Raw Talent: Chef Swaroop Bhojani, PhD
Here's an if-then to chew on: If all scientists were chefs, then cancer rates could be lowered.
For instance, cancers associated with the alimentary tract have been climbing - more specifically, esophageal cancer cases have increased threefold over the last several years, says Dr. Mahaveer Swaroop Bhojani, a research investigator with the department of radiation oncology
at the University of Michigan.
The scientist has also just opened Hut-K Chaat House, an Ann Arbor restaurant serving Indian snacks, or chaats, where the emphasis is on whole, organic, and natural foods. A fryer has no place in the kitchen.
"Esophageal tumors, esophageal cancers are totally related to food," Bhojani says firmly. Water soluble enzymes secreted by the stomach can't penetrate oil-coated fried foods, so the stomach in turn secretes excess acid to break down the food. "Now these acid fumes start reaching your esophagus... cells become cancer when you're constantly irritating it with this acid reflex." Instead of swallowing elephant ears and then the purple pill, we need to think how much tasty food costs us.
"If you look at it, food is something for your body, not just for your mouth," he says. And, he adds, "This probably will be the first generation where the kids will be sicker than their parents." He points to a 300% increase in childhood obesity and sees kids already developing arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Bhojani has built both his science and culinary careers around data sets like these. His scientific curiosity was pricked in a Hyderabad, India, elementary school science teacher's classroom, where phosphorus ignition and frog dissections were standard procedure. He could have followed his parents into the family business interests in stainless steel rolling mills, textiles, and cable manufacturing, but one brother's death from bone cancer clinched his passion to find a cure for the disease.
He did undergraduate work at Bhavan's New Science College and received a master's degree from Osmania University, then went on to a doctoral program in microbiology immunology from the Indian Institute of Science. His PhD thesis covered asymmetry in cancer cell division.
It was during his PhD program 20 years ago that he started cooking. In the lab.
"It was not allowed," he laughs, but his rep stuck. "If there was some kind of food odor coming from the lab, everyone knew it was Swaroop's lab," he laughs. Friends praised the consistent flavor ...and ease of digestion... of his chaats. Bhojani smilingly refers to a "two-way thanks" from a friend. "He got all the fiber that he needed, plus he got the taste."
After four years in Germany as a post-doc fellow researching asymmetric cell division at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine
, in 2001 he was hired as a post-doc fellow at the University of Michigan. He has since advanced to the rank of assistant professor (he teaches radiation therapists) but spends most of his time in the new field of molecular imaging research
, developing real-time imaging tools to monitor cancer therapy in patients. Currently, he says, it can take up to five or six months to tell whether a cancer therapy has been effective.
Have his scientific rambles borne fruit? "Nothing per se is complete," he says. "Research - unlike cooking - is very slow."
Bhojani's most rewarding outcome thus far has been in working to identify a protein originally thought to assist in the process of killing cells but found that helped make cells involved in lung, head and neck, and esophageal cancers more aggressive.
He's also collaborating with a chemist on an application for NIH and Melanoma Research Alliance grants to develop tumor imaging agents.
"If we are able to identify this peptide then what we are doing is an anatomical imaging of a tumor in real time," he explains. Nuclear imaging would enable scientists to pinpoint tumor size at the time of therapy.
"We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun."
Bhojani's own brush with illness inspired his parallel career move. A case of borderline diabetes a few years ago by way of "too many food challenges" - a couple pounds of fried jalebis or 23 dosas in one sitting - was a dietary jolt. He began to consider opening a restaurant that would change the conception of Indian snacks - code words for high fat and sugar.
"For three years I had been thinking about starting the place but didn't have the guts to do it. It's very tough to get over that initial inertia."
So he started off catering events at temples and festivals and got a final jab of confidence at the India Days festival in Farmington Hills, where he and his friends and colleagues sold 800 plates. "To the last drop, we were done!" he says.
Which led to the analysis: "...I had the experience to handle 600 people a day, so now I can start a restaurant, which will be much easier."
He laughs at his theory with the wisdom of one who's been through the wringer.
He and his co-owner wife, Sumi, found a space formerly occupied by Bombay Grocers, which moved a couple of doors down in the strip mall at Packard and Platt. The area
is known for ethnic restaurants, grocery stores and businesses. But even with the staunch support of friends and financial help from relatives, "If I were to do this again, would I do it? No!" he laughs. "Everything that could go wrong with this went wrong."
Plans to open last November were scrapped on account of problems with city inspections, mistakes in blueprints, and a change in architect. His estimated budget of $40-60,000 ballooned to triple that amount. "It showed how little I knew about opening a restaurant."
The Hut-K Chaat House name, however, had a 99% approval rate in a poll of friends and family. Hut-K translates, in modern Hindi, to a positive kind of different. "So, say, kids comment - if the girl is really beautiful - they say, 'Oh, she is Hut-K!'" Bhojani jokes.
Hut-K finally opened last weekend in April, with a healthy menu and melon orange walls. "I actually wanted it to be very warm. I come from a place in Rajasthan [India] and Rajasthan is extremely bright in everything they do."
Inspired by In Defense of Food
, where author Michael Pollan notes that natural foods are being swamped by the artificial, Bhojani's eatables are a mix of whole, majority organic grains, fiber, and veggies in their raw form. He uses dates and mango as sweeteners instead of jaggery, sugar (or fake sweeteners). "There are 14,000 food-like substances that man has created which are part of our food," he laments.
None are present in the Back 2 Roots ancient grains roti, the late working lunch that he serves us. It's made from African millet, Ethopian millet, quinoa, wild rice, amaranth, sesame seeds, flax, barley, sorghum, whole grain wheat, brown rice oats, and rye berries, with ground raw veggies mixed in. The dish comes with two chutneys for dipping – one a blend of carrots, red peppers, almonds, walnuts, and the other of mint, cilantro, peanuts, and coconut. The food tastes fresh and mint condition.
The key ingredient in chaats is the chutneys, which he alone makes early every morning. Not even his wife, who's now employed full-time at the restaurant, knows the blend. His can't-do-without cooking utensil? A blender. And the spice cabinet would be naked without green chilis.
He plans to add the juice of wheatgrass, known to have 180 nutrients, and kale, with its good cancer-fighting properties, to the menu. More wrap rolls, including a samosa multi-grain, quinoa lentil, and spicy soy chunk, are coming too.
Science and cookery share much in common, Bhojani feels. "When you are cooking you also add different things and finally you get an end product. And in research also we have different kinds of reagents, chemicals mixed together, and then wait for the final results."
And both a scientist and an unschooled chef (Bhojani is self-taught) can learn from high failure rates. "Eighty percent of the things [I try] are not eatable because I don't follow a set recipe," he explains. "Same thing with science, if you look at it, the majority of experiments fail. Whenever you're doing it, you have a success rate of 10 to 20 percent, which goes on to become a publication."
With formal training his culinary success rate would arguably be higher, he shrugs, but "The problem with trained cooking is if you are trained to do something then you don't create something totally new." The dishes are not recipes, but his own trial-and-error creations. You could say he employs chaos theory in the kitchen, but even chaos doesn't show cracks - from a distance.
He nods to Doug, our photographer. "Look at him, see how peaceful he looks, right? If you go deeper within him, right, take a microscope and go down his body then you'll see there are wars within you. There are immune cells which are fighting bacterias which are going through...The activity within your body is not reflected on your face," he observes.
"Everything that we have created, let's say, a laboratory or a bigger university or a country, I think, has a similar tinge to it, a similar philosophy to it. From India when I was thinking about the U.S., I thought the U.S. would be way different. But when I came in I realized the people are the same...The chaos that we see in day-to-day is not reflected when you look at it from a different distance."
"In Hindi, there is a saying which says that the drums that beat from a distance, they always sound very melodious."
To ensure a seemingly organized launch, Bhojani took a month-long leave from the lab to open the restaurant. There are four employees and one part-timer, but even so, when Bhojani's day job resumes he'll be making chutneys from six to eight in the morning, and then back again for the five-o'clock rush. But the father of two boys vows this doubling up of work won't last forever. Eventually he'll go one way or the other.
"Science is a different kind of challenge," he muses. "The questions you are asking are new, but the methods that you use are similar. And [in business] both are very repetitive [methods and challenges]. He may start a restaurant chain to satiate his need for variety. "Probably that would keep me more interested in business."
On the flip side, a customer advised him that while his science background wasn't replicable to others, culinary skills are easily passed on. Thus, the decision may come from the gut.
"Many things in life seem logical but then you just follow your path. And it may not be logical, but you follow it."
So can knowledge transfer occur in cookbook form? Bhojani answers on the quick: "I'm looking forward to that."
Tanya Muzumdar is the assistant editor for Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Jeff Masters.
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All photos by Doug Coombe
Swaroop Bhojani at Hut-K Chaat House on Packard
Swaroop at his lab at the Biomedical Science Research Building at U of M
Swaroop and Sumi Bhojani outside of Hut-K Chaat House
Swaroop and Sumi serving up a Hut-K feast
The ancient grains roti with two chutneys