Modernist Cuisine is not your grandmother's Joy of Cooking. It establishes a new language by which chefs can communicate the complexities of their intellectual work. Authors Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet have produced a beautiful and fascinating cookbook that explores the possibilities of the latest scientific advances in cuisine but doesn't neglect the importance of how cooking has evolved and how important it is to get a good grounding in the basics in order to really harness your creativity.
Modernist Cuisine will make you ask questions, experiment and try new things - the basis of any robust, rewarding life. Chef Ferran Adria and I agree that this is an exceptional work of uncommon rigor and extraordinary breadth. It is no exaggeration to call this a work of brilliance. There has been nothing like it in the history of the kitchen.
MC is written in five volumes, each 340+ pages and 1 spiral manual. All together, it can be overwhelming, but I will be reviewing, describing and discussing one volume per article here on Eating Our Words. A reader recently commented that my pretentious discussion of various salts was "the pinnacle of foodie wanking." I look forward to that reader's comment about this, as the Modernist Cuisine set retails for no less than $500 and is sold with its own plexi-glass case. MC may be a little bit of foodie wanking, but it is an important step in our food culture.
The authors have fascinating stories that brought them to the same junction to write this compendium. Nathan Myhrvold has quite a pedigree in the math and science fields -- PhD in mathematical physics, masters in economics, masters in geophysics and space physics and a bachelor's in mathematics. He worked with Dr. Stephen Hawking on the quantum theory of gravitation, became Microsoft's first chief technology officer, was the chief gastronomic officer of Zagat Survey and received the "Le Grand Diplome" from Ecole de la Varenne.
Chris Young has apprenticed at Mistral in Seattle with Chef William Belickis and at Heston Blumental's Fat Duck in England, and he was asked to help start up an experimental kitchen where he worked with Harold McGee and Nathan Myhrvold. Nathan then asked Chris to be a part of the Modernist Cuisine project.
Maxime Bilet studied art and literature in college and then spent a few months at the Institute of Culinary education in New York. He did an externship with Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar, and New York restaurateur Jack Lamb let him run the restaurant when the owners returned to Louisiana. Maxime was only 22. He then moved to Europe and worked for Chef Marc Veyrat at La Ferme de MonPere. After that he moved to London and staged with Heston Blumental at Fat Duck. There, he met Chris Young and was invited to work with the development team and create new dishes for the restaurant and Chef Blumenthal's 2007 book Further Adventures in Search of Perfection. Maxime then opened a French Modernist restaurant in London. When he eventually returned to the States, Nathan Myhvrold asked him to be the head chef of the Modernist Cuisine project.
These authors are exactly the type of chefs, scientists, modernists, conventionalists, inventors and dreamers that could write a collection of this magnitude.
Modernist Cuisine Volume 1 covers History and Fundamentals. It includes history, microbiology for cooks, food safety, food and health, heat and energy, and the physics of food and water. The history section explores origins of cooking, evolution and revolution, the seeds of modernism, the modernist revolution, the story of the book and an explanation of the recipes contained in the volumes.
The history section alone is more than 100 pages. It goes from our hunter-gatherer ancestors to fast and cheap food to Ferran Adria and El Bulli to Modernist Cuisine around the world and all points in between. Suffice it to say that each page is filled with fascinating information, useful and clever and surprisingly clear instructions, explanations, and directions.
The photographs in and on these volumes could win Pulitzer Prizes. Some of the photos look like they were taken from the Hubble Telescope - they are unearthily beautiful and breathtaking. The pages are water-resistant and glossy, adding even more definition and a crispness to the photos that only adds to their surreal quality.
Ferran Adria described the books, their effect and importance perfectly:
"This is a book that is not complex, yet rich; not easy, yet clear. I can think of few other works that pair cooking techniques with such analytical rigor. I also think that there is no better example than this book of the dialog that has emerged between science and cooking. In fact, these pages arguably represent the climax of that dialog. This is a living work because it clearly lays a new stepping stone to the future of cooking. It raises our expectations of what a cookbook can be."
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Science in the kitchen is met with diverging opinion. But it's being more and more accepted even as it's still misunderstood. There are chefs and cooks who continually resist the use of things like liquid nitrogen and evaporators and sous vide machines, citing them as inappropriate and not really cooking. But if you think about it, many of the technologies and tools we use in the kitchen -- refrigerators, freezers, food processors and even non-stick pans and surgically sharp carbon steel knives -- are all products of equally complex science. So the question becomes: Where do we draw the line? The logical end result of this kind of purist thinking would leave us all cooking with sharpened sticks over an open fire.
Next we tackle Volume 2: Techniques and Equipment - so much to discuss, and lots of foodie wanking to be done...