Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

Posts Tagged ‘food photography

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!


I take point-and-shoot literally. I was inconsolable when a valet accidentally drove over our camera last year at Auberge du Soleil (my fault, I dropped it in my haste to get out of the car). One week’s worth of photos in San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma were irrecoverable as the impact had cracked the memory card. We considered purchasing a digital SLR as a replacement but decided against it as we were one week into a three week holiday. I continued to point-and-shoot.

I have always taken photos of food – birthday dinners, Christmas meals, wedding cakes. The sharing of food is very much core to many of my happiest memories. As a novice, I realised that I needed to learn how to wield my camera as a fundamental tool to blogging and photography.

Yesterday I attended a food photography workshop by Andrew Scrivani, food photographer for the New York Times and Gilt Taste. Hosted by Myra Kohn, it was a warm introduction to the Seattle food community.

There was an abundance of food from Dahlia Bakery, Fuji Bakery, mini cupcakes, homemade marshmallows by Flora and Flying, a pavlova baked by Mirror Mirror and an array of fruits and cheeses supplied by Bon Vivant.

Pavlova is an Australian (or New Zealand if you’re Kiwi!) dessert with a baked meringue base topped with Chantilly cream and fresh fruit. Fragrant and sweet, the strawberries were the highlight. It was a lovely taste of home and reminded me of Christmas.

Toasted marshmallows are a rarity in my life, mostly because I’m not an outdoor person! Unfortunately the photo above does not accentuate the beauty of these cloud-like cubes of confection. They were strawberry and vanilla flavoured and liberally dusted with icing sugar.

Andrew showed us his essential photography equipment – main camera, backup camera, gaffer tape, reflectors and black and white cardboard in varying sizes, a light meter and clamps. He made the point that we can improvise and use what’s in our surroundings by pulling out the white backing cardboard in a Uniqlo t-shirt pack.

After a mesmerising presentation of Andrew’s photos where he talked candidly and passionately about his experience as a professional photographer and openly shared his techniques, we were keen to put theory into practice. How to manipulate light, how to create shadows, how to use props to style, how to adjust aperture for depth of field, how to calibrate exposure for the colour white – it was all new to me!

I hate spinach, I find it a vile and slimy vegetable. I don’t know what Andrew thinks of spinach as a vegetable but he said green food is notoriously difficult to photograph as the colour absorbs light. Please call the police, the asparagus stole my light.

Kimberly brought several bags of brightly coloured sweets and the aqua drops were fun to photograph. Andrew uses a macro lens and I was surprised that the food in his photographs are in tiny portions, and he and his team scour flea markets and antique stores for small props.

I spotted the cheese platter hidden behind a faux bamboo pot plant. I also loved taking photos of the bowl of strawberries as each one is shaped uniquely and the focus can be on different ones depending on how the light is reflected.

Amidst the technicality, photography is an art form. They are narratives that evoke emotions and activate your senses – the smell of herbs and spices being ground in a mortar and pestle, the sound of a sizzling barbecue, the sight of flambé on a crêpe Suzette. To me photos are moments in time, bookmarks of memories.

The workshop was insightful and I now have some basic skills to improve my photography. Sincere thanks to Myra for your hospitality, and to Andrew for your inspiration.

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