Armed with a Ph.D. in food biochemisty, Ali Bouzari has consulted on menu development for some of the most ambitious restaurants in the country, including the French Laundry, Benu and Eleven Madison Park. In 2014, he and three partners founded Pilot R&D in Northern California to provide research and development services to innovative restaurants and food companies. He is the company’s chief scientific officer. Bouzari’s first book, Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food (Ecco Press), was published in 2016.
You’ve had some big breaks in your brief career—working in some amazing places. What advice do you have for young people about how to engineer that big break?
Absolutely the most important skill I have is being able to explain things in persuasive human talk. Truly, the ability to communicate—to be a straightforward, earnest, collaborative human being—is kind of my only employable skill. When I was a graduate student in food biochemistry, a lot of my peers had published four or five times as many papers as I had by the time they graduated. They had gotten prestigious grants and great post-docs. The one leg up I had on some of them was that, in a field not traditionally filled with uber-gregarious people, I had the ability to communicate. Being able to build a coalition of the willing, of people who are not only interested in working with you but are invested in your success because they like you and think you’re going places, is of almost equal importance to those skills you’re trying to trade into a job. The top-tier chefs know they can get top-tier culinary talent, but is this person going to be a pleasure to work with?
Would you share a big professional risk that you took and how you prepared for it?
The most obvious one was founding Pilot R&D. It was a huge professional risk. The four of us co-founders decided to launch a company completely unfunded by external sources. It was like saying, “Let’s sink a lot of our resources, time and energy into a company that’s going to start out making zero money.” Each one of us was having success on our own, but we felt there was a ceiling to what we could do on our own.
Now the firm is growing and you are hiring. What impresses you in an interview?
Gregariousness. The ability to be a joy to have around is indispensable, because the s–t is going to hit the fan at some point. I can teach people science and I can teach them how to cook, but I can’t teach people how to make everyone feel like their hair is not on fire when it definitely is.
Best piece of career advice anyone ever gave you?
Always tip what you’re comped. I learned that when I was an intern at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin. (Owners) John and Kendall were in the foodie public eye, and when they went to a restaurant, it was not improbable that their bill was going to be drastically adjusted down. They told me, “We tip what we would have paid anyway.” That feels right. Getting ahead is easier if you’re paying it forward.
What’s the best lesson—nothing to do with cooking—that you learned in a restaurant kitchen?
Clean station, clear mind. Every good restaurant kitchen has some pedantic mantra about working clean. One of my first chefs was not into saying Zen stuff, but he would say that when your station is messy, it’s a distraction. There’s something interesting to me about stopping in the middle of chaos to clean up—an act that has nothing to do with getting the scallops on the plate. When I was preparing to defend my dissertation—a four-hour long bludgeoning by five professors at once—I studied for six months straight. But I made time to go to the gym, made time to cook for myself, made sure that where I lived was clean. It was an amazing salve for my brain.
The Pilot R&D website talks a lot about collaboration and teamwork. But isn’t most culinary creativity a solitary endeavor? How can a young culinarian balance personal ambition with team spirit?
That idea of the genius auteur…I couldn’t disagree more. I grew up with an insanely diverse group of friends. Today they’re musicians, actors, architects, software engineers, geologists, documentary filmmakers. And we’re still collaborating. Every one of these people had something to do with my book. It felt like a cheat code for life, having this group around me. With our different abilities, we could tackle whatever came our way and it would be fun.
Every field is only going to get more cross-disciplinary as lines blur between software and food and engineering and marketing. You’re going to see a lot more people touting “the complete team.” But for me, it’s a way to have unlimited fun and to make the most viable enterprise.
Ali Bouzari’s book, Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food, seeks to explain the fundamental building blocks of food and how ingredients work behind the scenes in everything we cook.
View on Amazon