Modernist Cuisine: 40 Lbs. of Art, Science, and Cooking

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Would you deal with buckets of rain, hail, and freezing temperatures on a cold Wednesday night to taste cryoshucked oysters, centrifugally separated peas and pressure-cooked caramelized carrots? How about if they were cooked by the food world’s latest rock stars, the Modernist Cuisine book team? Or, if the recipes were drawn from the pages of a $625 cookbook? Many a person would and did, as the Institute of Culinary Education‘s Modernist Cuisine book launch party was packed.
David Chang called it “the cookbook to end all cookbooks.” Michael Ruhlman’s review in the New York Times was a bit more skeptical. Love it, or hate it, the 6- volume Modernist Cuisine is getting a boatload of attention from the food world.
Maybe it’s the gleeful dispatches from the lucky food bloggers treated to 30-course tasting menus at the cooking lab where the book was tested and made. It could be the 1,522 recipes, 1,150,000 words, or the jaw-droppingly stunning photos. Perhaps it’s the mystery, as most people have not actually seen this 40 lb. tome live. Or, the $625 price tag ($425 on Amazon.) Whatever it is, there’s been a lot of damn hype for this cookbook.
For a week in mid-March, the Modernist Cuisine team descended upon New York, feeding Steven Colbert melt-in-your-mouth pastrami, wowing the Today Show’s Matt Lauer with a striped omelet demo, and presenting to sold out crowds at the New York Academy of Sciences, the Core Club, and Jean Georges.
Those who attended the book’s launch party—Top Chef’s Gail Simmons and Marcel Vigneron, food writer Amanda Hesser, chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Johnny Iuzzini, Paul Liebrandt and Nate Appleman—got a “making of” presentation, face time with the chefs, and samples of the book’s recipes, including pastrami cooked sous vide for 72 hours, and goat milk ricotta with centrifuged pea layers. In this food video, we’re in the kitchen and with the crowds for the book launch.
The 4 years in the making book is the self published masterpiece of theoretical physicist and computer scientist Nathan Myhrvold. He’s a former CTO of Microsoft who now pursues new ideas (like how to cure malaria) with his company, Intellectual Ventures.
With Modernist Cuisine, Myhrvold may seem like just another rich guy with a big idea, but he’s legitimately developed his cooking chops, and he’s infectiously passionate about all things culinary. He trained at the Ecole De La Varenne, staged at Seattle French restaurant Rover’s, won first place at the 1991 World Championship of Barbecue, spent a ton of time trolling egullet boards, and even more time experimenting on his own.
For the Modernist Cuisine cookbook, he assembled a 50+ person team of chefs, scientists, writers, photographers, and designers to make this magnus opus.
Within a 4,000 square foot cooking lab (not kitchen, this is definitely a lab) tricked out with vacuum distillation machines, CVAP ovens, rotary evaporators, immersion circulators, and centrifuges, the Modernist Cuisine team experimented, played, and exhaustively documented what Myrhvold sees as a revolution in the art of cooking. Building on the highly experimental yet science-based cooking techniques of luminaries like Ferran Adria (elBulli), Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck), Grant Achatz (Alinea), and Wylie Dufresne (wd-50), the book set out to be the definitive book of the art and science of modern cooking.
Whether you think that cooking with centrifuges and ultrasonic baths is the future of food, or just a product of boys with their toys is your call, but it’s hard to not be wowed by this book on some level or other. It’s obscenely big, obscenely ambitious, and obscenely comprehensive. Myrhvold set out to chart the why of cooking—from how heat transfers, to why frozen food changes to color, to what actually happens inside your pots and pans—in a methodical, exacting way that only a scientist could. According to the New Yorker, the book is “going to be the definitive reference point for this new cooking for many years to come. “
Modernist Cuisine’s strength lies in its exhaustive charts, tables and parametric recipes (like incredibly detailed master recipes) that map the exact variables that make food change. Want to learn to cook sous vide? There’s a 4-page table for that. Reverse spherification? Of course. Having problems vacuum sealing food? You guessed it, look at the chart.
Or, you could just look at the pictures, which are arrestingly beautiful as well as informative. To illustrate what really happens when we cook—how hamburgers heat on a grill, or how noodles fry in a wok—the team cut pots, pans, and pressure cookers in half, giving you a cross-section view of the action, as it’s happening. That’s the kind of thing one does with a great imagination and a lab that has a machine shop with abrasive water jet cutters.
For all the recipes, charts, and photos this beast boasts, as with any cookbook, it ultimately comes down to the food. At the ICE event, the dishes ranged from pretty good to amazing.
The 72 hour sous vide pastrami was the best I’d ever tasted, and that’s saying a lot, as I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in Jewish delis. The pressure-cooked polenta had the most intense corn flavor—cornier than corn itself, like the Platonic ideal of CORN. It was rich, creamy, and comforting. I wanted buckets full. Another corn dish—the freeze-dried roasted corn elote with brown butter, lime, and ash powders—tickled our noses and throats, making the whole team sneeze and cough. In this case, we’d have preferred the corn sans powder, with kernels on cob, roasted on a sawed-in-half grill.
The night was about getting your hands on the book, meeting its creators, and witnessing both their experimentation with and mastery of food. Like the students, writers and professional chefs at the event, we were more than a little dazzled. It was kind of hard not to be.