How many chefs can tell you that sticky rice is deficient in the gene for granule bound starch synthase? Or that germinating bean sprouts are busy converting fat to sugar through the glyoxylate cycle?
Itsara Pracharoenwattana can.
Until February, he was a molecular biologist with a PhD from Edinburgh University, working with Winthrop Professor Steve Smith in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.
Now he applies his biochemistry to the kitchen of his Thai restaurant, Itsara, in Stirling Highway, a short walk from the Crawley campus.
Itsara has always been a great cook of his native Thai food. While studying in the UK, he worked in many Thai restaurants. "Some were very good, some were very bad, and I learnt a lot," he said. "I did a lot of catering for friends and people were have a glasshouse to grow all my own always saying I should open a restaurant but my plan was to be an academic and I thought about it for a very long time before I made the decision to leave the labs and move into the kitchen full-time."
Once he had made the decision, Itsara took two years to find the right location. His is not a ‘cheap and cheerful' café but a high-end restaurant with as much attention to the detail of décor as to the beauty and freshness of his food.
I grow a lot of my own vegetables and herbs, especially the ones that are hard to get in Perth. One day I would like to have a glasshouse to grow all my own ingredients all year round," Itsara said.
"I thought I worked under pressure in the lab, but there is much more in the kitchen. You have to get it right the first time, within a tight time frame and keep everybody happy.
"In the lab, if you don't get something right the first time, you can do it again. And you don't have to worry about how everybody is feeling."
Professor Smith has praise for both Itsara's vocations: "When postdocs invite the lab around for dinner, generally expectations are not high," he said. "Usually a barbie is on the menu.
"From the outset Itsara was special. A lab night out at his apartment was the greatest treat imaginable. He would produce the most delicious banquets comprising many courses. He would have spent hours sourcing the best authentic ingredients and taking great pride in cooking them beautifully. I don't know of anyone not amazed at his fantastic creations.
"The skills that made Itsara a highly successful scientist are the same skills that make him an outstanding cook and restaurateur. His attention to detail, willingness to spend hours at the kitchen (as he did in the lab) bench mean his food is exemplary."
Professor Smith said Itsara's experiments were carried out with the same care and attention to detail that he applies to his cooking.
"His results in the lab were always clear and convincing. This helped him to achieve success and international recognition for his research.
"I now will ask all future students and job applicants if they can cook!"
Published in UWA News, 14 June 2010.