Chef John


Apr 19, 2018 Student Stories 0 Comments

You should never substitute kosher salt for plain salt in a recipe, for an equivalent volume does not mean an equivalent weight. This knowledge wasn’t born of experience; I learned it from a habit I developed the summer after freshman year. Somewhere in the bowels of San Francisco, a man known only as “Chef John” cooks up not just fresh meals but also YouTube videos. Now, I’ve never been good at cooking. The vigor with which I watch these videos reflects my curiosity more than my skill. We see the precision, perhaps an artistic flick of his wrist, yet we never get to see Chef John’s face. Cooking was a great mystery, some unknown process by which gross, uncooked precursors were somehow transformed into delectable treats. I, naturally, was fascinated by the process through which Chef John turned pig bones into a demi-glaze, the gelatin in the tendons solidifying into a supposedly delicious gel. Cooking changed from an elusive art form into a science as intricate steps slowly made sense to me.  Eventually I tried my own hand in the kitchen. Out of the pantry came the baking soda, baking powder, salt, and flour as I scienced my way through making buttermilk biscuits.  I wasn’t so good at baking, but I loved the synthesis. The baking soda, a base, combines with acidic substances to make carbon dioxide which makes the biscuits rise. That was interesting. The butter coats the flour, repelling water and thus slowing or “shortening” the formation of gluten to create a softer biscuit. Makes sense. Yet, these scientific truths were trumped by the beauty of Chef John’s creations. When I saw the creaminess of the mashed potatoes or the gleam of the bananas Foster, I knew he was a master, and that transcended science.

There’s another YouTuber, also faceless, whom I often watch when my homework gets too hefty. Vihart scribbles fractions on her viola and invokes Pythagoras to explain the physics of music theory. She taught me that the physical biology of hearing assigns arbitrary rules to what we expect in music. In fact, music theory was developed to reinforce what our ears already sought.  Music theory doesn’t seem like a dependable science to me, but it works. There is no reason why one note should evoke a feeling when paired with another, or why some chord progressions create certain moods, but they do. When I listen to the Bach Chaconne for solo violin, the music swells as note after note lies on top of the one before it, and a singular note is called to resolve a phrase. The randomness of the notes and chords falls away. My love of classical music has grown as the science has enveloped me, although my skills lag sadly behind.

I come from a long line of musicians. In a household where my brother is a virtuoso on the violin, I consistently squeak out the notes. I’ve been learning the mechanics of the violin since I was 5 years old. I have the dubious distinction of having spent five years in Suzuki Book One.  My parents begged me to quit. I must say I’ve rarely been accused of creating art. But my own brand of art has little to do with the finished product. And while I might not myself achieve the art, I often find myself in a belly flop through hordes of Wikipedia pages, reading about dissonance, tritones, and counterpoint. Even when it sounds forced or squeaky under my bow, the science always works.

My tone doesn’t approach the richness of my brother’s; my biscuits don’t approximate the delectability of Chef John’s. The process of practicing violin, listening to Bach, and sifting through flour is the point to me. While the art seems ever unattainable, it’s the science that sustains me.


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