Art vs. Science

The entirely unnecessary conflict of interest that is created between the arts and the sciences in modern Western teaching confounds me. Standardized testing, memorization and recitation are the pillars of public education. A tiny sample of us learn that way. I am lucky enough to be one of those people. The combination of excellent memory and my life-long desire for knowledge meant I did rather well in school. I watched some friends around me fall behind, not because they weren’t perfectly intelligent people but because they learned in a different way.

A short relationship in college ended because of the dichotomy of art and science. He was a science major; I was taking arts classes. At first it wasn’t a problem, as it shouldn’t be, but the more I grew to know him the more I realized he looked down on my discipline. It was lesser to him because there were no solid answers to the questions being asked. Like I said, we didn’t last long.

After learning from school for almost two decades, I stepped away from the books and into the kitchen. Actually, I was kind of sucked into it. I chose to swim in the ocean that is the hospitality industry and thus got caught in the riptide of the culinary world. There were no books involved. I was handed a knife, shown how to operate the equipment and set loose. In my first job I progressed from peeling prawns to slicing onions and grilling steaks. I mixed emulsions and simmered sauces.

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Personalized flatbread on rosemary and garlic focaccia. Yes, it was as delicious as it looks.

It wasn’t until I went traveling to Australia and started working in a kitchen there that I realized just how very much I had already learned. And how much I still had to learn about the infinite possibilities that food presents. It was not in school but there in the kitchens both at work and home that I learned the real difference between art and science.

Creating sauces, dips, marinades or flavours, that is art. Recipes are helpful but in the end we could each use the same recipe for marinara and they would all taste just a little bit different. That’s because our individual palates go into everything we make. I personally almost never use a recipe for cooking. I might read a few, get some inspiration but ultimately it is my own tastes and experiences that go into my creations.

Baking is science. Unless you are a very experienced baker I would not recommend grabbing flour, baking soda, sugar, butter, an egg and just throwing in whatever amount you think is right. Chances are the product will not come out the way you want it to. The process of rising and tempering dough or chilling pastry, the use of leaveners (yeast, baking soda, baking powder etc), and the amount of dry goods vs wet. All science. Chemistry actually.

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Everything measured and ready to go (also known as mise en place) for peanut butter cookies!

I enjoyed chemistry in school to a point. That point was when it started involving a lot of math. I never did well with math. I love baking. I love baking certain things, such as cookies and muffins, so much that I don’t always use a recipe anymore. Again, not something I recommend. Forgetting an ingredient in a soup isn’t necessarily a catastrophe. Forgetting the sugar or the baking soda in your muffins would make them inedible.

I suppose my point is that art and science go hand in hand. I don’t believe that they should be separate entities. Gastronomy, the science of cooking, is a great example. Fine pastry and beautiful cakes are another. The use of computers to make beautiful simulations and diagrams that are used in educational television or documentaries, is science to art and back to science again. You don’t have to be a knowledge hungry freak like I am to appreciate the beauty of the juxtaposition around you.

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