Famous chemists and their exploits in the kitchen

What’s cooking in chemistry? How leading chemists succeed in the kitchen
Hubertus Bell, Tim Fuerstein, Carlos Guntner, Soren Holsken and Klass Lohmann
Weinheim: Wiley-VCH 2003 | Pp 229 | ?22.50 | ISBN 3527307230
Reviewed by Hamish Kidd

It has long been said that there is a relationship between cooking and chemistry, and that chemists tend to be good cooks, or at least have a keen appreciation of good cuisine. Perhaps this is because chemists understand the importance of ’reaction conditions’ and the physical chemistry involved in cooking processes. Or perhaps they just enjoy eating.

This book by Hubertus Bell et al. can be enjoyed at a variety of levels. We are given career profiles of 60 world-famous chemists. These are followed by so-called ’scientific sketches’ or vignettes of the chemistry that is the basis of their success. These one-page sketches are well written, with figures and reaction sequences that enable readers to grasp the highlights of each career. Several references to seminal papers are given to allow interested readers to dig deeper if they want.

Each of the chemists was asked to provide a favourite recipe. From the accompanying anecdotes, it appears that most chose dishes that either reflect their roots or remind them of places they have encountered during their travels. One contributer, however, actually supplied two recipes which he says were inspired by excellent dishes eaten at conferences he had attended - surprising considering the dreadful food served at many such events!

The recipes featured range widely: from Ronald Breslow’s veal and sausage stew and Dieter Hoppe’s sweet and sour mushroom salad to Steven Ley’s low-calorie, chemical-free risotto. It is surprising that, in the light of Kyriacos Nicolaou’s complex multistep syntheses of molecules like Taxol and brevetoxin A, he should plump for a relatively simple one-step synthesis of fish and chips. Each recipe is given in sufficient detail to allow the reader to cook the dish and experience it for themselves.

This book should be enjoyed by those who like to read while they are cooking, or cook while they are reading. It helps to show that even famous chemists are real people who have lives outside the laboratory, appreciate the good things of life, and have highly tuned taste buds.

I would recommend a meal consisting of the Erick Carreira starter, followed by a main course from Reinhard Hoffmann, before finishing up with Peter Wipf’s dessert.

Bon appetit!