The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 2

Climbing the Learning Curve

[See part one of this series for recollections by photographer Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team.]

After editing photos for a couple of months, we realized that we would need quite a few more images to flesh out the layouts of the first few chapters of Modernist Cuisine. Nathan, however, was increasingly busy with both his day job and author duties, so much so that he had almost no time to generate new photos. I was asked to do more shooting; it wasn’t seen at the time as a shift in the lead photography role, just a temporary necessity.

A shot from my first day of work on the book
A shot from my first day of work on the book

To make it easier to shoot freshly prepared dishes, we decided to set up a photo studio around the corner from the newly constructed research kitchen at the Intellectual Ventures laboratory. Our head chef, Maxime Bilet, served as lead food stylist and schedule master for the photo shoots.

Another first-day shot
Another first-day shot

The first months were quite the learning process for Max and me. I had just earned my photography degree from the Art Institute of Seattle, but still I had very little studio experience, and zero experience shooting food. Max had an art background and experience plating food, but only for diners, never for the camera.

The best photo from my first shoot
The best photo from my first shoot

Back then, I didn’t know much about Max or even chefs in general. During one early photo shoot, I saw a fly buzz around and land on the cutting board we were about to photograph. I quickly grabbed the chef’s knife from Max and chopped down on the cutting board as if wielding an axe. Whack!

I cleaved the fly clean in half. Amazed at my feat of dexterity, I grinned over at Max, expecting validation of my daunting skill. Instead, I was met with a stern glare that said “don’t ever do anything like that again.” It turns out chefs’ knives are finely crafted tools and are not meant to be whacked like axes on cutting boards.

Who knew?

The *right* way to use a chef's knife
The right way to use a chef’s knife

Those first few months were like a crash course in cooking, fine dining, and what is (and is not) acceptable in a kitchen. Every day I learned new lessons about the details of gourmet and modernist techniques; knowledge that turned out to be absolutely necessary for both shooting and selecting the photos we used to illustrate step-by-step procedures in the book.

After a month, our style starts to click in place
After a month, our style starts to click in place

Although I started with the cooking skills of a typical American college student, knowing little more than what I had read on boxes of dried pasta, I had to learn quickly what a PID controller is, the difference between braising and pot-roasting, the names of exotic foods such as Buddha’s hand (a citron fruit), and myriad other bits of specialized information.

Buddha's hand citron
Buddha’s hand citron

Luckily, I was working side by side with a team of talented chefs who were happy to share such knowledge and correct me when I missed some important point.

Today I am much smarter about food than I was. I still might not be able to reproduce in my own kitchen all the amazing dishes created by the chefs on the Modernist Cuisine culinary team, but three years of working with them has given me much greater appreciation of their incredible skills and understanding of their techniques. And I’ve also learned how to stay out of their way and respect their equipment!

Maxime has a talent for making food look stunning
Maxime has a talent for making food, such as this cocoa tajarin, look stunning

See Maxime Bilet and Ryan Matthew Smith at Maker Faire

Modernist Cuisine head chef and coauthor Maxime Bilet will join lead photographer Ryan Matthew Smith at Maker Faire Bay Area 2011 this weekend in the Bay Area. Hear them talk about the making of the book and taste one of the Modernist Cuisine dishes for yourself. Ryan and Max will be presenting on the center stage on Sunday, May 22, from 3:30 p.m to 4:30 p.m. For directions and tickets, see the Maker Faire website.


Vote on the Prints You’d Like to See Included with MC

[UPDATE May 19: The votes are in and tallied, and the winners are:

  1. Pectin falling from orange
  2. Levitating cheeseburger
  3. Pot roast cutaway
  4. Frying egg

We’ll be including prints of these stunners with every copy of Modernist Cuisine in a future printing. Thanks for participating!]

We’re plan­ning to include two or three 8 x10 prints of some of our most iconic pho­tos along with the books in a future print­ing of Modernist Cuisine. We invite your help in decid­ing which pho­tos to bun­dle with the book. Check the boxes next to your favorite three images from the selec­tion below, and then click the “Vote” button to submit your choices. We’ll select from among those that get the most votes. The poll closes on May 18 at 5:00 p.m. PDT.

[poll id=”1″]

The Culinary Team Answers Questions from Readers

On eGullet, an online forum for cooking enthusiasts that played an important role in inspiring Nathan to undertake Modernist Cuisine, a lively discussion has emerged among people who are trying their hand at various recipes and techniques in the book. They have been sharing questions that have emerged naturally as they experiment with the dishes and share their hits and misses.

Coauthor Maxime Bilet and the rest of the Modernist Cuisine culinary team posted some answers today to a number of those questions on eGullet’s “Cooking with Modernist Cuisine” thread. The authors are excited about engaging the growing community of MC readers, and we’re working to build a simple forum here on to support that discussion. (If you’re interested in volunteering as a forum moderator, please email us.) In the meantime, check out the insights the team offers at eGullet.

Tips from Modernist Cuisine You Can Use at Home

In a lengthy article in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, food writer Sophie Brickman describes making breakfast with author Nathan Myhrvold. The Chronicle story also lists many tips from the books that will be useful to home cooks, including strategies for extending the shelf life of fruits, frying herbs, and making tender burgers and perfect scrambled eggs. Modernist Cuisine offers full explanations of how these tips work and why.