Transcript: #MathsTrainsBrains - Alice Zaslavsky with Eddie Woo

 

Watch this video at education.nsw.gov.au/everyday-maths.

Transcript

- I'm Eddie Woo, and welcome to Education Live. I've been speaking with people from all walks of life, about how mathematics is connected to their life and their work. And this morning, I have the great joy of being joined by my friend and food extraordinaire, Alice Zaslavsky. Alice, thanks for joining us.

- Eddie Woo, good to be here!

- Now Alice, it's really important before we get stuck into things to start off by recognizing. But right now, you're speaking to us from Melbourne, and we have so many thoughts go to you and the entire community there indeed across Victoria. It's like an incredibly tough time. So it's extra special things, I guess, for taking the time to speak with us.

- Thank you, we are the canaries down the coal mine. This is just gonna take... Learn some lessons, don't do the things.

- We're doing our best. Now, Alice, usually I start off by giving our viewers like a bit of an introduction to our guests, but it's actually a really incredibly difficult task to introduce you because you wear so many different hats and you've done so many different things throughout your life. Like you're an author, podcaster, TV host, creator in general. One of the most recent things I've enjoyed watching you in is your role as Culinary Correspondent for the ABC. So, because you've got so many different feathers in your hat, I'd love to start with something that you and I share in common, which is that, you began your professional life as a teacher.

- I did.

- Alice, what did you teach?

- Well, I was the, like you, I was the head of my department. so I was the Head of the Humanities Department, so History, Geography for middle school. So I was teaching all the way from grade five to UAE, which I'm sure some of the viewers are in right now. And I was an English teacher as well. So UAE homeroom teacher and I still... It's funny, cause that was sort of in the 2010s.

- Those are dates too closely, shall we Alice?

- Yeah, exactly. But my students are now in their twenties, and they reach out to me on socials and they just like, they still call me Miss Z, which I love.

- That is very, very cool. Now you said 2010s before. One of the things which has helped you become sort of across the public awareness, certainly is the first place I encountered you was in 2012, I think it was. You were on MasterChef. Now, I know you're from... You mentioned your sort of humanities area. People might think, oh, you're a teacher, not like a food technology teacher. I should point out you didn't just go on MasterChef, you got into the final four of your season. So I guess I would love to know why did you enter... Like what were you aiming to achieve?

- Well, I certainly wasn't aiming to leave just before finals week, but it was kind of, it was funny. So when I... Before I went on MasterChef, I was always trying to encourage my kids to find opportunities, to weave food into what we were learning. And that's because I not only found that they enjoyed it because they were engaged more, but I also found that, the knowledge and food literacy was lacking. So that was kind of my hook, but also my opportunity to give them some life skills that they would be able to walk away with forever. And the place where I was doing a lot of my own learning was also the place where the MasterChef auditions were taking place. And so I ended up auditioning because I thought that if my kids see me on the show for like an episode or two, then they will maybe wanna learn more about food with me. So but that was as technical really as it got, or as forward thinking as it got. But then I did a lot better than I expected. So, doors started opening and I thought, well, I'm here now, so what can I do? And I wrote on a piece of paper, a teacher but bigger, and everything that I've done from that point was always, with the eye of a teacher and the skills of a teacher, because the skills are very transferable, but also in a way that kids and grownups listen to more.

- That's incredible. No, I love that and it's brilliant that, having also been on TV, but still wearing that teacher hat. I think it's funny that like you, it's about a love for helping people learn, that I think is amazing. And of course, a lot of people at MasterChef, everyone has got their different reasons for getting on the show. And I'm sure some people like their goal is to start a restaurant. But I just love that all the way through that your heart was about, well, what's gonna give you a bit of street cred with my students if I gets... And you were incredibly successful. And Australia really did fall in love with you from that point on even more so than before. Now, food is something which it's really interesting to me you mentioned... Like you said, the literacy, like understanding of nutrition and how important that is, is something which is pretty low across Australian culture. Like I remember growing up and thinking about like, your plate of food and having the different quantities of different food groups and kind of, I thought, all right, that's, it's in my brain. But if you asked me about that after that lesson was finished, I was like, hmm, I know I meant to have lots of veggies, and that's kind of all I remembered. So definitely lacking in a lot of areas, and I realized, okay, I've got a lot to grow here. Now, my mom, she loves cooking. And one of the last gifts she gave me and my siblings before she passed away a long time ago, was a book of family recipes that we had all grown up enjoying. So food has got a really sentimental place in my heart as I think it does for many, but cooking isn't just emotional, it's also mathematical like, because you are a great cook, I understand you have to be across a bunch of numbers and measurements. Could you help us understand, how does that matter when you're preparing a dish?

 

- Yeah, well, it's funny, you mentioned food literacy. I think nutrition is a very small part actually of the way that we should understand food. There's so much more to it. There's the context, there's the culture, there's the geography and the history. There's also the language of food, and there are the numbers of food and the science of food. So I think it's funny. At school, maths was certainly not one of my favorite subjects, I did it because I had to all the way through to year 12. Because I wanted to get into a certain course, but because I was doing it begrudgingly, I actually ended up doing worse than I needed to get into the course, Eddie can you imagine.

- Oh, no, Alice.

- I know, but you know, it's funny because the course that I would have done had like a shiitake load of statistics and numbers as well. So I feel like maybe the universe was saying, listen, you'll get there. And it's because the course was Marketing Management Psychology. So what I do now, if you think about it, is I'm marketing vegetables to the world. I'm managing myself and my own business. And I'm also using a lot of psychology and principles of psychology and psychoanalysis, and behavior, consumer behavior insights to do what I do. So that's kind of a good lesson in life. You will get where you wanna go, it might just not take the direction that you want it to. But what I also didn't realize is how much I would end up using maths in what I do now. But I think that I have an innate sense for maths. And that's because standby, my... To tell you what tech we would... This would not be happening if we were doing this in one room.

- But of course...

- It's cool, I like it.

- That was very cool. My parents are both academics. They're both professors and my mum actually has a mathematics degree. So I think...

- Wow, I wish you point out as well for the viewers, even though you have your beautiful Australian accent, you were born in Georgia. And from like former USSR, it's kind of like, yes, you must have the mathematics. This is something which is non-negotiable, like that whole migrant breakdown is a real thing, right?

- Absolutely, and I was at Russian school every Sunday. So we had like extra maths there. In fact, two lessons. So there was like the math theory, but also math history. So looking at the different mathematicians, it was wild, Eddie, you got all of that.

- That's epic.

- It is epic, but it's informed what I do now. And again, it's kind of, it becomes muscle memory, like riding a bike. So when I'm the massive food, so where do I begin? I mean, there's measurement. So something as simple as looking at a recipe, especially for baking, it's really important to be precise. So using measuring tools, whether it be like a measuring jug, which is, understanding that one cup is 250 mil, and then understanding that it's also eight ounces, or it's different cup measurements, the proportional.

- See you've gotta be doing like all of these conversions and ratios all the time, right?

- All the time. And one thing that I really love about measurement of volume in particular is that one cup of water weighs the same. So weighs 250 mil, and it's one cup always. So I think that's just a really cool gig but...

- And it's cool like, there's that, there's volume, and then there's mass and then there's... Like, it's all fitting together, just like you're saying, food is connected to all these different key learning areas and all the rest.

- Exactly, and I want the kids to know that, like, you probably know more than grownups because we do forget this stuff. And I remember a few months ago I did a recipe for News Breakfast where I had cup measures, and volume measures as well. And I had an email, no two emails from grownups saying that I gave incorrect measures because the cup was 250 grams, but then the cup of flour was 150 grams, and how can that be? It's just... It's like, it's fun.

- As grownups, we actually... You're right, we sort of regress a little bit when we stopped using those skills, but it's great. Like, I mean, I suppose when you're picking up a recipe, for example, most of the things, especially when baking, I do not have the skill yet to sort of improvise my way into a cake or some muffins or something like that. But that recipe is not gonna be measured precisely for me, it's for what someone wanted to prepare. And it's like, oh, but I want more or less of that. So you've got to do all of that number crunching, yeah?

- Exactly, and let's say you've got people coming around for dinner. So you've got four people coming around for dinner, you've got four courses, you've got certain amount of plates on the table. You've got a certain amount of ingredients that you need to buy. That's an algebraic equation where you're solving for X, which is like your shopping list.

- That's me. Yes, I've been in that exact problem so many times, where I'm kind of like, oh... In fact just on the weekend, I had my sister over and her family and there's four of them. There's five people in my family. Sometimes we might be joined by others. And then it's kind of like, wait, wait a second. Like, I'm going through the aisles, and I'm looking at these bags of different things. And I'm like, how do I make sure... Like, it's the ultimate shame to have not prepared enough food for everyone. But then I don't wanna be eating leftovers of the same old meal that I've cooked for the next 15 days. So can you actually walk me through that a little bit? Like I don't cook meals that are super complex, like you were talking about courses before. Can you talk me through like some of the practicalities, if you were throwing a party, how do you make sure... What's the thought process in your mind of trying to balance out all those different things? And like you said, sort of solve that problem and thread that needle.

- Well, you kind of think about who you have there. So kids might be a half portion to grownups. So let's say you've got two kids and that's one grownup portion. And then you would think about, let's say for protein, like meat, fish, tofu, you would do like a palm sized amount would be enough for grownups. So half a palm size for kids and a quarter palm size for toddlers, that sort of thing. So it's still very physical and concrete for me, but for chefs, they get to a point where they think about it in gram weight. So it might be a 220 gram weight of fish. So on MasterChef where we had group challenges, where we were cooking a lot of food, we had to make sure that we had enough food for 500 people let's say, so we would work our way backwards. So this is how much we have, and then would we use BODMAS? Is that what we're doing?

- Yeah, sure. Absolutely.

- So we'd say, okay, so that's how many eggs we have for our omelettes? And then divide that by the 500 people that are coming to the Shangri-La for their buffet breakfast. How many of those people will want poached eggs? We were doing a lot of guesstimating as well. So, and as you say, I think the biggest problem that a cook can have is not cooking enough. So I'm always cooking extra. And I think, the skill comes when you start to think about what you can do with the leftovers, and I love leftovers. I make extra on purpose because I love doing stuff for the leftovers the next day. So I don't know what that is. Is that carrying the one?

- All of these, I'm thinking about like the addition or multiplication of flavors, it's a whole different idea there. And I think about like, you've just sort of made my brain sort of realize that obviously, cooking in my own home is one thing and yeah, there's... You've mentioned ratios, measurements, all these proportions and that kind of thing. But, I've always found it amazing that, if say for example, someone ran a restaurant and they kind of... I can pick up anything on the menu pretty much, and they can say, yeah, that's right. I guess they had to do some kind of prediction about, patterns of how many people they're gonna get, who ordered this or that or the rest, right?

- Totally, and what you don't know about restaurants is that a lot of that stuff is really actually just leftovers, because you're doing the prep all the way through the day. And then you'll reheating and you're kind of assembling on the night because that's what service is all about. And it's a real rush actually, professional kitchen services is just like, wash, wash, wash, because you wanna do everything really fast. And I guess it's kind of like maths, the more you do it, the faster you get at it. So the first night of service you might be a little bit sloppy, but then you get quick and it becomes like a dance really.

- Yeah, for sure.

- And there is the chance that you don't make enough of something and then in the kitchen we call that 86ed. So you're 86 that off the menu when you run out.

- Yeah, okay. All right, it's like code blue or something like that.

- Code blue, exactly.

- Like that, we wanna talk about numbers like 86. I just want to really quickly do shapes or geometry figure into cooking very much?

- Of course they do. Think about baking where you're always baking cakes in different tins. And a lot of baking recipes will tell you, bake this in a 22 inch tin or bake this in a 20 inch tin, or whatever. And if you use a different size tin, then you need to think about baking time because it's gonna change the density of your cake or the shape that it's made, is gonna change how long it takes in the oven. So a lot of bakers get to a point where they don't think about the cooking time, they think about the smell. So you're using all of your senses, the look so you can see the bubbling away of the cake batter in the tin, until it's ready to go. And obviously putting a skewer through as the traditional test. But here's a tip for everyone that's watching, don't wait until the skewer is clean, because that means your cake is actually overcooked.

- You don't wanna...

- Oh, it'd be dry, right?

- Because if it's completely clean come out, it's like it hasn't grabbed anything...

- That's true.

- Okay, all right.

- This is why you want my birthday cakes and never really a hit Alice, I will understand that?

- I will do, I insist that.

- Okay, I gonna go. Now, Alice, we're coming towards the end here. So I mentioned before that you're an author. You've actually got a new book coming out in November, which is beautiful "In Praise of Veg." Super excited about it. Can you tell us what's the message behind it?

- The message behind, "In Praise of Veg", is just kind of like your message behind maths. It's time for us to rethink the way that we look at vegetables, because there is so much to love about vegetables. They can be delicious, it's just that they're a bit maligned and it goes back to the way that they have cooked. So if you learn more about how to cook them in ways that bring out the caramelization, the sweetness, the flavor, the textures, then you will learn to love veg forever. And not because you should eat them. And not because they're nutritious or helpful, but because they are actually the tastiest thing on the plate. And when I was a restaurant critic, I was always looking at what chefs were doing with vegetables first, because that to me is the skill of the chef, what they can do with a cauliflower, or how good can you get your caramelized Brussels Sprouts, those sorts of things. And I actually really think that this generation coming through the people watching, you have the potential to change your parents' minds about vegetables, because a lot of parents grew up with over boiled cabbage and under cooked peas. And they actually don't like vegetables and they're serving them up because they think they have to, but you could revolutionize the way that your family eats vegetables just by having a look at the recipes in the book. And Eddie, you'll be very proud. The book itself has like a matrix in it, like a vegetable spreadsheet I suppose.

- Oh, Alice, you're talking my language now.

- So if you look at it almost like a graph, I suppose, it's how much time do you have? What vegetable do you have? And then, what do you feel as...

- That's so good.

- Flavor. Yeah, and so that's kind of the maths heads. And I had to use spreadsheets to actually get my book done because it was over 150 recipes, we shot over 110 of the photos of the dish food on plate we call it, and the whole thing's close to 500 pages. So for someone that doesn't actually love homework and has never loved homework, I had to sit on my butt... But I'm so proud of myself. I think there's one thing that when you create something, that's not just me, it's a big team that's come behind it as well. But when you see it, I still haven't got the hard copy of the book. But I just can't wait, I'm gonna get it in a couple of weeks and I'm gonna be holding it and you will see it. So "In Praise of Veg" and when you get it, and when you cook from it, please do tag me, and I'd love to see it.

- Oh, and I'm so excited. And like you said, I think that there's this wonderful opportunity that young people have today. In some ways, they have this unparalleled sort of door opening to them to say, hey, actually, yeah. It's not just cause you have to, but actually, they're brilliant. And we, are missing out if we don't incorporate these beautiful foods into what we eat and share with our families and enjoy it, right?

- Hundred percent, and I suffer from FOMO in a massive way. So that's why I love food because I'm always meeting new foods. I'm never feeling like I'm missing out because I get to taste something new. And if we cultivate that sense of FOMO with fresh food, then we will never be bored of what's on that plates.

- That's perfect. Now, final note, even though you're not in school anymore, I know you have an... You still retained the heart for kids. I can see that, especially in the brilliant food resource phenomenon that you sort of conceived and created. And that's one of the things that you and I have worked on together. One of those fun things I ever did for the kids. Do you have one last message to leave with our viewers about food or mathematics or both or life in general?

- Oh, that's a big... That's a lot of pressure, Eddie Woo, to leave with one thing. But I think, what I can say is we're working on the next phase of phenomenon at the moment and it's to do with food and mood. Obviously we're going through a really tough time globally at the moment with everything that's going on with the pandemic and just with all the upheaval. But it's a real opportunity for us to seize this moment and to recognize that there are some things that we can't control, but there's also a lot of stuff that we can. So thinking about how much we get out into nature, thinking about how much we move our bodies, because that activates the good feel good hormones in our brains and what we put into our bodies when it comes to food, not just, don't look at the nutritional guidelines, taste what makes you feel good, because fresh food makes me buzz. It gives me a real kind of zing and it will do the same for you. So, that's just one element, I'm not here to sell you on veg. That is 100% not what I would try to do, but what I am trying to say is that you control what you can control. And, what will happen is that over time, just like the muscle memory of learning, how to calculate numbers or learning to understand food, you'll get to a point where you can go, I'm not in the best mood right now. What can I do to shift that?

- That is perfect Alice. I think it is just the message we need to hear, especially at a time like this. So thank you so much again for taking the time to hang out with us in your beautiful kitchen over there. Take care, and I will be in touch with you really soon. Thanks everyone for joining us, Education Live, I'm Eddie Woo. Take care, see you next time.