Recently I was writing recipes for a roasting class and it got me thinking about how many of us learn to cook. Growing up in the South where food is tightly woven into the cultural fabric, I picked up bits of kitchen wisdom over the years, like why you handle biscuit dough as gently as picking up a newborn baby. I also discovered in dramatic fashion why roasting the Thanksgiving turkey inside a brown paper shopping bag can explode into a fiery mess. I imagine that many of us learn this way, through tribal knowledge gathered at the elbow of family and friends and then taking our own tentative steps toward kitchen proficiency.
But while many of us learned the “how” of cooking—how to make a light, fluffy biscuit or how to roast a turkey without a call to the local fire department—we don’t often know the reasons why we follow certain rules in the kitchen. Like why does your butter or shortening need to be cold when making biscuit dough? Or why put the darn turkey in the paper bag in the first place? After years of professional cooking I learned that knowing the reasons why freed me from relying on recipes and unlocked the door to a world of culinary creativity.
In Pursuit of “Why”
It’s this passion for understanding the “why” of modern cooking that fueled the team behind Modernist Cuisine, a 5-volume culinary encyclopedia created with the simple mission of redefining modern cooking. Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer and founder of his own technological ventures company, began this project in 2004 as a book on sous vide cooking. As he dove deeper into this relatively recent cooking technique, he felt the need to include key points on food safety and microbiology. As he dove ever deeper into the reasons why, the simple project born in Nathan’s kitchen blossomed into a team of more than a dozen professionals tirelessly testing the lab’s high-tech kitchen, taking thousands of high-resolution photographs, and capturing the dynamics of cooking with 6,500-frames-per-second HD video.
Not too long ago I attended a Modernist Cuisine dinner at the Intellectual Ventures kitchen lab in Bellevue, Washington. With the first sets of books making their way from China via tanker at the time, I was hoping for a tiny glimpse into the work that Nathan and his talented team had accomplished. What I experienced that evening completely blew my mind.
When I first learned about the books at a food blogging conference last year, I was immediately struck by the quality and detail captured in the photography. Since Modernist Cuisine strives to teach cooking techniques, the team developed revolutionary ways to show what was happening inside cooking vessels. Using an abrasive water jet cutter, the team cut all manner of equipment in half, including woks, pots, sauté pans, and even a microwave oven. Hundreds of foods were also sliced in two to show what was happening inside as they cooked. Some of the more dramatic images in the books, like the cross-section stir-fry photo, were stitched together to tell the story of what happens in a hot wok and why stir-fry dishes taste the way they do.
Four Pounds of Ink
I took a spot at a mile-long conference table and found myself sitting across from Tim Zagat, one of the founders of the Zagat restaurant guides. He and his wife Nina had come that evening to support Nathan, who worked as Chief Gastronomic Officer for Zagat Survey. As we flipped through the first precious copies of the books laid before us, Tim described them as the most important cookbooks to be published during his lifetime. After spending an all-too-short visit with these amazing volumes, I had to agree.
As I reverently flipped from one lush page to the next, I was struck by both their look and feel. As a former graphic designer, I appreciate the satiny surface and heft of quality paper. No expense was spared here. We learned during Nathan’s presentation that he hand-picked an art book printer that could deliver the highest quality printed image on the page. And for a set of books weighing 43 pounds, 4 of those pounds come from the ink slathered on these pages. Where cookbook authors today often run into limits on page count, number of photos, and printing budget, Nathan’s decision to self-publish ensured that the final product embodied all the precision and attention to the detail of its authors.
But don’t mistake Modernist Cuisine for an overblown coffee table book—in fact, the set of books in its custom Plexiglas slipcase could work as an actual coffee table in a small apartment. These volumes contain over five years of exploring “how” and “why” we poke and prod food using traditional and new tools and methods. With its genesis in modern cooking techniques like sous vide, foams, gels, and thickeners, people might make the mistake of calling Modernist Cuisine the ultimate food geek’s guide to molecular gastronomy. Not so. Driven by scientific rigor and boundless curiosity, Nathan and his team cover everything from culinary history to the physics of food and water to enjoying wine and coffee with food. Each page reveals detailed explorations into how various cooking techniques work and why they produce specific results. And to illustrate how Nathan’s talented team of chefs bring their scientific research to life, Volume 4 includes 250 pages of plated-dish recipes. Every one of them reads like a mini-modernist cookbook, with its list of required high-tech tools and detailed tables of precise cooking times and temperatures. As we sit down to dinner, I wonder what kind of dishes the kitchen team will produce using the centrifuges, freeze dryers, homogenizers, and rotary evaporators surrounding our dinner tables.
How Do You Eat 29 Courses?
I soon found out. As our first of 29 (yes, 29!) courses, we enjoyed a platter of razor-thin fried dill pickle and pear chips, delicately crispy and thin enough to read through. Nathan explained that the pears and pickles are too wet to fry so they impregnated them with starch. My table mates and I were still marveling over these fried pieces of modern magic when we were treated to the kitchen team’s take on Pringles potato chips—puffed potato crisps fashioned from modified starch, served with a whipped mousse-like chantilly cream of baked potato juice. The intense layers of potato flavor in the crisps and the cream were balanced with a blast of spray dried buttermilk. Conversation at our table trailed off as we all savored these familiar but uber-heightened flavors of these dishes while trying to unravel how these guys pulled it off.
Soon we all settled into a rhythm of being visually stunned by each new dish, then savoring the clean, pure essence of the ingredients. What struck me most about the dinner was that Nathan and his team deployed their army of high-tech tools and techniques in service to the food. Yes, there are elements of “gee, look at all the cool stuff we can do.” After all, I doubt that many cooks will whip up a batch of ballistics gel and fire a bullet through a block of the stuff (there’s a recipe for it in the gels section and a high-speed video). But each course in our 4-hour dinner was designed to amplify the essence of what we were tasting and at times toyed with our notions of classic recipes.
Early in the evening we were served airy and delicate cheese soufflés resting comfortably on a slate slab, freed from their cooking vessels. A normal soufflé wouldn’t hold its shape on its own but these morsels were reinforced with an emulsifier so they could stand proud on the serving plate. The “rare beef stew,” which at once seemed wrong but oh so right, featured a ruby-red beef jus extracted at a low temperature to preserve the gorgeous color. And the pea butter, fashioned from the centrifuged solids of green peas and coating a thin slice of crispy toast, tasted like the world’s most intense expression of fresh peas in springtime.
Nearly as amazing as the food was the group of diners assembled for this rare evening, including Dana Cowin from Food and Wine magazine and David Chang from New York’s Momofuku restaurant. As we experienced (“ate” doesn’t seem to cut it here) each mind-bending course, we talked about the Modernist Cuisine books and what they might mean to cooks everywhere. We all agreed that, for professional chefs who want to play in the modernist cooking pond, these books provided a detailed and sound technical basis for culinary creativity. For instance, if you want to make a gel out of banana puree, you need to know which gelling agent will give you the firmness and texture you want. But to know which one to use, you need detailed knowledge like how the gels react to temperature, moisture, and acidity. Restaurants who champion these techniques, like el Bulli in Spain or The Fat Duck in England, developed their own base of tribal knowledge. With the Modernist Cuisine books, any chef has access to that knowledge, freeing themselves to focus on creativity. Earlier I had glanced at one of the recipes for watermelon “meat,” where slices of melon were “cured” to concentrate flavor and create something akin to fruit jerky. I began to imagine a charcuterie plate of different cured fruits that showcased their reinvented colors, textures, and flavors.
Bringing Modernist Cuisine Home
But what about the home cook who wants a deeper understanding of what’s happening on their stove and in their ovens? We agreed that there’s plenty for them to explore in Modernist Cuisine. Another dish we enjoyed that evening was a perfectly roasted slice of chicken breast, oozing with juiciness and topped with a crisp cap of golden skin that crunched under the slightest pressure from our forks. What cook doesn’t seek one of the holiest of culinary grails—the perfect roast chicken? Nathan’s method, combining detailed specifications for trussing, drying, and slow-roasting the chicken as well as cooking the skin separately, sounds like the perfect marriage of Willy Wonka and Cooks Illustrated. But home cooks, with a little diligence, can replicate a number of techniques outlined in the book. Plus the detailed text and rich photography will transport any cook to a level of detail about the how and why of cooking that they’re never seen before.
As dinner came to a close with gelled gummy worms made from molds used by fisherman to fashion custom lures, we all wondered about the firestorm that will ignite once Modernist Cuisine hit the streets in a few short weeks. Nathan, his team and the books have received loads of attention by national media outlets. Already dubbed “the most important cookbook of the first ten years of the 21st century” by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in France, Modernist Cuisine can safely be labeled a huge success even before people hold the books in their hands. But the buzz hovering one of the most comprehensive culinary reference works ever created shows that cooks everywhere can’t get enough of the how and why behind creating great food.