doubt. The biggest change will be no more massive scale commodity meat like we are used to seeing today. I am not personally a vegetarian. While I agree with some of the animal rights stances, I also embrace that the food chain can be gnarly sometimes. But the quantity of meat we consume today is not sustainable.
Right now it’s all about getting as much protein in the diet as possible, but that’s a craze that will fade away. What will not fade away is this sensory need for the stimulation that comes from eating meat. Something about eating meat connects with your soul, your being. That experience is a mixture of culture, sensory science, and upbringing. Anyone who can find the nuts and bolts of what makes people feel that way, and then apply it to meatless products will strike gold.
Meat free or dairy free products have be in the context of the original food; consumers need to be able to relate to it. But it can’t just be a crappy mimic of the original. It has to have merit on its own, and be delicious. The idea is let’s make something that has its own intrinsic value, something that people want to eat.
EJ: How can the next generation of culinary scientists combat the issue of food waste?
AB: Get past compost. It’s the bare minimum we can do with food waste, and we can only use so much of it. We can be doing better than compost. The thing that everyone needs to get into is the concept of ingredient functionality. In the past when we design a product we add powders, extracts, and other functional ingredients. But most functional ingredients come from whole foods. If you can learn where the functional ingredients come from, then you can look at whole foods as functional ingredients. All food has a function or multiple functions, and learning to apply the appropriate function to the right application will help us eliminate the amount of food we waste. It’s all about knowing the different levers available to pull within food, and then pulling the right combination of levers to achieve your objective. Foods like tomatoes don’t necessarily have any higher or lower intrinsic value at different levels of ripeness, just different functions that are useful in different applications.
EJ: You have a book coming out soon?
AB: Yes, hopefully late September of this year. It’s called Ingredient: Seeing beneath the Surface of Food to Take Control of the Kitchen. It’s a book that unveils the “levers” of food. The premise is there are 8 fundamental building blocks of food. In the book they are presented as 8 personalities, 8 characters, with which you can tell any cooking story. There are amazing illustrations and photographs.
EJ: What do you look for when hiring entry-level positions?
AB: Being comfortable doing something they have no idea how to do. When I started my PhD program I was told if you want to have a PhD you need to get very comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I will find out.” The willingness to humbly and responsibly say “I don’t know” and the confidence to say “I’ll find out” is all that matters. Also it’s extremely important to work in the restaurant. If you are going to be consulting with the best chefs, you should be able to at least work the easiest line position in their restaurant. It is crucial that people working in the food industry know how to cook, and this is only going to become more important in the future.
EJ: Which food science and culinary blogs do you follow?
AB: Twitter. It’s this really interesting thing where someone will say a random thought like “let’s bread food with different things besides just panko” and that opens up this whole new path of thinking. A lot of blogs tend to be one chef’s thoughts on one particular idea. That can be great and all, but it can also be long and boring. I enjoy the little snippets where one random thought can spark a huge chain of new and creative ideas.
EJ: What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently in your career?
AB: I spent a lot of time in my undergrad studying bio-chemistry so that I could go on and get a PhD. I thought I needed to get this firm base in theory in order to get into the food R&D world. But I’ve learned that the application is more important than the theory. Learning about scientific processes and principles in the textbook is important, but taking that knowledge and applying it is the best way to really understand it. For example I read about glycolysis many times throughout high school and college, but the first time I really understood glycolysis was when I made kimchi. So don’t focus all your time in just mastering the theory, get out and apply what you’ve learned as fast as you can. This is going to cement all the knowledge you cram and then forget during your midterms, and allow you to use that knowledge in real life situations.
EJ: Describe your job in 5 words or less.
AB: Making good food by thinking.