The Modernist Cuisine cookbook series changed the face of culinary writing, winning many deserved awards and making a lot of money with its $600 price tag. The six volumes demanded years of research, development, testing and perfecting. There is only one place that could handle that level of research - Intellectual Ventures Lab in Bellevue, Washington.
IVL is a serious think tank for major smarties, geeks, foodies and quite a few geniuses. The Food Sciences Lab is only one part of the laboratory. Intellectual Ventures employs talented inventors who work on ways to help solve some of the world's biggest problems. From the website:
"Lots of inventions need tender loving care to become more than an idea. This Lab is part of Intellectual Ventures' efforts to support invention. We work on the very beginning stages of nurturing an idea to prove that it can work and demonstrate its potential. Some of these originated here, others came from outside inventors we work with. We have projects such as deep brain surgery tool; a system to weaken hurricanes; a super-thermos to transport vaccines; and a laser to kill mosquitoes. While most of inventions are available for license by companies who want to incorporate them into their products, many are purely humanitarian projects."
I recently had the chance to visit the Cooking Lab and was given a tour of a kitchen like no other, one that features "a drill press, a bandsaw, a homogenizer, a rotovape and a pharmaceutical freeze dryer that cost more than a Ferrari," according to the lab's website. It's here that the culinary research was done for Modernist Cuisine by the lab's culinary and photography teams.
Having read the Modernist Cuisine volumes and been in awe of the photographs, it was surreal to walk into the kitchen where all those shots were made. It was like walking into the books themselves. MC used many photos of utensils cut in half so the reader could see what was actually happening to the food being cooked. I walked right up on the Weber Grill cut in half, the half blender, microwave, Viking Range, pots and pans -- split so the science involved in cooking was revealed. Many of those items are still able to be used. The open sides are covered in heat-resistant glass so the food and cooking methods can be photographed clearly.
As I was escorted around by Scott Heimendinger, business development manager for MC, I was given a bowl of pistachio gelato. The beautiful green gelato had the purest pistachio flavor I've ever tasted. Scott told me it tastes so rich because there is no dairy to dilute the pistachio flavor. They make pistachio butter from just the nuts and then freeze it to make gelato. Italy wishes its gelato was this rich and pure. But the point is, dairy dilutes the flavors in ice cream. So they set about finding a way to make the ice cream more flavor pure.
As I stood among shiny machines, giant canisters of liquid nitrogen, spice racks full of unpronounceable ingredients, and cabinets of powders that look like they belong in a pharmacy, I looked on in fascination as one of the chefs prepared a ribeye.
Sometimes the experiments are not to make things faster or easier but simply to achieve a perfect flavor or temperature result. They are scientists, after all. The ribeye had been cooked sous vide until it was a perfect medium rare. (I forget the actual degree) The chef took it out of the bag, and it looked rather unappetizing - kind of gray and pink. So how could they get that great sear/crust on the outside without changing the perfect temperature inside? Liquid nitrogen, of course. The steak was dipped into liquid nitrogen for a precise amount of time. That froze it at the exact doneness preferred. Then it was dropped in a deep fat fryer, again for a precise amount of time and at a precise temperature...science won't forget. The steak came out perfectly seared and crusted, while still maintaining a perfectly warm, pink medium-rare center. The steak was delicious. You could not tell all those scientific methods had been used on that piece of meat.
As I walked through, I saw many different chefs at work doing their own experiments. When one experiment was in the final stages, like the ribeye, everyone seemed to gravitate to that station and support their colleague. They all tasted, discussed, judged, advised, questioned, and congratulate the chef who'd performed the experiment. There is a real collaboration of genius minds here, researching what they love and are passionate about, so we can incorporate better science at home to perfect our own meals.
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The Modernist Cuisine authors are currently working on another book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, which will be published this fall. I have already pre-ordered my copy.