Better Cooking through Technology
The former CTO of Microsoft has created a gigantic guide to kitchen science that could transform the way we eat.
To see Modernist Cuisine is to covet it. Which is why, one morning in May, the team that spent six years creating the oversized, over-everything five-volume work came from Bellevue, Washington, to New York City to introduce the wondrous object. And it is why a group of chefs, writers, and TV personalities (so stellar that one guest remarked, “The only other event that could bring these people together is a funeral”) gathered at Jean-Georges, the flagship restaurant of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, at the invitation of Tim and Nina Zagat. They were there to meet Nathan Myhrvold, the mastermind and financier of a book so expensive to create that he refuses to say how much he spent (other than to say it was more than $1 million but less than $10 million). They wanted to try the pastrami cooked sous-vide for 72 hours, the “tater tots” dunked in liquid nitrogen before being fried, the fruit juices spun in a centrifuge, the mushroom omelet striped with powdered-mushroom batter so that it looked like a piece of upholstery, with a perfectly spherical, magically just-cooked egg yolk right in the middle. But they really wanted to see the book.
And it is a wondrous object. Modernist Cuisine’s five volumes comprise 1,522 recipes and 1,150,000 words of text on 2,438 pages, almost every one of them illustrated with color photography and charts, with dozens of gee-whiz, never-before-seen photographs of beautiful free-form color swirls that could be textile designs but turn out to be life-threatening pathogens; or sculptural objects that could be outdoor art installations but are mussels suspended in clear gelatin; or stunning anatomies of a painstakingly shelled lobster or flayed monkfish or whole chicken; or spectacular cross-section cutaways of pieces of equipment you never thought would or should be sawed in half, like ovens, woks full of hot oil, and kettle grills with white-hot smoldering coals. It weighs 40 pounds, four of them just ink. When Wayt Gibbs, the book’s editor in chief, met me later that week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Toscanini’s, an ice-cream parlor and intellectual salon heavy with MIT students and faculty, he painstakingly unwrapped the gigantic carton he had lugged on a portable dolly from Bellevue to New York and then to Boston. The café-goers grew silent and stared at the huge white volumes in their clear Lucite case, one of them later wrote me, as if they were the monolith in 2001.
The long-awaited publication of Modernist Cuisine, in March, was the most significant event in the food world since … well, there might not be a precedent. The 6,000 copies that Myhrvold printed privately—against more conservative advice from what he describes as “cooler heads” in book publishing—immediately sold out at the introductory price of $465. “We sold 9,000 of those 6,000 copies,” Myhrvold says with satisfaction. He quickly ordered 25,000 more copies to be printed.
To research the book, Myhrvold built a 4,000-square-foot laboratory, kitchen, and photo studio in an 18,000-square-foot former motorcycle showroom in Bellevue, where an ever-expanding team of cooks experimented with machinery usually restricted to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and commercial food processing, using powders and essences and chemicals similarly typical of the food industry.
by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet
2,438 pages; $478
The Cooking Lab; Spi Har/Pa edition 2011
Such experimentation had been going on for years, of course, most famously starting in the early 1990s at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain, and in the mid-1990s at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Berkshire, England—the two main inspirations for Myhrvold and his team, whose lead members trained with Blumenthal. In this country, it was hard for ambitious young chefs to visit a similar nucleus of cooking research unless they could get into Grant Achatz’s Alinea, in Chicago (see “The Alchemist,” January/February 2007). Or unless they were among the favored few to be invited to one of the 30-course tasting dinners in the Bellevue lab, which were reserved mostly for cooks and industry leaders who had lent expertise or machines to the team, and for reporters like me who wanted a look at just what went into the three years of decision making, recipe testing, writing, and editing that preceded publication.
Myhrvold himself is an object of intense interest. The former chief technology officer of Microsoft and the founder of the patent investment company Intellectual Ventures, he is a genius and billionaire who still indulges his boyish enthusiasms, which include photography and dinosaurs but revolve mostly around cooking. The interest began at age nine, when he nearly set his mother’s kitchen on fire in a plan to flambé everything for a Thanksgiving dinner. Myhrvold is a charming, even twinkling, spokesman for his mad-inventor processes—quite unlike, say, Ferran Adrià, whose trademark is a messianic intensity and utter imperviousness to anyone not as focused as he on the windstorm of creativity ever blowing round his brain. Myhrvold’s voice is strong enough to come through in many sections of the book, though they’re unsigned: a droll account in the third volume of traveling to Greenland and eating rotten shark, which “doesn’t taste like chicken,” is probably his. So is much of an excellent chapter in the fourth volume on coffee, in which he goes in search of what baristas call the “God shot” and in the process learns and shares a terrific amount of information on roasting, grinding, foaming milk, and pulling espresso shots.
I managed to get my hands on the copy Gibbs unpacked at Toscanini’s. Opening any volume brings you right to cutting-edge techniques that produce food unlike anything anyone has ever tasted outside El Bulli or the Fat Duck or Alinea.
But the high-tech toys and futuristic food are not why I think you should put yourself on the wait list and spend the $478 the book now costs (unless you want to spend the $800 and up being asked for “used” copies). Although some of the futuristic food is fabulous, as I learned from the 30 courses I got to try at the lab, the reason to pony up the going rate is that Modernist Cuisine is an incomparable introduction to many of the basic techniques of food and cooking. Within its five volumes (six, actually, including a spiral-bound book of recipes for the professional kitchen) are several long chapters that are as comprehensive and readable and valuable as any books I’ve seen on subjects essential for anyone interested in food.
The first volume alone contains a long, definitive introduction to food pathogens and food safety, a subject cooks ignore at their peril. The other volumes give basic information on science, ingredients, and techniques common to all cooking, not only “modernist” cuisine. And, of course, the book is a guide to the avant-garde—one far more comprehensive and usable than anything else yet written. As for the food, there are those 1,522 recipes, and if you can lay out a fairly substantial sum and clear enough counter space to start trying them—well, more on that later.
I didn’t read all 1,150,000 words—no one other than Gibbs has claimed to, he told me when I spent a few days in the Bellevue kitchen. (He also admits to having tried only a few recipes, because he’s not a cook.) But I’ll claim a good 750,000. Watching the media appearances of the buoyant and unfailingly enthusiastic Myhrvold; visiting the book’s website for cool videos of machines and pots being sawed in half or a kernel of popcorn dancing across a black screen until it explodes and soars up and off like a rocket; even eating 30 courses in Bellevue—none of it prepares you for the experience of reading Modernist Cuisine.
Everything about the book has been designed to keep a reader going, with bits of information in the margins and pages-long interruptions for techniques, cooking charts, and “parametric” and “example” recipes. Some sidebars go on for a few pages; they’re printed in white type against black, as are most of the charts, so that the flow of text, though unusually complex, becomes intuitive. As in a magazine or textbook, captions provide complementary information and précis that make you feel you’ve got the gist of the main text.
The similarity to magazines and textbooks is not accidental. Myhrvold and Chris Young, a scientist and former Fat Duck chef who is listed as an author along with Maxime Bilet, another Fat Duck alumnus and the head chef of the Bellevue kitchen, were influenced by the illustrated Time-Life series of cookbooks from the late 1970s and early 1980s—books, like this one, assembled by veterans of the magazine and book worlds who knew how to unite text and photographs for maximal informative value. Gibbs, who’s been a writer and editor at Scientific American and has extensive experience creating illustrated features, served as producer for a total of 44 writers, photographers, designers, researchers, and editors whose combined efforts bring life and interest to every page.
Myhrvold has been derided for producing a book, that most old-fashioned of objects, rather than a $5 app. His reply: a “really good” electronic version, with interactive features to recipes, animations for key techniques, and video clips, would be a project “bigger than the one to do this book.” A book is still the best way to publish so much information, and the spiral-bound supplement, unlike an iPad, is waterproof. And with a few exceptions (such as much of Volume 4, which is devoted chiefly to thickeners, gels, emulsions, and foams—the trickiest of the new chef’s tricks), my interest never flagged.
The book I’d make required reading for any cooking student is Volume 2, on techniques and equipment, which gives as good a description as I’ve seen of basic processes like baking and frying. This is also the volume that lists the toys in the toy box. Number one on the list is a sous-vide water bath—a tool that is ubiquitous in the recipes, particularly for meat. The bulk of the volume, unsurprisingly given the project’s origins as an eGullet chat forum Myhrvold opened about sous-vide, is devoted to this technique, which Myhrvold and many other cooks value for its precise control and predictability. Thanks to the enthusiasm of chefs like Achatz, Thomas Keller (who wrote a book on the method), and Philip Preston, of PolyScience, a manufacturer of controlled-temperature equipment who worked closely with Achatz and Myhrvold, the water bath has gone from science-lab “immersion circulator” to almost-affordable kitchen tool.
I don’t have the patience for sous-vide, and I find that it produces too soft a texture in meat and fish. The piece of equipment I’d like to buy is a combination dry- and steam-heat “combi” oven, which so far hasn’t found a manufacturer like Preston willing to work on one for the Williams-Sonoma crowd. There are tiny ones for $2,000, but they hold almost nothing; models not much bigger than a big microwave easily cost $12,000, and the authors say you need a couple of those. Still, the fact that the ovens thaw, steam, poach, and roast makes them as appealing to me as the microwave—which, hearteningly, the authors endorse for cooking vegetables, frying tender herbs, and turning vegetable juices into “perfect powders.”
The authors do list cool tools that are within the reach of many home cooks, like digital scales and thermometers; the carbonator, for foam; a Toddy cold-brewing coffee kit, for deriving extracts of many flavorings besides coffee; and my favorite all-purpose tool, a pressure cooker, something I use nearly every night. The reason that stocks made in pressure cookers are perfectly clear, they point out, is that the water inside never boils, and the motion of boiling is what emulsifies oil and creates scum in normal stocks. They give everyday tips for ways to use the device, including making risotto (a longtime guilty secret of time-pressed Italian cooks, who will reveal it only after receiving compliments on how good their risotto is) and adding calcium chloride to the water for beans to let them soften without splitting their skins.
The tool many professional chefs may decide they need is a centrifuge, which costs $10,000 to $30,000 and can take up as much room as a washing machine. Myhrvold’s team used a centrifuge to clarify juices from citrus and from sous-vide bananas, which became translucent and serum-like. Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry in Yountville, California, decided he needed a centrifuge after he saw the Bellevue lab use one to separate the fatty solids from peas to make “pea butter,” spreadably thick and perfectly smooth.
And some chefs might sign on to the tank of liquid nitrogen that the team says is second in utility only to the sous-vide water bath. Dunking a food in liquid nitro before you fry it—“cryofrying,” the lab calls it—makes the outside of, say, cubed pork or sous-vide chicken or “tater tots” hot and crisp while the interior turns out just warm and not overcooked. It also makes soft foods manageable to slice thin or to grind. Cubes of beef can be put into meat grinders, drawn out in parallel, extruded strands, and carefully rolled into plastic-wrapped cylinders. After being submerged in liquid nitro, they’re cut into patties and deep-fried for hamburgers that, as Jean-Georges Vongerichten reported with wonder, are juicy and crumbly without being fatty or tough. But the grown-up boy magicians on the Modernist team use the cooling agent, they admit, “for just about every food,” because it’s “just plain fun”—for instance, to “cryoshatter” olive oil for a garnish.
Volume 3, on animals and plants, is both an anatomy class and a guide to how proteins and fibrous plants react to heat. The section on meat includes wonderful color diagrams of muscle fibers and collagen that do more than anything else I’ve ever seen to explain the structure of meat and make it clear why different cuts cook differently. The section on vegetables is a good bit shorter, perhaps reflecting the cooks’ degree of interest. (They seem to have been intensely interested in the heat scale of peppers, though.)
Volume 4, on ingredients and preparations, spends the most time on thickeners, this being “truly the best age ever in which to thicken a liquid.” I was glad to learn about viscosity and fluid gels, and to discover that alginate, a hydrocolloid extracted from brown seaweed, is the key to the “spherification” that Adrià has made almost as popular and widespread as foams. But for anyone who doesn’t plan to buy Ultra-Sperse 3 or Ultra-Tex, or N-Zorbit M or even xanthan gum—all of which are turning up in modernist-inspired kitchens, and all of which appear in dozens and dozens of recipes in the book—this will make the least absorbing reading.
I’d argue that the plated-dish recipes in Volume 5 will date the book faster than any other part. They’re included to demonstrate the possibilities of all the techniques and ingredients we’ve learned about in other volumes, and to conclude the argument started in Volume 1 that all history builds to their inevitability. So classic recipes are updated and adapted, using a panoply of time-consuming steps few home cooks would attempt. Blanquette de veau, the classic veal stew, is liquefied to a warm cream called “veal nog” that requires a rotor-stator homogenizer and a centrifuge. Boeuf en gelée, the gel hot rather than cold, demands a homemade oxtail stock, xanthan gum, and low-acyl gellan.
Some cooks might try all this—perhaps ambitious professionals who haven’t been able to apprentice in any of the new-wave kitchens, perhaps semi-obsessed hobbyists. But I’m not one of them, and the 30 courses at Bellevue, every one of which I tried and took notes on, didn’t make me a convert. Some of the flavors and textures were revelatory: a clear, strong “beef tea” that came from a sous-vide bag; cocoa pasta, something impossible without “vital gluten” (cocoa powder has no gluten of its own), with puréed, cured sea urchin cooked sous-vide. But much of it still seems mere trickery: freeze-dried corn kernels and powders of brown butter and lime and ash in a version of the Mexican street food corn elote, the powdered fat unpleasantly greasy on the tongue; a cream of mushroom and bacon soup infused with dark miso and gelled into a too-intense foam; smoked butter made in a rotor-stator homogenizer that overwhelmed a delicate piece of fresh-caught, unfortunately brined albino salmon (cooked sous-vide, of course).
But these are matters of personal taste, and the night I visited Bellevue I was fascinated every moment. As I did at the Jean-Georges breakfast, I came away convinced that these techniques and ingredients will be essential for cooks of the future. It’s too early to know how they’ll be adapted, and which will be most frequently used, but my feeling when sampling the 30 courses was that as prices for homogenizers and centrifuges come down, thickening agents become easy to find, and even liquid nitrogen becomes commonplace in professional and then home kitchens, we’ll make our own ketchup and many other staples, and come to cook dishes as basic as fried chicken and hamburgers in completely different ways.
Every big-name chef, however rooted in classic techniques, is already interested. A couple of hours after the Zagat breakfast, Vongerichten persuaded me to stay for lunch, to eat the tasting menu he was giving the chef Daniel Boulud as a birthday gift. He didn’t send us 30 courses, but the number approached 20, and the flavors were a kind of musical composition that varied in volume and intensity but never in virtuosity. Almost none of them used any of the new techniques described in Modernist Cuisine; almost all of them strove to find innovative but nonrevolutionary ways to extract the maximum flavor and fragrance from the herbs, fish, and meat Vongerichten had in the kitchen.
But Vongerichten told me he’s getting ready to be a not-quite-early adopter, even though “I tried meat glue, and I just don’t understand—why do I need meat glue?” As we discussed the book after lunch—he had paged through it in the morning like a child with his first train set—he had a look in his eyes that was both wistful and determined. “I’ve got to make burgers that crumbly,” he said. Another tank of liquid nitro sold.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic.