How did you get into UC Davis

The science of good taste

Brian Chau

Brian found out about Dan's plans on the Internet and encouraged him to follow suit. Today the two food hackers see each other three times a week. That is when Brian walks through the door of Dan's Tinker Kitchen, which has now opened on 22nd Street in Mission, San Francisco, throws off his backpack and starts tinkering with it.

Like today. Chau, who studied at the private UC Davis, puts a cookbook on the long wooden table: 'Kintsugi Wellness' by Candice Kumai - it is about the Japanese art of nourishing not only the body but also the soul. The 27-year-old is currently working on a new Matcha biscuit. It already exists in the culinary universe of its client Candice, but the Californian by choice wants to open her own café in Miami, where the biscuit is to be combined with frozen yoghurt. The biscuit needs a different consistency, that's the order.

Chau, with Vietnamese-Chinese roots, is lean, structured, and fast. Before starting his own business, he worked for the Kerry Group, the world leader in food additives and flavors. Then he switched to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, which has belonged to Lindt & Sprüngli since 1998. Today, Chau works on a project basis, alone or in conjunction with other colleagues. When the first test biscuits come out of the combi oven, he lets us try them - and share his knowledge.

Brian, how do you become a food scientist?

It's good that you ask! A lot of people don't even know that this is a real job. You know the cook and the nutritionist. We are also active in these two fields, but we do a lot more than that. Because in addition to nutritional and culinary aspects, we are also concerned with marketing and packaging. The University of California Davis, or UC Davis for short, has a special Food Science & Technology program. There you can choose areas of specialization such as chemistry, microbiology or engineering, and you can get training in logistics and procurement. It's a very multidisciplinary approach. And believe me, you need a good basic knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology to understand food. Take this matcha biscuit: there we have the smell, the texture, the taste. You cannot analyze any of this without understanding chemistry. For example, we work with pH meters and moisture meters to get to the bottom of these factors.

Matcha Cookies / Image: Dan at Tinker Kitchen

What difficulties do you face in the process?

When a recipe has been accepted, i.e. a formula has been found and a product is to go into mass production, things get tricky again. After all, quality and taste should always be the same. But: When a recipe is converted to machine production and when the quantities are multiplied, the taste changes again. So you cannot simply extrapolate, for example, salt or sugar. Salt, for example, forms crystals and clumps together in large quantities. Such things have to be taken into account.

Why did you become a food scientist?

Actually, my father, who also studied at UC Davis, wanted me to be a doctor. Here in San Francisco, however, food science is a big issue; California has a tradition in this area. I also grew up with Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine and have cooked independently since I was 13. I was then able to convince my father with the argument that I can also work scientifically in the nutrition sector.

How do you go about developing a new recipe?

Well, there are two approaches: If I am to develop a completely new product, for example a protein bar or a mushroom jerky, I first go to a retreat with the customer: What are your criteria, what do you want to achieve? What does the target group look like, what is the packaging? Where should the product be sold? What should it cost? Then I start developing a prototype. Hundreds of attempts are usually required to meet all requirements. Sometimes a recipe already exists, but the formula needs to be revised. Like with the matcha biscuit. A salable ice cream sandwich is to be developed from the recipe in the cookbook. The liquid that the frozen yoghurt releases requires reformulation.

Here at Tinker Kitchen you have a lot of equipment at your disposal. Which ones are used in the case of the Matcha biscuit?

I worked with the combi oven here. The ice cream sandwich is supposed to be sold in Miami, where the humidity is much higher than here in San Francisco. The combi oven is ideal for including such factors in the process.

MycoKind Mushroom Jerky / Image: Anh Thoa Pham

What are you more interested in: the chemical processes or experimenting with ingredients?

If I had to do a ranking, I would say: I enjoy the chemical processes more. Experimentation can sometimes take a lot of time before you get a satisfactory result. Sometimes it's really frustrating. With chemistry, it's sometimes easier: take the mushroom jerky we just talked about. You add sugar and the stickiness increases. Then you have the choice of using solid or liquid sugar, and the result is relatively predictable, so you can get a result in three or six months. Pure experimentation can take a year. Most of my clients have a timeline, of course. So I don't have an infinite amount of time.

For example, how long does it take to develop this new biscuit?

I started in March of this year, and it should be ready in mid-August. Six months is not a long period of time for such a development, but it is the rule for my clients. Of course there are also things that go faster. A new tea mixture, for example, is developed more quickly. However, some things also take a long time. Biotech is booming in California right now and I've worked on a vegan meat substitute. Nothing works for less than a year.

What was your most interesting project?

The mushroom jerky. It was just very exciting to get the right texture. The mushrooms consist of 80 to 90 percent water. The rest are fiber, protein, fat and carbohydrates. Here, too, I worked with the combi oven to develop the right bite firmness. That was great fun!

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