Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold

Posted on: Friday 16 December 2011

When I was browsing the shelves at the Book Larder on their opening day I noticed a display copy of Modernist Cuisine. The bright white covers contrasted with the vibrant photos and the five volumes are slotted in a Perspex case. Curious about the influential tome, I attended Nathan Myhrvold‘s presentation at Town Hall Seattle.

Dr Myhrvold was an engaging speaker. A voracious intellectual, his passion was balanced with poise. He noted that there are many books on the science of cooking but not on techniques. There are specialty books on single techniques such as Thomas Keller‘s Under Pressure. The modernist chefs, Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz and Heston Blementhal, all have cookbooks.

The intent of Modernist Cuisine is for it to be an encyclopaedia of modern cooking techniques. The project commenced six years ago and Dr Myhrvold compared it to the naïveté of parenting, ‘it seemed like a good idea’! The photographs and illustrations are all original and the volumes ‘explain the science of cooking in chef terms’.

Dr Myhrvold clicked through the slides and described how the photos were constructed. To innovate and discover a new approach, you need to understand physics.

A third of the wok was cut off and Perspex was glued to the open side. The lab was more ‘machine shop than Photoshop’. It caught on fire three times as the ingredients were tossed. ‘The motto was it has to look good for only one thousandth of a second!’

He worked on the book alone for two years and then hired a team of people to complete it. Volume one is history and fundamentals, volume two is techniques and equipment, volume three is animals and plants, volume four is ingredients and preparations, volume five is plated-dish recipes. An additional spiral bound kitchen manual is printed on washable paper.

Modernist Cuisine statistics:
* 6 volumes
* 4 languages
* 43 pounds unpacked
* 2438 pages
* 1.15 million words
* 4 pounds of ink to print
* 7.5 miles long if typed as a single sentence in Microsoft Word
* 147,000 photos shot and 3,200 used
* 1,500 recipes
* 72 contributing chefs
* 6 research cooks
* 44 writers, editors and art staff

Dr Myhrvold commented that Modernist Cuisine is available in the printed medium only. The resolution is compromised as an e-book or on the iPad. Eat Your Books has indexed Modernist Cuisine.

Modernism is an artistic and architectural movement. A deliberate break from tradition, it celebrates abstract values and is a rebellion against the norm. It is a new aesthetic. In the 1980s chefs were doing the same. Cooking techniques were re-imagined to create art in the kitchen. It is artisanal, a craft.

‘Science is a set of rules governing how our world works.’ Until recently food science was about industrial scaling. Science is already in the kitchen and Dr Myhrvold ‘wants take the ignorance out of it’. Modernist Cuisine is a definitive reference for techniques.  

Modernist Cuisine principles:
* Dining in dialogue
* Creativity trumps tradition
* Break rules, surprise diners
* Be innovative
* Science and technology are sources of inspiration, means to an end
* Great food from great ingredients
* How ingredients are grown, harvested and slaughtered matter
* New ingredients create new possibilities

Modernist Cuisine dinners are long with more than thirty courses. ‘In a way it’s an ordeal!’ Dr Myhrvold described some of the dishes and how they were made. 

The first was deep fried watermelon. Starch is the key to crispy potato chips. Sweet potatoes have less starch and their chips are a little limp. Watermelon was infused with starch for deep frying.

There are minimal desserts in the book. One recipe is pistachio and hazelnut ice cream without milk, cream and egg. The nuts are grinded, the oil separated and emulsified with water, and seaweed extract is added as a stabiliser. It is a ‘world first kosher real cream sauce’!

Next was pea butter. Dr Myhrvold told a ‘pea-ness’ joke with glee. Pea butter is made in a centrifuge where it clarifies and concentrates in intense gravity. He recommended frozen peas for freshness. The three pea layers are pea broth, pea solids which can be made into pasta, and unctuous pea butter. The technology highlights the natural ingredient, celebrating the essence of the pea.

A caramelised carrot soup is cooked in a pressure cooker. Caramelisation, a chemical reaction, occurs in an alkaline environment and thus baking soda is added. Beets, squash and other vegetables can be substituted and it is a ‘concentrated, powerful flavour’.

Every component of the ‘ultimate burger‘ is special. The patty is cooked sous vide, cryo-fried in liquid nitrogen and deep fried. The liquid nitrogen reduces the grey and freezes a thin layer on the outside penetrating all the ridges of the minced meat as a barrier to over cooking.

There is a chapter on coffee. ‘Damn it we’re from Seattle! Coffee from a three Michelin starred French restaurant is not fit for a Seattle street vendor.’ Dr Myhvold recalled ordering a coffee in New York and brashly declared ‘you’re from Seattle’. The barista replied, ‘Vivace‘.

He was asked what his last meal would be and he cheekily answered ‘one that takes a really long time to cook’. Another query was about the safety of sous vide pouches. He responded that if there are concerns you can sous vide in glass mason jars.

Dr Myhrvold has always been interested in food. When he was nine he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for his family. He was born in Seattle and returned before having children, ‘just like salmon’. He believes he is in the best part of the restaurant business, consumption!

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