From the blog March 28, 2011 Nathan

What a Week!

I’ve just completed a week in New York City promoting Modernist Cuisine. It was tiring but fun and the results have been very gratifying. Here are some behind-the-scenes descriptions and commentary on how it all came together.

Monday, March 21

Our week started with a breakfast at Jean Georges hosted by Nina and Tim Zagat. They have been friends of mine for nearly 20 years, and they were the perfect hosts to bring chefs, food writers, and others from the greater New York City area. We were pleased to see that Marc Vetri made the trip up from Philadelphia. We were lucky that Ferran Adrià happened to be in New York that week, and he made a special effort to come to the event.

I will confess that we were nervous about serving a four-course breakfast to the best chefs in the city. I told Max that if we screwed this up, our future NYC meals would have to be limited to Gray’s Papaya and Shake Shack – not a terrible fate, of course, but we really didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. As a result,  Max and the Modernist Cuisine culinary team (Grant Crilly, Sam Fahey-Burke, Anjana Shankar, and Johnny Zhu) worked incredibly hard to prepare for not only this event, but all the others we did this past week. Maria Banchero, who managed service for our lab dinners, came along to help.

Wayt Gibbs, the editor-in-chief for Modernist Cuisine, came along to talk to the guests. Ryan Matthew Smith, who took most of the pictures for Modernist Cuisine, came along to take photos for the blog. Our running joke is now that the book is done, he is available for weddings and bar mitzvahs—just watch that he doesn’t get you alone, though, because you may wind up as a cutaway view! Our public relations team included Shelby Barnes of Intellectual Ventures, Jennifer Curley and Sarah Cissna of Curley Company, and Carrie Bachman. Our publishing consultant, Bruce Harris, also attended.

Co-author Chris Young couldn’t attend this week, in part because we have too many events going on to have everybody on deck for every event. Max Bilet represented us at the Paris Cookbook Fair and World Gourmand Awards (where we won a place in the Hall of Fame). Chris represented us recently at the Flemish Primitives conference for chefs in Belgium and the Research Chefs Association, and he will also be speaking about Modernist Cuisine at the prestigious EG conference in Monterey on April 8. I spoke at the TED conference in February and took on the speaking and TV gigs this week. Going forward, there are going to be a lot of events where we only have some of the team present. To be efficient, our motto is a bit like that of the old Texas Rangers (the law enforcement group, not the baseball team): one riot, one Ranger. That said, we needed quite a team for New York City.

Everybody on the Modernist Cuisine team has worked in restaurants (myself included), but this is the first time in three years that we served food to banquet-sized groups. The Jean Georges breakfast was about 90 people, and we had four separate courses—cornbread with bacon jam, the striped omelet, our pastrami hash, and then a dessert-like course of two pots de crème—one of them a cold infused coffee custard, the other an Earl Grey tea posset. Plating and serving food for that number of people is a challenge. We were helped enormously by the team at Jean Georges, including Chef Mark Lapico, Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini, and their teams, and of course, Jean Georges Vongerichten made this possible.

We had two goals for the Jean Georges event. The first, frankly, was to show that we can cook. The photos in Modernist Cuisine show that we can make good food that is good-looking, but that still leaves open the question of whether it is also good-tasting. We don’t have a restaurant, so people can’t taste our food as customers. As a result, cooking for chefs and food critics is one way to establish some street cred. That’s why we did a series of dinners for chefs and food critics in our Cooking Lab last month. It would be pretty hard to take the 30-course tasting menu on the road, but we thought that we could pull off a more limited menu in New York City for people who couldn’t make it out to Seattle.

The second reason that we wanted to cook was to show that Modernist Cuisine can apply to many culinary styles. Part of the message of the book is that the techniques we call “Modernist” can be used both to cook in a Modernist aesthetic, or to execute dishes in a traditional aesthetic. All of the dishes at the Jean Georges breakfast were either traditional (cornbread, pastrami) or were a slightly Modernist presentation of a traditional dish (omelet).

None of these dishes involved exotic equipment. The omelet needed a combi oven or CVap oven, but that is hardly exotic—for example, the Jean Georges kitchen already had a couple CVaps. The pastrami was reheated in a CVap, but was originally cooked sous vide. I don’t call that particularly exotic. None of the dishes had any exotic ingredients in them either. I laughed when somebody asked suspiciously what “chemicals” were used to stabilize the emulsion in our bacon jam—because the emulsifier used was egg yolks and there were no other exotic ingredients! The posset uses sodium citrate to coagulate the cream, but that is available in every grocery store in New York City. Also known as “sour salt,” sodium citrate is used in a traditional Jewish seder meal (especially for Passover).

I think that we made both of our points at the Jean Georges breakfast. It is famously true that you can’t please all the people all of the time, but all the same, I think that we came about as close as we could. Here is some of the coverage.

Later the same day, I did the Charlie Rose show. Charlie has interviewed me many times, but usually about my day job—first at Microsoft and then later at Intellectual Ventures. This is the first time we talked exclusively about food and the cookbook.

After Charlie Rose, I rushed downtown, where I spoke at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) in an event moderated by Padma Lakshmi, who is also the host of Top Chef. I only had 30 minutes to get from 58th street to the NYAS building, which is near the World Trade Center site—and this was during evening rush hour. A car and driver was waiting for me, but I was hungry. I had gotten up at 5:30 A.M. for the Jean Georges breakfast and had interviews, and only got to drink a protein shake before starting service. I didn’t have lunch either, as I was too busy with interviews. I had the driver stop at a Korean fried chicken fast food place on 32nd Street, where I got a box of soy-ginger drumsticks. It was the only solid food I ate that day. This pattern was typical of the week—I didn’t have any real meals until Thursday night.

The NYAS event was fun. Padma asked a lot of great questions. Her experience in cooking, traveling, and hosting Top Chef armed her with a great perspective. The audience also asked a lot of great questions. During the Q&A session, we passed out small samples of our pistachio gelato to the crowd of about 350 people. By the time the event ended, however, I was wiped out. Padma headed off to wd~50, Wylie Dufresne’s Modernist restaurant on the Lower East Side, but I was way too tired to come along.

Tuesday, March 22

Tuesday morning was the Today Show. It is always amazing to me how much effort goes into television. We spent hours either preparing or waiting for a four minute segment. Meanwhile, all around us, other people were doing the same thing.

During the day on Monday, I took a cab to an appointment and on the TV screen that all NYC cabs have these days, I saw a promo segment for a new show called Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, featuring a former Top Chef contestant who demonstrates Modernist cooking. Perhaps the whole world knew about this show already, but I didn’t, probably because I have been heads down working on the book. The surprise continued because at the Today Show, it turned out that Marcel had a segment after us, so I got to meet him and invite him to our ICE event (see below).

Another confession—I get nervous before I speak publicly. I have done public speaking for many years, but I still get nervous. TV is even more nerve-wracking, particularly live TV. This goes double if I have to cook on TV—I get nervous that I will forget a step. In the case of the Today Show, we thought we had a good plan: Max would do the actual cooking steps while I talked to the host, Matt Lauer. This was the plan that Max had set up with the Today Show producers. Anjana and Johnny came along to help with prep. I was nervous, but at least we had a plan and I was less panicked than normal as they put the make-up on me and Max.

Then we got to the Today Show kitchen and were told that everything had changed. They thought the kitchen on their set was too small to have both me and Max, so I would have to both cook and talk. They also wanted me to do three different dishes in just four minutes. Now I was really nervous, but there was nothing we could do about it. Fortunately, my pre-speaking nerves seem to dissipate when I actually start to speak, and I get into the zone.  That’s what happened on the Today Show, and I more or less made it through all three demos.

After the Today Show, I went to a very nice luncheon put on by Hearst Magazines, hosted by their president, David Carey and Maile Carpenter, the editor of Food Network Magazine. (Maile also happens to be married to Wylie Dufresne.) Hearst has an amazing building on 8th Avenue, designed by architect Sir Norman Foster—it was the first time I had been inside.

After that respite, the next high stress event was at the Core Club, a private club in Midtown Manhattan. The Core Club has a regular series of events at which book authors, artists, and others speak. This time they had me speaking for an hour and then serving a seven course dinner for 90 people. Food critic Jeffrey Steingarten introduced me and moderated the discussion, and the audience chipped in with a lot of questions of their own.

One of the challenges here is that the Core Club restaurant doesn’t have a very large kitchen—they don’t typically serve banquet style where 10-20 plates are prepared at once. Instead, their restaurant, and its kitchen, are more intimate. With great help from their team, however, including Chef Liberatore and Director of Food and Beverage Jean-Francois Scordia, we managed to pull off the dinner. Jennie Saunders, the founder of Core Club, made everything perfect, which seems to be what she always does, but I was especially grateful for it as a primary participant. The event was covered in this WSJ article.

We served one of my favorite dishes, which is a riff on the classic Italian dish, spaghetti alle vongole – spaghetti with clam sauce. Instead of using spaghetti pasta, however, we cut thin strips of geoduck clam for our “pasta.” When properly cut and then gently heated, it has an amazing sweet clam taste and looks and feels enough like a noodle that the dish comes off.

Most people in New York don’t know what a geoduck looks like, so once everybody had finished the dish, I went from table to table showing them. It’s quite a sight.

Almost nobody can look at a geoduck without giggling. The polite way to say this is that the geoduck siphon (which is the part you eat) looks like a small elephant trunk, but in fact, most people first think of male genital anatomy. The geoduck is native to the Pacific Northwest, and we get ours from Taylor Shellfish, a grower that sustainably farms them in Puget Sound.

Just as I was worried about the Jean Georges breakfast, I was worried about the Core Club dinner, but we pulled it off. A couple of the dishes were repeats from breakfast, including the striped omelet and the pastrami:

Welcome to the Core Club for a sampling of

MODERNIST CUISINE

Goat Milk Ricotta and Peas

fresh ricotta, centrifuged pea puree layers, essential oil

Geoduck Vongole

centrifuged broth

Caramelized Carrot Soup

pressure-cooked with baking soda

Mushroom Omelet

constructed egg stripes, steamed in a combi oven

Pastrami, Sauerkraut, Cognac Mustard

cooked sous vide for 72 h, precisely cured, brined, and fermented

Pistachio Ice Cream, Black Olive, Cocoa Nib, Arlettes

frozen constructed cream

Gruyère Cheese Caramels

sweet and savory caramel, edible film

www.modernistcuisine.com

Part of the reason the event was a success is that Winston Industries, makers of the CVap ovens, graciously loaned us two CVap ovens to use for the event. Without them, it would have been hard to heat the omelet and pastrami to the right temperatures.

Wednesday, March 23

Wednesday morning started with Morning Living, a show on Martha Stewart Living Radio that is on Sirius/XM satellite radio. Radio interviews are, for some reason, not quite as intimidating for me as public speaking or TV. Perhaps that is because there is no audience, and no camera in your face.

Midday, I went to New York University for an event featuring Ferran Adrià and Lisa Abend. Lisa has just completed a book called The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, which follows the trials and tribulations of a set of stagiers working at elBulli. The book sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. Ferran also announced that activities were underway to turn it into a major motion picture. There is a long line of films that trace people through training, ranging from classics like The Paper Chase to farces like Police Academy. It will be interesting to see what filmmakers do with Lisa’s book (and Ferran’s cuisine).

Ferran was in New York to help promote Lisa’s book and in part promote the cuisine of Spain, for which he is a sort of unofficial ambassador. The event featured Lisa, Ferran, the Spanish Minister of Industry, and some American culinary students who had participated in a Spanish exchange program.

In addition, Ferran gave us some more detail on what is happening with elBulli. The restaurant will close for good at the end of June 2011 and construction of some new facilities will begin. He showed us some architectural plans, which look amazing. The gist of his plan is that elBulli will be a culinary research center for the creation of new dishes and new types of food.

For many years elBulli has closed for six months out of the year. Ferran told us that the original reason was simple—nobody came to the coast of Spain during the winter, so they had no customers. Over time, this forced closure became a huge asset because it allowed him to focus on creating new dishes. The basic plan for the elBulli Foundation is to take the six months of creativity and extend it to the entire year, by not serving customers at all. This frees them of dealing with customers and all of the issues that comes with them. It will be all creativity, all the time.

This model may sound strange if you think of it in restaurant terms. After all, a restaurant is supposed to be about serving people, right? In culinary terms, I can’t think of an institution quite like this, but it is common in academic or scientific research. The Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton (where I used to hang out as a graduate student and later was a trustee), All Souls College at Oxford, and many biomedical research institutes (La Jolla, California has tons of them, including  Scripps Institute, the Salk Institute, and many others) do something similar. These organizations focus only on research. The unusual thing is that Ferran has managed to apply this model to creative cuisine.

Instead of academic journals, Ferran plans to put the results of their creative endeavors out on the Internet with daily dispatches. In some sense, elBulli is set to become the world’s most amazing food blog! I don’t think that fully captures the breadth of Ferran’s plans, but that is one way to look at it. The venture is being funded by a partnership with Telefonica, the Spanish-based communications company. It will be interesting to see how this unique institution evolves.

Attending Ferran’s event was fun, but immediately afterward I had to spring into action for The Colbert Report. Months earlier, when the book was first announced, they asked to interview me. I was surprised that they had even heard of Modernist Cuisine, but we accepted. Originally, the plan was to be interviewed the way most book authors are on the show. The day before the show, however, the producers asked if we couldn’t please do a cooking demo of some sort.

This was problematic. Max and the team were busy prepping for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) event later that night, so I shot over there and grabbed some mise en place (food we were prepping for ICE), a Pacojet, and a water bath. Then I got in a cab with all of it and dashed to The Colbert Report. They told me they wanted drama, so I also swung by wd~50 and borrowed a small Dewar with some liquid nitrogen from Wylie. Max had already sourced some liquid nitrogen at ICE (we use it for cryoshucked oysters), but it was way too big to fit in a cab.

As with the Today Show, there is a tremendous amount of effort that goes into making a TV show. I was told that about 70 people work full-time making The Colbert Report – which is just a 30 minute-long show. Admittedly, they do four shows a week, but this is still a lot of human effort – a bit less than 19 person-hours of work per minute of show (assuming they work an 8-hour workday). As one example, Colbert is amazingly sharp and witty on his own, but there are 12 full time writers on the show that arm him with material.

Of course, the writers are only for Colbert, not the guest! The guest interview dialogue is exactly the opposite of pre-written material—instead, it is built upon surprise. The guests have no clue what Colbert is going to ask them. Although he comes primed with some questions, I’m not sure that Colbert knows fully what he is going to say either because part of the humor is the way he reacts in real time to what the guest says So there is no such thing as a rehearsal of the interview portion.

On top of that, I had to pull together three demos: the pastrami, the pistachio ice cream, and an impromptu liquid nitrogen demo.

So whatever nerves I had before normal TV or speaking were nothing compared to how I felt before my Colbert segment. Fortunately, I got in the zone and the first two demos went well—he liked the pastrami, and then really liked the ice cream. I even managed to give a reply that maybe, just maybe, rendered him without a response for a fraction of a second. It even looked for a moment like he might burst out laughing.

The dramatic finale was the liquid nitrogen demo. I poured nitrogen from the Dewar into a plastic salad bowl with a single red rose in it. After plunging my bare hands into the liquid nitrogen, I pulled out the rose and smashed it on the table, showering myself, Colbert, and the stage with tiny pieces of fractured rose petals. It was quite dramatic.

Unfortunately, we had gone over time! Although the show is edited rather than being live, they hate to edit out portions of the dialogue. So they swept up the rose petals and filmed an alternative ending in which Colbert just thanks me. Alas, the smashed roses part of the segment was cut.

With The Colbert Report done, I had to rush the Pacojet and other stuff into a car and head down to the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). They have a regular series of late-night events that start at 9 P.M. and last until 1 A.M. or later. The idea is that chefs can come over after work and check out some demos and try some food. We started with a talk and Q&A session for about 150 people. The crowd then dispersed into the ICE teaching kitchens where we set up cooking stations. Each station had one of the Modernist Cuisine crew members and a bunch of ICE students dishing up food.

Welcome to The Institute of Culinary Education for a sampling of

MODERNIST CUISINE

Oyster Cocktail

cryoshucked Kushi oysters, centrifuged pear juice

Caramelized Carrot Soup

pressure-cooked with baking soda

Roasted Corn Elote

freeze-dried with N-Zorbit, brown butter powder, lime, and ash powder

Polenta and Marinara

pressure-cooked in Mason jars

Mushroom Omelet

constructed egg stripes, steamed in a combi oven

Pastrami, Sauerkraut, Cognac Mustard

cooked sous vide for 72 h, precisely cured, brined, and fermented

Goat Milk Ricotta and Peas

fresh ricotta, centrifuged pea puree layers, essential oil

Pistachio Ice Cream, Cocoa Nib

frozen constructed cream

www.modernistcuisine.com

Although we served more than 200 people, this was the easiest food service we did because we had tons of room (the teaching kitchens are quite large), tons of hands (from the ICE students), and the food was dished up individually. So we didn’t have to worry about getting the whole room served at once.

In a way, the ICE event was a homecoming for Max. Right after college, he took a two-month culinary course at ICE, which started him on the path that culminated in being a co-author of Modernist Cuisine. The event was also a great way to see a lot of NYC chefs and food industry people. Some of them were repeats from Monday’s breakfast, but many of them were not able to make it to other events for schedule reasons.

Rick Smilow, the head of ICE, was terrific, as were all of the ICE students and chefs that helped us out.

We had originally planned to do an event at the French Culinary Institute (FCI), the other major cooking school in New York City. That way, we’d have done a clean sweep—ICE, FCI, and CIA (see below). Unfortunately, the week we were in New York coincided with the date of the renovations that the FCI was making to some of their facilities, so doing an event with them didn’t work out on this trip. I’m sure we’ll do an Modernist Cuisine event there at some point in the future—Dave Arnold and Nils Noren of FCI are leading practitioners of Modernist cooking techniques and have several recipes in Modernist Cuisine.

Thursday, March 24

We had yet another early morning of getting up before 6 A.M. so we could drive up to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The CIA is about two hours outside the city in a beautiful setting along the Hudson River. It is housed in a former Jesuit seminary called St. Andrew-on-Hudson. The property includes the gravesite of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who was also a serious philosopher and paleontologist.

The CIA is one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the world, but I had never had an occasion to visit it before this event. The school has an interesting history: It was originally founded in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute by Frances Roth, a Connecticut-based attorney, and Katharine Angell (the wife of the president of Yale University). Its mission was to train American soldiers returning from World War II to become chefs. Until 1970, the school was actually located on the Yale campus, but eventually Yale needed the space, so it moved to its present site of the seminary, which by then had closed.

At the CIA, I had a full agenda. I met many of the instructors, including Victor Gielisse. In 1992, he wrote a cookbook called Cuisine Actuelle, which featured the food of a contemporary Southwestern restaurant in Dallas. His book had long been a favorite of mine, particularly a tomatillo-jicama salad with an orange juice and olive oil dressing. I also met Francisco Migoya, the former French Laundry pastry chef who now oversees one of the restaurants on the CIA campus that serves as both a teaching enterprise for students and a working bakery and café that is open to local residents. Their baked goods, particularly their laminated dough products like croissants and their macarons, were both beautiful and delicious. Francisco is also author of The Modern Café, which is a terrific book.

I also gave a graduation speech and an hourlong presentation on Modernist Cuisine to about 1,100 students and faculty. There were several surprises in store for me. The first was the graduation robes. I have a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a PhD, but the last graduation I ever attended was high school. I knew I was going to speak at graduation, but I wasn’t expecting the full academic procession with robes, satin sashes (which all have various meaning), caps, and funny velvet hats. I am sometimes called a “Renaissance man,” but this is the first time I had ever dressed like one.

The next surprise was that the CIA made me an honorary alumnus. I had no clue up front. Dr. Tim Ryan, the president of the CIA, had briefed me on many details of the day, but managed to leave that detail out. It is a great honor and I was proud to accept it.

This event ended our week of intense promotion for Modernist Cuisine. It was a lot of hard work for the whole team, but the results were worth it. We met a lot of people and got to tell them about our book and let them sample our cooking. We are so grateful to the people who helped us do this – both on our own team and at the various places where we cooked or spoke.

In the future, we plan on doing some Modernist Cuisine events in other cities, but not on the scale that we did in New York this past week, and it won’t happen for a while. I will be in Paris April 3-6 and and in London April 10-13, where I’ll do some book promotion but no team cooking events, as I will be solo. Later on in April, I will briefly be in San Francisco and will do some book promotion there as well.

Discussion

  1. Gavin Scott March 28, 2011 Reply

    I have Lisa Abend’s book queued up on the Kindle and am looking forward to it. If you haven’t read Grant Achatz’s “Life, on the line” I can highly recommend it as being perhaps the best Chef’s autobiography yet. Very inspiring.

    On the other hand I watched the first Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen and found it to be the worst sort of fake-reality TV. Lots of manufactured drama, etc. Also he seems to have no clue how a chamber vacuum sealer works, describing it as “pumping in lots of air and then sucking it out really quickly at the end”. This show does a disservice to every serious modernist chef IMHO, but I guess the sheep need to be entertained. Anyhow, the season pass on Tivo got deleted forthwith.

    Again, the Today spot came off wonderfully I think. It didn’t communicate many details in those four minutes, but I would expect anyone who would be a likely purchaser of MC would be intrigued enough to google it up afterwards.

    G.

    • Jason Whitworth March 29, 2011 Reply

      Lisa’s book is excellent. I saw Lisa and Ferran speak last week at a book promotion event at Astor Center (organized by the Experimental Cuisine Collective) where i purchased “The Sorcerers Apprentice” and have not been able to put it down since. Its a fascinating look inside el bulli.

  2. Guy MovingOn March 29, 2011 Reply

    Nathan, that seems like a tremendous week! Congratulations on all your efforts, and also the honourary alumnus! You have been kind enough to answer many of my questions on eGullet. I live in London, and would love to hear you talk when you are here! When will you know your presentation plans? My book is scheduled to arrive on April 14th from Amazon.ca, but hopefully it will arrive sooner as I would love to get the chance to meet you and have you sign it!

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