Life's Work: Ali Bouzari
February 19th, 2015
We've been seeing this common theme among our customers – one that extends way beyond the garments they choose to wear. It's this idea of passion and purpose: no matter what their life's work demands, these guys are digging deep and giving it their all.
Call them “modern Renaissance men”, but these are the guys we design for. Getting the corner office doesn't define their success (and most don't even work in a traditional office). They've made a life out of honoring what brings them joy, and are constantly working to achieve the best versions of themselves. Family, societal, and physical triumphs are just as important as their jobs, because these guys are building something bigger: a strong mind, body, and soul.
And that’s the inspiration behind Life’s Work: it’s a celebration of the people who pursue their lives with unwavering passion and purpose.
Which brings us to Ali Bouzari, one of the country’s premier culinary scientists (which, as we learn, is different from “food scientist). At the mere age of 27, Ali has already instructed and built curriculums at the most prestigious culinary school in the world, consulted for some of the country’s most elite restaurants, launched his own company, and brought down the house at TEDx. Here, we learn more about Ali's Life's Work – from in the kitchen to on his rare day off.
“Food scientist” isn’t a title one comes across often. How do you describe your job to the uninitiated?
Actually, to make things even more obscure, my title is actually “culinary scientist.” The field of food science really formed in response to wartime need for massive scale-up and industrialization of our food system in the first part of the 20th century. We were coming up against all kinds of weird logistical and safety challenges as a consequence of making food on an industrial scale, so scientists were called upon to help figure it out. Since then, food science has remained pretty aloof from the actual act of cooking. Your traditional food scientist takes a somewhat reductive view of food and mostly works in either quality assurance, food safety, or product development for larger companies. Culinary science, on the other hand, is very grounded in the kitchen. As a culinary scientist, I take all of the fundamentals of how food works from the field of food science, combine them with culinary expertise, and apply them to real kitchen questions.
Tell us more about how you got started. And why the science of cooking?
I’ve loved chemistry since high school. I love how you can explain how everything in the world works based on a few simple patterns in nature. I also come from Iranian and Texan parents, so if I didn’t like food, I would have been kicked out of my family. As a teenager, I started cooking in restaurants and catering companies as a side job. If I messed something up in the kitchen, it was really easy to understand why it didn’t work based on chemistry, so I wouldn’t make that mistake twice. Turns out, chefs really love that. I kept cooking and reading everything I could on the subject of science and food while getting my undergrad degree in biochemistry. Eventually, I found out that food science was a thing (most people still don’t know about it) and got into a program to get my Ph.D. in food biochemistry. Quickly thereafter I started teaching culinary science at the Culinary Institute of America and consulting for a bunch of chefs like Corey Lee at Benu and Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park. These guys are all my heroes, and I still get giddy at the chance to eat at their restaurants, much less help them elevate what they do, even in the smallest way.
At age 27, you launched your own consultancy and food think tank. Describe what that was like - and how it's been since.
There aren’t many people blending science and culinary at a really high level in the industry yet, and the co-founders of this company come from running development programs for some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. We basically formed a dream team. Each of us was doing really cool stuff on our own, but we were saturated and having to turn away really excellent opportunities. Since forming Pilot R+D, we’ve been able to continue working on our existing projects and add a bunch of amazing stuff on a scale that we could never have achieved on our own.
People really like calling Pilot a think tank, which is fine, but a better way of describing it might be as simply an R+D company. “Think tank” sounds really philosophical, and while we are definitely getting into some heavy concepts, our focus is on developing more tangible things like actual food products, equipment, techniques, software, and restaurant concepts.
What would you say was the turning point in your career?
Getting hired to teach at the CIA was a big deal. I was 23, and it became much easier to approach these incredible chefs as an associate of an institution like that than as just some random, nerdy cook.
Describe an ongoing challenge you face in your career, and how you overcome it.
For a while, the biggest thorn in my side was the notion that science in the kitchen equated to flashy, sciency-looking food. Every time I met a new chef, I would have to explain that while I could definitely help him or her make stuff that levitates and changes colors and tells you your fortune as you eat it, I was much more excited about just making a better roast chicken. The industry has matured a lot over the past few years, and people are becoming more accustomed to the integration of science and cooking, whether the food is aesthetically modern or traditional, rustic or refined.
What do you see as the next big thing in food?
Over the past decade, food has become a huge part of popular culture. Why do you think there’s suddenly so much interest?
There are a ton of reasons for that – we could go on for a long time talking about why food is so in the spotlight. My favorite reason is that people are more DIY these days with all of the information to which we have access. People love learning how to do stuff, whether it’s dance steps or how to make bourbon caramel, and that process is just so much easier now.
What is something you’ve learned recently?
I have recently learned that comic books are awesome. It sounds like a joke, but I really can’t believe that I spent my entire life without being aware that such an incredible form of storytelling existed.
What's your ideal use of a day off?
They are rare. With this kind of lifestyle there are no Saturdays, but it is totally worth it because there aren’t really any Mondays, either. When I do get a day off, I read – everything from cookbooks and scientific papers to novels and opinion articles about men’s pants. I also love anything that involves throwing stuff, so if I can convince some people to go to a park or a beach and throw a ball, I’m happy. Also, there are few things more satisfying than enjoying a mid-afternoon sandwich and a Real Madrid game on TV, then passing out midway through both of them on the couch.
How have you chosen your mentors?
I really look up to people who are great at what they do but manage to stay well-rounded. The whole idea of becoming completely consumed by a single specific thing has never appealed to me, and I love learning about how really successful people manage to do a bunch of different things well.
How do you stay inspired?
My job is ridiculous because my homework is traveling around central Texas eating brisket or seeing who makes the best ice cream in the East Village. I also read a lot of design, fashion, and science/tech blogs. It’s really helpful to see how much incredible stuff is coming out of other fields.