Lab Rats

Can't stand the heat?

On the kinship of scientists and chefs

Ian Brooks 29 July 2007

Stirring up trouble: labs and kitchens both feel the strain

To push our boundaries and succeed at lengths we never knew we could reach, we need to be told where those boundaries are

Recently I've been at home a lot in the evenings, seeing as I've quit smoking and knocked the boozing on the head a bit, and one of the things I've noticed is how much crap there is on the TV. I especially hate reality TV: if you need to put yourself through all that humiliation for a few fleeting minutes of fame, a feat which comprises little more than the rest of the country/planet realizing what a sad fuck you are, there's something pathologically wrong with you.

However, like most things in life, if you're prepared to put the effort in, good will out. So it was with a heavy heart that I welcomed myself to health and sobriety by forcing reality TV through my reluctant cornea. And surprise! After only one emergency brain bypass and two relapses into very heavy drinking I discovered gold amongst the gathered dross of a continent's televisual diarrhea. Thank you, Gordon Ramsey, for saving my Monday (Hell's Kitchen) and Thursday (Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares) evenings from otherwise inevitable bouts of self-mutilation.

I am, and have been for a while, a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Chef Ramsey. I really got to notice him after I moved to the States, which is, as far as I can tell, about when his meteoric rise to global success began (don’t thank me Gordon, I did it for the both of us). I've always enjoyed his straight talking, no nonsense, call-a-bladed-garden-utility-item-a-fucking-shovel-you-pretentious-prick way of talking. His rough demeanor seemed to typify everything I've heard about chefs; it's a demanding and no-holds-barred world. I've known a few chefs, some of whom have worked in the kitchens of renowned restaurants, and they do seem to be alike: when you're off, you're off and you can relax and blow off steam. When you're on, you're on and there is no room for error.

And this mentality really reminded me of another profession of which I am acquainted: science.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Ramsey's autobiography, Humble Pie, and it was rather inspirational even to me, a humble scientist. I’ve heard mutterings in the literary press about how melodramatic he has made it, and how some of his former mentors are now claiming they were never treated as harshly as Ramsay has recorded. But I can well imagine that in the stress of a top restaurant kitchen tempers will fly, especially given the creative nature of many high-profile chefs, so I was curious to see what he had to say. After the usual childhood reminiscences, the book outlines how he became the chef he is: the kitchens he worked in, the people he trained under and, most strikingly, the lifestyle he lived. If one were to substitute pipettes for pans, the stress, hours, pay, conditions, relish, love, drive and desire would be almost indistinguishable from those experienced by a successful scientist.

There are many parallels. A young person may go to culinary school with the obvious desire of becoming a chef; I'll admit that few young science undergraduates dream of becoming professors, but still that is where the dream begins. Once bitten, he may seek a summer stint in a lab, or perhaps a job during the semester as a dishwasher and gofer with the opportunity to take part in a few basic experiments. After that first slope has been attempted and conquered, it no longer seems so impossible to be one of "Them". Graduate school is the next step, and like the young pretender working in his first kitchen, the culture shock can be a make-or-break experience. Both are very stressful environments with intangible rewards. The love of the job is the only thing that will keep him going through the endless late nights and repetitions. Often the only benchmark is failure, alone conquered by passion to succeed.

Once completed, the scientist-chef must embark on postdoctoral training. The young chef will seek out top-rated restaurants to train in, honing his skills at the stove much like his counterpart will seek out top labs and hone his skills at the lab bench. The sudden halcyon days of school are but a dim memory to be dusted off and spoken about with pride to sooth the sobs of a heartbroken youngster yelled at for another unknown faultless failure.

"We've all been there son, don't worry about it," you'll say. "It gets easier with practice. Honestly, a few months from now you'll not remember this, and don’t worry about chef, he'll have forgotten about it by the time the fish course runs late."

...Or was it another PCR tube you forgot to put a 3-prime oligonucleotide into? The story is the same, as is the outcome. There is something about the human psyche that needs hardship and a challenge if we are truly to reach our potential. To push our boundaries and succeed at lengths we never knew we could reach, we need to be told where those boundaries are. And then to prove the teller wrong.

Finally we're done with postdoctoral training, or perhaps our sous chef is ready to move on and try his hand alone, unfettered by the interference of another's imagination. His imagination runs riot with dishes, décor and dreams as head chef, while the scientist typically heads for an academic position with lab space, grants and committees. No matter the size of the kitchen, or the budget, it is the creative process that will now win out. If the imagination is there, with the requisite initiative to follow up, success can be achieved.

To complete my analogy, we can see the executive chef, running and commanding his own chain of restaurants. Occasionally he may return to the kitchen and dabble, but for the most part he has an eye for talent and has nurtured both sous and head chef until his ship is well-rigged and runs alone. So our professor works on his presentations, grants and reviews, leaving the day-to-day running of his lab to his senior fellows and postdocs, knowing that the lab is in good hands. And in time a chosen few will aspire to the executive position.

The analogy is closer than you think, as are the true rewards. Huge sums of money and fame may be there for a few, but for most of us it's just the love of the job and the drive to succeed that makes it all worthwhile.