What is science thinking? And a cook learns to chef.

I’ve made it my mission over the past decade to understand science thinking. Before I tell you what I’ve learned in that time, I want to tell you a personal story. It’s a story about the cook becoming a chef, and trust me, we’ll get to teaching science thinking soon enough.

For the past fifteen years I’ve been training myself to cook. As I’ve gotten better, I’ve learned that being a good cook goes well beyond knowing how to read and follow a recipe. Following recipes is a good place to start, but there are certain skills you have to learn to get some things right. The advent of the internet has significantly helped my cooking game, because now I can watch Gordon Ramsey or Alton Brown expertly dice an onion and then practice myself. This combination of read-observe-practice has improved my kitchen skills and has resulted in better results as I work through recipes. I’m starting to be a pretty good cook.

The more I progress in the kitchen, though, the more I realize that there is a distinct difference between a good home cook, which I have started to become, and a good home chef, which I want to work towards becoming. The combination of kitchen skills and expertly-designed recipes results in some pretty great food, and my wife and kids are certainly happy that I’ve chosen this as my hobby. However, to be a decent home chef I need more than a book of recipes and some skills. I need to combine the content knowledge, practices, and reasoning processes of the chef to start innovating in the kitchen. In a sense, I’m going to have to “start over,” making horrible dishes as I learn to combine ingredients in different ways, processing the feedback from those dishes, and learning from that feedback. I’m going to have to learn how to create food as opposed to just preparing food.

The following is a quote attributed to the great “philosopher” Homer Simpson, which I have come across in internet memes with unknown origins, where Homer is looking in the refrigerator and hungry. I use it here because it aptly describes the separation between the cook and the chef:

“There is no food. Just ingredients to make food.”

The cook opens the refrigerator looking for the items on their recipe’s list. The chef opens the refrigerator and creates recipes based on what’s there. Being a chef, as opposed to a cook, requires a certain type of creativity, where knowledge of food is combined with practices and skills to make something unique to the moment and ingredients on hand. Where does that creativity come from? How do we learn it? Can we? How would we teach it?

For me to become a home chef, there is a massive amount of content knowledge to be learned, such as what different ingredients taste like, smoke points of different oils, and even some really cool food science content such as how collagen molecules contract or relax at various temperatures. Specific skills need to be mastered, such as sautéing, braising, chopping the onion I mentioned above, and even sharpening knives. I need to practice like the chef, which means I need to experiment with new flavor combinations and textures, and I need to accept that the practice of cooking can lead to some bad results from time to time, from which I can learn and grow. Finally, to become a decent home chef, I need to understand how the practices of the chef connect to the flavors – what’s the reasoning that connects the doing with the knowing? What type of thinking does it take to connect knowledge about triglyceride melting points to the practice of preparing a moist and tender brisket and how might I generalize this knowledge to figure out how to make this pork shoulder? That right there is the creativity: thinking.

You may be slightly confused by now. Isn’t this blog about science, and don’t you have a book coming out about teaching science thinking? Why this detailed discussion about food? Are you just trying to make me hungry? How does thinking like a chef fit in with thinking like a scientist?

I’m highlighting the process it takes to become a home chef because it’s relatable and is the exact same process required to become a young scientist. In my first book Creating Scientists, I went into depth about what it takes to teach children science as a process, as opposed to a manual full of stuff to know. Is it our job to just teach “science facts?” Can we create great biologists by forcing students to memorize the parts of the cell? If the physical science student learns enough equations, are they then prepared to solve new challenges and make new discoveries? Is a chemist born the moment they’ve learned all of the elements on the periodic table? Are flash cards and memory tasks really a good way to excite the next generation about science thinking?

It turns out that we can’t teach an aspiring chef how to make delicious food by merely having them recite the five basic tastes. Similarly, we can’t teach an aspiring scientist how to discover by having them memorize the periodic table of the elements. Sure, that content knowledge is a necessary component, but it isn’t sufficient for chef or scientist making. If we keep peeling the layers of the onion (ha!), we’ll find that it goes deeper than that, as well. Having good knife skills doesn’t make a great chef. Having excellent mathematical ability doesn’t make a great physicist or even a great mathematician. Skills and abilities are necessary, but once again they aren’t sufficient.

How can you understand cooking that goes beyond learning to follow a recipe or chopping onions? How can you understand science that goes beyond learning scientific facts or manipulating equations? Ultimately, it requires three things: knowing, doing, and thinking. It takes the synthesis of these three things to be a practicing chef or scientist. My first book Creating Scientists focused heavily on knowing and doing, or the content knowledge and practices required of the scientist. My next book, Teaching Science Thinking, focuses on the thinking.

Thinking is the glue that binds knowing and doing. Thinking is the creativity required to discover, whether we’re talking about discovering new flavor combinations or what happens past the event horizon of a black hole. Keep an eye out, because me next book is about teaching your students how to think, and therefore how to combine knowledge and practice to create.

It’s surprisingly harder than it seems.

What do you think?