1. This was a big project. What will you and your team do next?
Right now we are catching our breath! I founded Intellectual Ventures in 2000, and my job as CEO of the company keeps me really busy, as you can imagine. But I did spend a lot of my weekends and evenings over the past several years working on Modernist Cuisine, and it’s a great feeling to see it in finished form—especially since it turned out so well.
I’m really encouraged by the response so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what impact it has on the culinary world. We may do a follow-up book next, or perhaps TV or consulting, but first we need to see what the world thinks of our current effort.
2. Do you have any funny stories of experiments you tried that failed or times when something went unexpectedly wrong?
Part of the point of a book like this is that the authors failed, so you don’t have to. We tested lots and lots of things and some of it was not so great … failure is perhaps too strong a word, but we tried a lot of variations to arrive at the few that we think are the best. And in some cases we did try pretty radical things that failed at first. I had this goal of making what I called an instant soufflé: a mix that you can store in an iSi whipping siphon and squirt out just before you are ready to bake it. That went through something like 150 iterations before we arrived at the final version that appears in the book [on page 4·297].
We also took some unusual approaches to photography; those really paid off, but they did involve trial and error. To get a dramatic photo of what happens when you stir-fry noodles in a wok, for example, we cut a wok nearly in half, Max put in oil and the food, and then he tossed the noodles in the air over the burner. But the oil kept sloshing out and catching fire! I think most of the hair on his arms got singed, but we got an amazing shot out of it.
3. Some people are leery of the artificial-sounding ingredients used in some Modernist recipes. They gravitate toward foods that are organic or “all-natural.” Why not just stick to these simpler ingredients?
There’s no such thing as free-range baking soda! Somebody recently said to me, “I hate this Modernist stuff, why don’t you make something that’s simple and natural—like pasta with cheese and sauce?”
But, good grief, there’s no food in the world that is more artificial than pasta. It doesn’t grow on a pasta tree, you know. It doesn’t look much at all like grain. In fact there’s this elaborate, well-figured-out procedure you have to go through to make pasta. Now pasta is a wonderful food—I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it—but calling it natural is just weird. Pasta was an invention.
Virtually all foods you find at a farmers’ market or local butcher have had their genomes modified extensively through decades or centuries of selective breeding. What people call “genetically modified” these days means that some techniques from molecular biology have been used to alter them in very specific ways. But nearly all these genetic modifications have been aimed at addressing the needs of industrial-scale agriculture. Chefs are mainly interested in taste and flavor, and so far little (if any) GM work has focused on improving these attributes. So I think that, for maximum flavor, old heirloom varieties are generally still the best. But this is a practical position on my part, not an ideological position.
Much of the world suffers from malnutrition, and GM crops adapted to, say, African agriculture might be able to avoid famine and save millions of lives.
One ingredient that purists love to hate is monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG has been widely attacked, but I searched the medical literature and was amazed to find that in fact there is no scientific evidence that it is bad for you. Lots of people claim to be intolerant of MSG, but in blinded trials, researchers have found, they can’t consistently tell whether food contains MSG or not. We cover this research in detail in our Food and Health chapter.
As for using refined chemicals to cook, well, if you make muffins, you are going to use some baking powder. The baking powder is a refined chemical—it’s mined, not grown! You’re probably going to use salt as well. Guess what? Your salt is either mined, or it’s evaporated out of the ocean. You can go on and on, but essentially there are a whole bunch of refined ingredients that everyone uses without thinking twice, simply because they have been around a long time.
Interestingly, few if any of those traditional refined ingredients have been scientifically tested to make sure they are safe to eat. Decades of experience suggests that they are, but you’re not likely to find careful studies that prove it. Modern refined ingredients, such as hydrocolloids, have been safety tested. And guess what? Pretty much all of them are either extracted from seaweed or made by fermentation. If you’re willing to eat nori and vinegar on your sushi rice, and chase it with a glass of wine, why should you object to this?
I love the idea of farm-to-table advocates who say, “I’d rather have my sweet corn picked 10 minutes before we eat it and barely cooked!” Me, too, because it tastes better that way. The trouble is that some people get too fixated on this ideal, and argue that it should be forbidden to thicken a sauce with agar, even while they have no problem putting baking powder in their muffins.
4. How do you feel about the terms “Modernist cuisine” versus “molecular gastronomy”?
“Molecular” and “molecular gastronomy” are controversial terms among high-end chefs. Dr. Hervé This, who is often named as the father of what he calls “molecular gastronomy,” feels strongly that the name should be applied only to food science; he thinks it should not be used to describe cooking. Even if you set that aside, most of his research does focus on applying science to understanding traditionalcooking.
Nearly all the chefs I have talked to in the field hate the name molecular gastronomy. And from a scientific standpoint, the term is meaningless: all food is made of molecules.
I think that “Modernist cuisine” is a much better term because it describes the avant-garde approach of rebelling against culinary rules of the past. It is also broad enough to encompass a wide variety of styles.
5. This is a 2,438-page book. Is there anything in cooking that it does not cover?
As we worked on the book, we kept adding more and more to it. We could have added more still, but then it never would have been done. In particular we did not cover pastry, desserts, and baked goods in Modernist Cuisine. Maybe we will do another book on those topics at some point.
6. How did your 13 years as Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft compare to writing a cookbook?
They are very different in some ways, but similar in others. At Microsoft, I learned how to manage big projects and how to get the best out of a team, which were both necessary for the cookbook.
7. A lot of experimenting was required for Modernist Cuisine. Did you make any surprising discoveries?
During the process of writing the book, we came up with explanations for many long-standing mysteries of cooking. It turns out that a lot of what goes on in cooking involves counterintuitive science. We were pretty puzzled to discover, for example, that most vegetables actually cook faster in boiling water than they do in steam. In fact, we ran some experiments to collect data for a chart that would show the opposite, that steaming is faster. But that is not what the data showed. We did the experiment several times, each time refining it to eliminate possible sources of error. Finally we convinced ourselves that boiling really is faster, and went digging through the scientific literature, where we found the answer of why this is: it has to do with a subtle phenomenon called film condensation, which we explain in the book [on pages 2·70–73].
A lot of chefs will be surprised by the results of tests we did that show that cooking meat submerged in fat—a technique known as confit—has no perceptible effect on the meat. You can steam the meat (at the same temperature and for the same time), then dress it lightly with oil, and no diner will be able to tell the difference [see page 2·129]. When I tell chefs this, they invariably look at me like I’m crazy and say “You know, I don’t agree with you there.” But in this case, you don’t get to agree or disagree—it’s science!
Of all the discoveries we made, my favorite is probably our explanation of the “temperature stall” (often just called “the stall”) that occurs when barbecueing meat. The shorthand version is that when you cook pork butt, brisket, or other large pieces of meat, the temperature rises for a while, but then “stalls” at a certain temperature for several hours. There is a lot of lore within the barbecue community that seeks to explain why this occurs. Some say that fat rendering is the cause; others say it arises from the conversion of collagen to gelatin. But actually neither of these is correct. The true cause is evaporative cooling and its effect on the wet-bulb temperature, as we explain in detail in our chapter on Meat [see page 3·212]. I’ve also written a post online that lays out the details of the mechanism behind the stall.
8. What do you say when people accuse you of taking the art out of cooking? Is cooking an art or is it a science?
Cooking is an art, but, like all art, doing it well requires knowing something about the techniques and materials involved. Cooking is also largely empirical, but there are some theoretical insights from science that really help. We don’t have to guess haphazardly at cooking times, for example: by applying the equations of heat transport, we can estimate them pretty accurately. The book includes several that help readers do this [e.g., pages 1·275–286 and 2·276–279]. Once you understand an area, such as emulsions, you can focus your experiments to find out, say, which emulsifiers work best and at what concentrations [see pages 4·206–210] in a given situation.
So science informs us and lets us cook while knowing what we are doing, but it is not a replacement for the skills of a chef and for some degree of experimentation. Each bit of scientific insight greatly increases the efficiency of the experiments, however. And when people understand the science, that actually gets the creative juices going and gives them more freedom to explore new techniques and new applications of existing techniques. So by using Modernist techniques, you get more control, and that allows you to be more artistic, not less!
9. Out of the 1,500 recipes in Modernist Cuisine, are there certain ones that you find yourself making again and again? Which are your favorites?
The recipe in the book that I use most is the one for scrambled eggs—I make them for myself several times a week. I never cook scrambled eggs on the stove anymore. For three scrambled eggs, I throw away one egg white (so I use two whole eggs and one egg yolk). I mix them, toss in some cheese, and then put them in a combi oven for 15 minutes at 64 °C / 165 °F. To my taste, they are perfect that way.
1. Why is the book so expensive?
The six-volume set includes 2,400 pages, published on high-quality art paper (waterproof in the case of the Kitchen Manual) using advanced stochastic printing technology and including a sturdy slipcase. Such high production quality is costly to produce, but we set out to make a durable book that anyone would be proud to own. We believe that it is a good value for the price; we hope that you will agree.
2. Can a home chef actually make the dishes in the book?
The majority of the recipes in the book can be made in a conventional home kitchen, especially if you get some fairly inexpensive additional equipment, like a digital gram scale or a water bath for sous vide cooking (the book covers what to look for when buying such gear). We decided early on, however, that we would not “dumb down” those recipes that illustrate the fascinating culinary applications of advanced ingredients, such as liquid nitrogen, and equipment such as centrifuges and rotor-stator homogenizers. As a result, the book offers recipes that will be exciting for anybody who loves food, regardless of whether they are an amateur at home or a top professional chef. And whereas most cookbooks leave you completely on your own, Modernist Cuisine provides the active online community in our Cooks Forum to support you as you try recipes and techniques in the book.
3. Are volumes available separately?
We wrote the book so that it is self-consistent and functions as a whole. Nearly every page includes references to material in other volumes. We have no plans to sell volumes separately.
4. Will Modernist Cuisine be available in languages other than English?
Yes! We are actively working with publishers to get the book translated into French, German, and Spanish, as well as other European and Asian languages. We designed the layout from the start so that we can reuse the photos and tables. Nevertheless, translating a work of this size (more than 650,000 translatable words!) is a big task, and we expect it will take some time to complete.
5. Will it be available in bookstores?
Yes. You can find online booksellers who carry the book at our “Buy” page, and you can use our MC Locator to find a brick-and-mortar bookstore near you.
6. Will it be available in countries other than the United States?
Yes. Modernist Cuisine is available from Amazon sites around the world, as well as from Taschen bookstores and other retailers.
7. Will there be an e-book edition?
Eventually, there may be, but we have no current plans to offer an electronic version of Modernist Cuisine. We began this project before the market of e-books developed—at the time we started designing the book, the Kindle had not even shipped yet. Kindle is a wonderful e-book platform (we love ours!), but it is not the best medium for a book such as this that offers so many large color pictures. Our use of dramatic photography is a large part of how Modernist Cuisine makes the art and science of cooking accessible. Although the Apple iPad has a color display, its screen size is still very limited, and by the time it shipped, we had designed a thousand pages for print. We decided that a large-format, high-quality printed book is still the best platform today for delivering this kind of content—particularly our photographs and illustrated step-by-step procedures—to the majority of the people who will want to use it. Eventually we would like to spend the time and resources to make an e-book edition that offers new and interactive features, but that is a lot of work and is probably a couple years away.
8. Will you produce a less expensive edition, as Bloomsbury did with The Big Fat Duck Cookbook?
We have no plans to do that right now, or within the next couple years, but we would not rule it out.
9. Is Modernist Cuisine only about exotic or unusually challenging food like you find at elBulli or The Fat Duck?
We cover a broad range of cuisine, including many familiar kinds of food. In the book you’ll find recipes for the ultimate hamburger, barbecue from the American South, curries from different regions in India, and many other traditional dishes. We do include recipes and techniques that are from (or in the style of) restaurants like elBulli, The Fat Duck, wd~50, Alinea, and others that are pushing the boundaries of cuisine. But people who ascribe to a very traditional food aesthetic should find plenty in Modernist Cuisine to engage their interests.