Chef Lectures Princeton PHDs!

Okay, they're PhD candidates, but these experts in materials science (polymers, nanotubes…) sought kitchen wisdom from chef Scott Anderson of Elements.

Scott Anderson
Executive chef Scott Anderson.
Photo by Erin Gleeson.

You wouldn’t think that cracking three partly to fully cooked eggs into three different bowls and setting them on a table would unleash a flurry of oohs and aahs and cell phone photos and a single cry of, “Amazing!” That’s because you’re probably not a Princeton University PhD candidate in materials science and would fail to see that bit of elementary kitchen work for what it was—a revelatory demonstration of percolation theory involving random heterogeneous systems in which one constituent may have long-range connectivity, as illustrated by proteins unfolding under heat, changing the egg from solution to gel to solid state on the far side of what’s called the percolation threshold.

Got that? If not, Scott Anderson will translate. The executive chef of Elements in Princeton, Anderson gave the demonstration and lecture in the restaurant’s state-of-the-art kitchen: “The first egg was poached, with a runny yolk; the second was distinctly more set up; and the third was fully set up, a perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg.”

What the PhD candidates, being scientists, really appreciated is that Anderson and sous chef Mike Ryan presented the eggs as a controlled experiment, with just one variable: the temperature of the cooking water. The equipment at Elements—a perennial on NJM’s annual list of Top 25 restaurants in the state—makes it a veritable culinary lab. Using thermo circulators—which maintain cooking water at an exact temperature for as long as something needs to cook—Anderson and Ryan immersed each whole raw egg for 30 minutes: one at 60 degrees C (140 F), one at 62.5 C (144.5 F) and one at 74 C (165 F).

“We understand food at a macroscopic level,” Anderson told his Ivy League guests. “You understand it at a microscopic level.”

A self-proclaimed “man of few words,” Anderson admits he had butterflies after Princeton PhD candidate Joshua Spechler, a specialist in nano-component materials (applicable to solar cells), approached him about explaining and demonstrating things like maillard reactions (browning), emulsions, heat transfer and the relationship between “microstructure” and texture. The show-and-tell would culminate in a lunch with four courses explicating the topics discussed.

“I did some research,” says Anderson, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers in psychology and sociology, but does not have a formal culinary education. “Once they were in the kitchen, it was more my world than their world, so I was perfectly comfortable.”

Unlike Rutgers, Harvard or Cornell, Princeton doesn’t have a food science program. “We’re generally interested in food science,” says John Cannarella, a PhD candidate in mechanical and aerospace engineering who works on lithium-ion batteries and how they degrade. “We wanted to reach out to the community, to someone who knows [the subject].”

When Spechler and Cannarella sent an e-mail inviting their peers, the 12 available slots were snatched up in minutes, like tickets to a Springsteen concert. Only Spechler had ever eaten at Elements (for his 25th birthday), but that wasn’t the draw. “We’re engineers and scientists, and we just can’t leave our work at home,” he explains. “We love to explore these things.”

On a kitchen tour, the grad students couldn’t help but note the kinship between the thermo circulators, CVap (controlled vapor) ovens and the evaporator/vacuum sealer and the equipment they themselves use every day. The two sides bonded over their shared attention to detail, need to push the limits and delight in eureka moments, whether hard-won or serendipitous. Dipping into his molecular-gastronomy bag of tricks, Anderson turned bacon fat into powder, eliciting an enthusiastic “Cool!” from one of the grad students.

“That’s why so many accountants want to become chefs,” Anderson shot back with a laugh. “It’s just so much fun!”

Though they took few notes, the guests peppered Anderson and Ryan with questions. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Loren Alegria, who studies nanotubes, said afterward. “But this is so cool. It’s impressive how much they know about their craft.”

A second talk/demo is in the offing—“on campus, in an auditorium, with a bigger audience—unfortunately,” says Anderson, anticipating butterflies. “I’ll probably do a video.”

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