Chromatography—It’s Just About Following the Recipe, Right?

ColumnDecember 2021
Volume 17
Issue 12
Pages: 23–26

A great chromatographer does more than simply follow the method.

A great chromatographer does more than simply follow the method.

I have heard analytical science and the chromatographic disciplines compared to “cookery” or “recipe following” so many times during my career. Frankly, these references have always been slightly disparaging, perhaps meant to demean the degree of knowledge and skills that are required to become a chromatographer. As a career chromatographer, it goes without saying that I disagree with this perspective in the main.

I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with fine cuisine and restaurant kitchens. The art and science of producing good food is fascinating, and in the professional kitchen, just as in a chromatography laboratory, knowledge, skills, and experience are combined to produce, at the very least, fit for purpose results. Professional chefs do not follow recipes, but they do take guidance from their creative leader or executive chef. There is an enormous amount of discipline and care required to consistently produce the best results, the most exquisite food. There are a number of skills that must be mastered and built into “muscle memory”, from basic food preparation to fundamental cooking techniques. There is equipment—often quite complex equipment—that must be learned and mastered to produce the best results. It is said that a new range or stove takes at least a month to produce consistently good results, and that even simple changes, such as a new make of saucepan with a different material of construction or thickness of base, must be “learned” over time. But of course, there is also “art”, the combination of basic skills, techniques, and equipment, a passion and a palette for good food, and a mastery of the combination of ingredients, flavours, visual acuity, and production techniques, all needed to produce the perfect dish. Is this really so different from the skills, passion, and flair that is required to become a good chromatographer? I really don’t think there is so much of a gap. To say that we are “recipe followers” would be like saying Escoffier was a “cook”, clearly incorrect. A well performing kitchen has roles and responsibilities that can be mapped very closely to a high-end restaurant kitchen, and indeed beyond the kitchen and into the dining room. It’s worth a few column inches to compare the professional kitchen to the laboratory to give us some further perspective on how teamwork and the vital aspects of each role can combine to produce either beautiful food or beautiful separations!

Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935) was a French chef, restaurateur, and writer, who popularized French cooking techniques by simplifying and modernizing styles codified by Marie-Antoine Carême (1784–1833), an early practitioner of the French haute cuisine school. He published the seminal work Le Guide Culinaire and, together with Céasar Ritz, rose to prominence at the London Savoy Hotel, as well as the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Escoffier elevated the chef’s profession by demanding cleanliness, discipline, and silence in the kitchen, drawing on his military experience to develop the brigade de cuisine system, a hierarchical system of management and team working still in evidence in many of the world’s best kitchens to this day. The various roles within this system can be mapped to those of the analytical laboratory, the interactions within the team and the requirements for each role bearing an interesting comparison with those in our own working environment.

Garçon de cuisine (Kitchen porter) is the foundational level of the brigade de cuisine, receiving deliveries, performing the most basic preparatory tasks such as trimming vegetables, and ensuring all ingredients are available at the correct cooking “stations”. It will take no imagination to translate these activities to those of the “technician” or “stores” person in the laboratory. Seemingly a lower ranking job, anyone working in a laboratory will know that without the correct reagents and consumables to hand, the laboratory quickly grinds to a halt. It is to this person that we often turn when deadlines are tight or new supplies or a new consumable are required, as they hold the fundamental relationships between the laboratory and our suppliers and are key to ensuring that the chemist is correctly provisioned. It is worthy of note that whilst the Garçon de cuisine was rarely formally trained, many have, through hard work and the development of empirical skills, risen to become great chefs.

Plongeur (dishwasher) and marmiton
(pot washer) are the backbone of the
kitchen brigade system. Without the
requisite plates and dishes, cleaned to a
highly professional standard, no service to the table will occur. The plates and dishes are the blank canvas onto which the various chefs will apply their artistry. Without the required cooking vessels and implements, no cooking can be performed. Well, I think we all know what can happen if our laboratory glassware is not cleaned to exacting standards, and one might also imagine that the requirement for our laboratory equipment to perform correctly is also the responsibility of the instrument technicians or metrology department.

Kitchens are typically arranged into “stations” or “sections”, each of which oversee various different food types or dishes. These various sections will all have achef de partie (senior station chef), demi chef(deputy to the chef de partie), andcommis chef(under chef of the station, usually a trainee) according to seniority and experience. These roles will do everything from preparation of the basic foodstuffs to turning out the final product from that section. It is typical in many laboratories to have specialists within the various chromatographic disciplines of liquid chromatography (LC), gas chromatography (GC), and spectroscopy. It is also not unusual to have various levels of expertise within these sections, all working together to produce high quality analytical data, from the production of extracts and sample solutions to the final acquired and analyzed data. Apropos of nothing other than a romantic fascination with the brigade system, and to highlight the number of specialities within the kitchen brigade, here are some of the various stations that one might encounter in a larger professional restaurant:

  • Sauté chef (saucier)—produces sautéed items and their sauces. Often the most respected position of the stations, this critical role will also often oversee the quality and presentation of the food as it transits the “pass” between the kitchen and the dining room.
  • Fish chef (poissonnier)—undertakes fish butchering and the production of fish dishes.
  • Roast chef (rôtisseur)—responsible for roasted and braised meats and butchering.
  • Grill chef (grillardin)—produces all grilled foods.
  • Fry chef (friturier)—responsible for fried items.
  • Entrée preparer (entremetier)—produces hot appetizers and soups, vegetables, pastas, and starches.
  • Soup chef (potager)—produces soups and cold sauces and works closely with the sauté chef.
  • Pantry chef (garde manger)—manages cold foods, salads, cold appetizers, pâtés, and other charcuterie items.
  • Pastry chef (pâtissier)—responsible for baked goods: pastries, cakes, breads, and desserts.

As a commis chef, one will learn to prepare the fresh ingredients and the rudiments of good cooking. The demi chef will be well established after several years of experience and will be doing the majority of the cooking, whilst the chef de partie will be finishing dishes and ensuring good quality and timeliness. The position of sauté chef will often be the pinnacle of a chef’s career, taking years to master and constantly evolving to reach new heights. Again, it takes no real explanation from me that the necessity for the study and mastery of the basics followed by many years of experience building to a point where one can recognize what is good and what is below par is perfectly aligned with the various chromatographic specialisms.

Also worthy of comparison is the role of the sauté chef and our colleagues in quality assurance. The sauté chef will inspect each of the dishes as they move out of the kitchen, ensuring that the presentation and taste meet the required standards—not too different from the compliance and assurance role within a laboratory organization.

Three further brigade de cuisine roles that are worthy of special note are the tournant, the aboyeur, and the chef de cuisine.

The tournant is the spare, but very safe, pair of hands who can float within the kitchen and lend a hand at whichever station is under pressure. These chefs are typically long serving and skilled at many, or all, of the station specialisms. As such, they are an invaluable resource and often the glue that holds together a successful service. I’m sure we all know a few laboratory tournants, without whom our laboratory organization would cease to function in an efficient manner!

The aboyeur controls the flow and timing of food from the kitchen and is the link between the front of house and kitchen staff. They ensure dishes for each table come to the pass at the same time and flow out to the dining room as quickly and harmoniously as possible. This often means close liaison with the chefs de partie to ensure timing and coordination. I liken these folks to a good project manager who can assess where pinch points may occur and ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to various departments to avoid critical time delays. A good laboratory aboyeur, or project manager as we might know them, can be worth their weight in gold, keeping the various aspects of sample preparation, data acquisition, and analysis flowing towards the final report.

Finally, the chef de cuisine (or executive chef in very large organizations) is responsible, along with other team members and suppliers, for creating new dishes and setting standards in the kitchen. They are the creative mastermind, inspiring new dishes and ideas that the chefs de partie will help to create. It is usually their name above the door. They will also liaise with restaurant owners as well as formally managing the whole kitchen team. This is the typical laboratory manager role, and the responsibility for new method development or method improvement lies with them, as well as the role of formal people management and reporting out to other departments. A chef de cuisine is typically highly creative, absolutely focused on quality, and, although not always on the face it, fiercely protective of their workforce. Does that describe your own chef de cuisine?

The introduction of the brigade system saw a paradigm shift in the restaurant business. This team enabled the introduction of à la carte dining as we know it today, enabling a wide range of dishes to be offered and, no matter the diner’s choices, to arrive at the table at the same time. The modern laboratory also strives to bring together various types of analytical data to present a high-quality product and enable the wider organization or client to make informed choices regarding their product or development decision or their treatment options.

What is true is that none of these folks follow a step-by-step recipe, instead, using their skills, experience, and the guidance of the chef de cuisine, they produce dishes that are exactly to the specification. Whilst we may have more formal recipes, such as protocols, standards operating procedures (SOPs), or laboratory instructions, we can also act as a brigade, with the various functions working together to produce a quality product at the required time, time after time. But one thing must be realized, the production of a good chromatographer, just like a good chef, requires time and patience to master the basics, develop your craft, and eventually create wonderful new methods and approaches. There is no shortcut and you must seek mentors who can teach and inspire you. If you don’t have the patience, if your chef de partie is unwilling to show you the hands-on essentials, or your chef de cuisine is uninspiring, it may be time to find a new brigade!

By all means follow the recipe. Let’s face it, the production of consistent medicines is a little more important than the production of consistent steaks, but always try to retain a desire to produce a perfectly cooked, beautifully presented, piece of data.

Just one further piece of advice, don’t be tempted to taste test as you go—just learn to know, as any good grillardin will tell you, when something is over- or undercooked!!

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Toby Astill | Image Credit: © Thermo Fisher Scientific