Tylor Urias is the Executive Chef for Spencer's for Steak and Chops at the Doubletree Hotel by Hilton in San Jose. He was raised throughout the United States and abroad in very rural farmlands which helped to grow his interest in ecology, agriculture and food very early on. He works with several organizations such as the Green Restaurant Association to make sure his restaurant is pushing the boundaries on sustainability and low environmental impact.
What hooked you on cooking?I first started baking and cooking at the early age of 8 years old; I was always fascinated with the idea of taking ingredients and making something new with them. In my teenage years, I gravitated to cooking because of the almost sport-like atmosphere in the kitchen, everything became about timing, making each dish perfect, and not to mention you get to play with knives. It really fascinated me; the new flavors and continuous melting pot of new ideas kept me interested into my early adult years.
Tylor Urias began his food adventures at age 8.
What hooked you on science?Like I said above, I was always fascinated by cooking and creating. I thought during my early teenage years I might study to be a biomedical engineer but ended up coming back to cooking. I maintained my interest in the way food interacts at a molecular level and continue to study and develop my dishes based off what I learn or read each day. Our cuisine really evolves as our knowledge and understanding of food does.The coolest example of science in your food?I read and cross examine numerous culinary science article, books and publications. One of the coolest examples I found and demonstrate to my staff is in the wide usage of eggs and their chemical properties. A complete egg can be separated into two valuable parts, the yolk- used for emulsifying or binding to thicken liquids, due to its high content of Low-density Lipoproteins, and the egg white – which contains numerous levels of various proteins such as ovalbumin and ovomucin which when heated and aerated, create a hex-like structure to hold and retain air giving beautiful light and crystalline structure to food items. I try to emphasize and demonstrate in illustration each time I gain a new chef in training how the yolk’s and white’s protein chains vary and the usefulness in each one. It works well in helping us as chefs fix or create a variety of products like sauces, soups, dressing, desserts – the list is very long.
The restaurant I currently run is a steakhouse and one of the biggest deals about it is that we dry age the steaks before cutting them. When we age them, we allow the enzymes to breakdown and lose some of the moisture in the meat, concentrating the flavor and improving the texture of the steaks. It’s a very careful process and we monitor and experiment with it to find improved flavors and qualities in our steaks.
Photo credit: Doug Perasso Courtesy of Spencer’s and Steaks
The food you find most fascinating?
Well, if you could tell by my last answer, it’s definitely eggs. They do so much and work in such a variety of ways.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
I find really interesting one of the oldest methods of saving and preserving food, known as curing, has become a refocus as of late. Using salt to reduce moisture levels to a content that prohibits bacterial and fungal growth but also works similar to the dry aging process in that it breaks down and concentrates the flavor of meats. It’s a very old concept but one that until recently was never looked at under the microscope. Now that people have, we’re starting to see a great variety in flavors, textures and products that we had not seen before. It’s truly wonderful to see and even better to taste.
Off topic of food but not biology and chemistry, I read a recent study that found a correlation in genetic changes both in individual and offspring due to traumatic events and repeated traumatic experiences. The changes were noticed at the DNA level and played a role in the reactions and learned behavior of both parent and offspring. The changes were found to be traced for up to four generations.
We love comparing the gluten in bread to a network of springs. Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counter-intuitive food science concepts?Well going back to eggs and proteins, one of the concepts I try to explain to my newer chefs is the concept of the protein and lipid networks in food. I often give them a drawing of a chain and show them that by breaking the chains and heating them, we are able to create a chain-link-fence that holds things together. It’s really funny to see the epiphany moment when a new chef finally realizes there is a small world that they can learn about inside each ingredient.How does your scientific knowledge or training impact the way you cook? Do you conduct science experiments in the kitchen?Well we spend a significant amount of our time experimenting with our dry aging process and also with our herb gardens. We test different aging times, moisture contents and meat sizes to see what flavors develop or what key distinguishable traits we can highlight with our aging process. The other like I mentioned is our herb garden. Being inside a hotel, we obviously have a large amount of waste. We make it a community effort to compost and reuse the food and organic waste. Some of that nutrient rich fertilizer is added to our garden at different times during the growth process. We monitor and keep record of what we notice the impacts and tastes are during the different steps in these processes. It’s really interesting to see a patch of mint take on darker color or different flavor due to what time during the growth process we add that nutrients.
Photo credit: Doug Perasso Courtesy of Spencer’s and Steaks
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?We are starting to see a lot of aquaculture and fish farms that have been detrimental to local offshore ecosystems change. A study in 2005 found that these farms did more harm than good because they damaged the local deltas and tributaries. Several aquaculture farms and biologists came together to find a better way to farm sustainable seafood, one way was to move these farms away from the coast and create an open water pen. The idea allowed the fish to be more active, reduce the concentration of waste and bile and at the same time increased the protein and omega 3 fat content of specific fish they are raising. I know of two breeds of fish that I use that come from these types of sustainable, low environmental impact farms, one is our King Salmon coming from Sterling Farms and the other is our Cobia which comes from Open Blue Project in the Gulf of Mexico. I believe the quality and taste both increased while the damage and environmental impact decreased due to the work of these biologists and ecologists.How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?My hope is to see science continue to work to decrease our environmental impact both in raising food and produce through sustainable and low or positive environmental impact, but also through transportation and the continued research into reducing the carbon footprint of the food industry. Food transportation creates 40% of the energy usage in the restaurant and food service industry. Seeing transportation move to clean diesel and electric trucks is one of the great ways I hope to see that damage reduced. In the next five years, I hope that every major food vender and farmer is able to use a vehicle with renewable energy or low impact fuel – such as biodiesel- to reduce the transportation impact down below 25%. That 15% per restaurant is enough energy to power five houses for a year, and that is just the energy from one food service operation.One kitchen tool you could not live without?Besides a knife which every chef holds dear, it would be my zester. 90% of the flavorful oils in any given citrus actually reside in the skin. Being the guy who wants to use everything from everything, I love using my zester to get that extra flavor for our dishes and desserts.Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?So right now you’d find two cartons of eggs from a farm in Morgan Hill, avocados and artichokes from Gilroy, kimchi – which I make at home, a wide variety of chilies, and hibiscus juice or Jamaica – it’s a staple for any Latin family.Your all-time favorite ingredient?Favorite ingredient, limes. I always loved lime flavored pastries and drinks.Favorite cookbook?Favorite cookbook technically isn’t a cookbook as much as it is a book with all the answers on cooking. It is On food and Cookingby Harold McGee. It really is the scientific journal on how and why ingredient do what they do and really how to get them to behave the way a chef or cook wants. If you’re ever curious why your cake fell or your dressing won’t stay together, the answer is most likely in there.Your standard breakfast?Usually a honeycrisp apple, a hardboiled egg and cup of coffee at 5AM while looking at produce and local products with farmers or purveyors for the week to get the day started. Sometime later ill have a more complete breakfast, usually around 10AM or 11AM I’ll have a French omelet at the restaurant and have a pastry of some sort. It’s really a constant on the go life as a chef, you grab bites here and there as you’re running from place to place.