I’ve been thinking more about business models lately (my new issue of Fast Company arrived today) and how they relate to the culinary world. There was a recent article in the Boston Globe about young food entrepreneurs. This new generation has left traditional desk jobs to sell artisan croutons, s’mores, cupcakes, etc. However, the more interesting business model to me is selling the ideas themselves, rather than the food. There have been several examples of chefs who expanded their job description to fill the trio of author/speaker/consultant: Alex and Aki, Kenji Alt, Anthony Bourdain, and others. However, Dave Arnold, Alton Brown, Chris Young, and other food/science people arrived to their positions via entirely different routes. I’m curious to find out more about the path from selling food to selling ideas.

Here are some thought-provoking ideas from the past week:

  1. How do we measure the amount of money in the country? We can add the total amount of cash people carry to the amount they store in banks. However, the banks loan money to others, who can then use it to pay someone else, who deposits it in another bank… [This American Life]
  2. Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute and other fun facts about the mathematics of beauty. [OK Cupid blog]
  3. E-ink just came out with a color display. How do the black and white microspheres stay separate in the monochrome version? On a related note, how do squids change color so fast?  [E ink]
  4. In Taiwan, residents wait outside together for the trash truck to arrive. It’s even a possible way to find a date this way. [Freakonomics blog]

2,000 calories/day: we’re all 100 watt light bulbs with the orthodox nutritional advice. The more I read more about metabolism, the more ludicrous it seems.

  1. Change in energy stores = energy input – energy output. This equation has to be balanced, although it implies no causality. An increase in energy input (i.e. eating more) could cause a person to increase his energy output (i.e. higher metabolic rate), etc.
  2. Overweight people overeat. This is about as profound as saying that alcoholics drink too much. Daily caloric intake between two adults can vary by a factor of five (e.g. people on caloric restriction diets vs. ultramarathon runners), yet their weights can be stable.
  3. Twenty-seven hundred calories per day is a million calories per day. Over two decades that’s 25 tons of food. It’s actually amazing that humans can maintain such a relatively stable weight for so long.

After reading “Good  Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes, listening to the Cooking Issues podcast, looking through “What I Eat” by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, and watching “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, as well as tracking my own diet with MyPlate, I’ve broken down a lot of assumptions that I made in the past.

I’ve written and discarded numerous starts to this post. One of the criteria that I try to use to judge a blog post, book, or presentation is to ask “so what?”. This is the question that my dad had to answer numerous times when showing his latest results to his advisor and he eventually learned how to present his findings in a way to make someone else understand their importance. The goal of writing and presenting is to change people’s thinking, not just to transmit information. So instead of writing about what I had for lunch or what I’m listening to now, here are a couple links that may be more effective at changing the way you think:

  1. Journeyman Starts with a One Simple Step by Jessica Alpert (WBUR) – inspiring story of opening up a restaurant
  2. ChangeOrder by David Sherwin – just discovered this blog, via Scott Berkun
  3. 3 Case Studies: Ordinary people using extraordinary scripts to hustle by Ramit Sethi – the advice itself isn’t original, but the stories are interesting
  4. Seth Godin’s blog: a veteran of the post-a-day paradigm and another potential source of inspiration

One of the best things about my job is serendipity. Having an inconveniently located office that is often way too hot or too cold means that I’m walking around a lot. In the past couple days, stopping to chat with people in the hallway has led to new ideas for: scheduling equipment on the lab’s website, studying the textures of cooked meats with an electron microscope, a molten chocolate cake lab to teach heat transfer to grad students, using microfluidics to study emulsions, studying sourdough bacterial growth with a new microscopy technique, and more.

This morning I worked on developing a lesson plan for the ENGAGE program, to integrate everyday examples of engineering into undergraduate curricula and persuade more students to stay in related disciplines. I picked sous vide cooking, since it incorporates to many different aspects of both science and cooking:

  1. Engineering: an immersion circulator uses negative feedback to maintain the temperature of the water bath. How could this equipment be made more accessible to home cooks?
  2. Biochemical: the proteins or starches in the food denature at specific temperatures. Is it possible to qualitatively understand differences in these temperatures by looking at the amino acid sequences and protein sizes.
  3. Mathematical: the heat diffusion into the food can be modelled by diffusion equations. How well do these match up with values in recipes and why might there be discrepancies?
  4. Microbiological: microbial growth rates are relevant when developing safe food handling procedures. How does the temperature affect the doubling times of different  species?
  5. Culinary: in addition to precise control over texture, the method makes preparing fish, meats, and eggs potentially far more convenient (e.g. no need to soft boil eggs during service). How does a restaurant optimize the use of the water baths, if different foods require different temperatures?

I think that a similarly broad set of questions can come from looking at a single nutritional label, investigating the numerous roles of eggs in cooking, or all the steps involved in making chocolate.

One of the best things about grad school is the flexibility in scheduling. It can actually be rather relaxing to work in the office on the weekends. I’m far from the only one to see the benefits of alternatives to the standard 9-5:

  1. Why You Can’t Work at Work by Jason Fried
  2. The Myth of Work Life Balance by Mitch Joel
  3. If you’re working this week, you’re smart by Scott Berkun

Some companies seem to be more introspective about how employees spend their time, but that can seem lacking in academia. I’m still early enough in my career to be idealistic about the possibility of 15 minute group meetings where everyone stands, collaborations between admin and research staff to cut down on paperwork, presentation critiques to promote awesomeness at conferences, and a stronger outreach program to engage people outside of the university.