See Nathan’s Talk at Microsoft Research

Last month, Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold gave an hour-long presentation and Q&A session at Microsoft Research in Bellevue, Wash. In the presentation, he gives a quick tour of the massive book, talks a bit about how it was made, and focuses on some of the more technical aspects of this kind of cooking. To see the talk, use the embedded Silverlight player below, or visit the page at the Microsoft Research site for a rich-interface version.

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See Nathan in Toronto This Autumn

On November 20, the cookbook store in Toronto will host a special event for Modernist Cuisine. Author Nathan Myhrvold will be giving a public presentation on the book and will be available to answer questions from attendees. All previous Modernist Cuisine events have sold out well in advance, so sign up early if you want to attend. For tickets, directions, and more information, call 800.268.6018 (416.920.2665 in Toronto), or email


Thinking About Chemicals in Food

Many people say they are uncomfortable with chemicals in their food. And Modernist chefs have been criticized occasionally for using some of the same modern ingredients that can be found in low-quality processed foods—even though the chefs use them for different reasons and in combination with ingredients of the highest quality. In a recent interview for Big Think, Modernist Cuisine coauthor Nathan Myhrvold explains why it’s important to avoid an overly simplistic view. All food consists of chemicals: they are the building blocks of life. But not all chemicals are equally good or bad for you. Check out the Big Think article and the video interview below.

Books from the Second Printing Are on Their Way

We have some good news today for customers who ordered Modernist Cuisine after the first printing sold out. Copies from the second printing have begun leaving the bindery, and the first 615 sets began their transoceanic journey to the United States on Monday, June 6. Another shipment of that size is scheduled to leave port on June 13, and each Monday thereafter new containers of books will set sail for booksellers around the world, with weekly shipment quantities rising to 1,800 copies in mid-July.

The ocean crossing, customs clearance, and distribution to bookseller warehouses requires four to six weeks to complete. We expect that booksellers will start delivering Modernist Cuisine in late July to the several thousand customers who have back-ordered it. Orders will be fulfilled in the order in which they were received, so if you have been thinking about purchasing the book but haven’t put your order in yet, now is the time to reserve your place in line. You can find a list of booksellers who are carrying the book on our buy page.

The Science of Hamburgers

Levitating CheeseburgerBarbecue season is in full swing, which has John Tierney of The New York Times thinking burgers. He mused over Modernist Cuisine‘s contribution to the world of hamburgers in the June 6 piece in the Science Times section of the paper. What would happen, he wondered, if Nathan Myhrvold and haute-hamburger creator Daniel Boulud had a cook-off? Nathan explains the physics of spatula-frying burgers and the process of making the ultimate burger by a combination of sous vide, liquid nitrogen, and deep-frying techniques, as demonstrated in MC. The book also goes into much greater detail on, and contains beautiful illustrations of, the transformations that beef and other meats undergo during cooking.

As for who would win a cook-off… well, we know who we would pick. Leave a comment to let us know what you think.

Dining at El Celler de Can Roca and elBulli

Almost four years ago, Chris Young’s first day on the job occurred when he and I had dinner at elBulli. Chris had already agreed to work for me, and he was packing up his stuff for the move to Seattle. Over dinner we talked about food, and I showed him the outline I had made for Modernist Cuisine. It was the start of a project that was bigger than either of us realized (although we wound up sticking remarkably close to that early outline). So, what could be a better way to celebrate the completion of the project than for Chris, Max, and I to pay one last visit to elBulli in the final months that it still operates as a restaurant? (Ferran Adrià has announced plans to halt service at elBulli in July.)

Unfortunately, my schedule is crazy, and it looked for a while like I wouldn’t make it back to Spain in time. When an opening occurred on my calendar (as luck would have it, Chris wasn’t available then), I quickly threw together a group, and off we went. I was joined by Max Bilet, my other MC coauthor; Steven Shaw, a cofounder of eGullet; Dr. Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America; Johnny Iuzzini, executive pastry chef of Jean Georges; and Thierry Rautureau, chef of Rover’s in Seattle (where I was a stagier 15 years ago).

Max and I arrived in Barcelona from Paris the night before everyone else flew in, so we had dinner at Tickets: the new tapas bar opened only a month before by Albert Adrià, Ferran’s brother. It is clearly going for a fun and casual atmosphereas one example, the menu has a little icon suggesting which dishes would be good for children.

As at Bazaar, the modern tapas restaurant run by José Andrés in Los Angeles, the menu mixes fairly traditional tapas dishes with Modernist tapas. We sampled plenty of both. Albert is doing a terrific job; the food we had was great. The execution of the more technically challenging dishes was perfect.

The next day, everyone else arrived. An amusing cultural difference one notices in Spain is that the term “wok” is used essentially to mean “Asian restaurant.” As a result, one finds many restaurants with names like “Sushi Wok” or “Ichiban Wok”, the latter advertising Japanese and Argentinian food.

We started our adventure by walking all over Barcelona and visiting three of its famous food markets. La Boqueria is the most famous, and we spent a bunch of time there, looking at the fabulous produce and eating razor clams and octopus at one of the great seafood bars in the market. We also visited Mercat de Sant Antoni and Mercat de Santa Caterina. A picnic with various types of jamón ibérico at the Barcelona marina tided us over until dinnertime.

The first serious eating was dinner at El Celler de Can Roca, which is in the town of Girona, about an hour north of Barcelona, where we were staying. The restaurant is run by the three Roca brothers: chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi, and Josep, who runs the front of the house and an amazing wine cellar.

The previous Can Roca was a very nice restaurant, but it was no architectural masterpiece. I had been there a few years back. The old location is still operated by the Roca brothers, but they moved their flagship restaurant to a spectacular new location. Between the decor and the food, it is one of the truly great restaurants of the world.

Our meal was incredible. We had 15 savory courses followed by seven dessert courses and then petits fours. One of the amusing “courses” was a smell-only course, served as a paper cone that was impregnated with scent. It was interesting, but it also made for some cool photo ops as everyone at the table put the cone over his nose, as we were instructed. Alas, I am not going to describe every course, if I put off this post until I had the time to do that, it would be many more weeks, but the pictures tell much of the story.

The next day, we had to recover from the night before (it was after 3 AM when we got back to the hotel) as well as to prepare for elBulli. As part of the “training regimen,” some of us had another walk around the city, including more market visits and a museum or two. I literally did not consume anything that day, apart from coffee. We arrived a bit early at Cala Montjoi, the bay where elBulli is located, so we took a walk on the beach and then headed to our table. As is their tradition, the first set of courses, or “snacks” as Ferran puts it, is served outdoors on the patio. We then moved inside for our table in the kitchen.

Calling elBulli a “restaurant” and what we experienced a “meal” stretches the meanings of those words beyond their normal usage so much that they barely serve their purpose. If you haven’t ever been to elBulli, this will sound strange. But that’s because elBulli is not like any other dining experience in the world.

Here is an architectural analogy. Our cooking lab is in an ugly single-story warehouse. The building is fully functional in so far as it keeps the rain off our heads (no small matter in the Seattle area), but no one would mistake it for art. Most food consumed in the world is created to refuel people, and it is often just as prosaic as the warehouse. It serves its function, but little beyond that.

In addition to spending time in the lab, I work in an office building. It is a pleasant five-story building, and I have a nice corner office on the top floor. If you had only seen concrete warehouses, then you’d be pretty amazed by this building: it has multiple floors, a dressy lobby, and in some directions, some decent views of Bellevue and Seattle off in the distance. It is clearly a fancier proposition than the warehouse.

A lot of restaurant meals are like my office building. They offer more courses (like the multiple floors), and they are made from more refined materials by much more skilled people. Yet much the way my office building remains essentially a distant relative of the warehouse, these meals, too, serve mundane purposes, albeit with a tip of the hat to aesthetics.

The really great restaurants are more like an office building in Manhattan, where there are many more floors, a lobby of inlaid granite, and some amazing views. These buildings are made by craftsmen who are far more skilled than the people who build warehouses. The design is better, too, and the best of these buildings say, the famous Lever House in New York Citybear the mark of an artist, at least to those who are sufficiently skilled in seeing the subtle features.

Not everyone who walks past the Lever House marvels at the quiet artistry of it. That’s okay because many people don’t need or frankly don’t want to see the art, they want to see a really nice building, which the Lever House happens to be. The same is true for great restaurants, most of them would still be okay for people who just want a good meal. They may miss the finer points, but the food is still accessible.

Now consider a dramatic and iconic building like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. If all you had ever experienced was a one-story concrete warehouse, you’d be pretty amazed to see this gigantic titanium sculpture. Nothing about it is normal there are no conventional windows, for starters, and it has essentially no right angles anywhere. It is architecture as art, and with its soaring forms, this building grabs you in an emotional way that no warehouse ever could. Those who are schooled in the nuances of architecture pick up more of Gehry’s master work than others do, but even the most jaded tourist is awed by the drama of that building. It is a masterpiece. The man who made it is an artist, and the art comes in the way that it seizes you.

Well, that, times 10, is elBulli (at least for me). As you may have gathered, I like architecture, but I like food more, so take the analogy with a grain of salt. The point is that elBulli offers an artistic experience that is on the magnitude of the greatest art in other categories. As such, it is not really a normal meal, anymore than visiting the Guggenheim Museum is a normal thing you do (at least for people who don’t live in Bilbao).

Instead of public buildings, I could have chosen for comparison homes or any other sort of building. We need buildings for purely prosaic reasons, but we lavish additional care on some of them and turn others into art. If architecture leaves you cold, then one could build a similar analogy around music, or painting, or any of the other arts. So, if you’re a lover of opera rather than an architecture aficionado, it is like attending the Bayreuth Festival. If it is painting that excites you, it is the Louvre or MoMA. You don’t visit those places every day, and you wouldn’t eat at elBulli every day either.

This season, which unfortunately will be the last for elBulli as a restaurant, was true to form. The meal was a stunning series of over 50 dishes. As in the 2010 season, many of the courses came in series of three to five, with each series studying a particular theme from different points of view. One series was about truffles, which was a special feature of this spring’s season because elBulli normally opens to the public during the summer, when truffles are not available. Another series of dishes looked at Japanese themes, one dish comprised thin sheets of ice in an origami envelope. Soy sauce was dripped on top, and there was some fresh wasabi on the ice. That’s it. You ate the dish by grabbing the ice sheets with tweezers and eating nothing but ice with soy and wasabi.

If that sounds strange, well, it was to some degree. But it was also a brilliant commentary on essential Japanese flavors and how they have spread beyond their homeland to invade other cuisines. Today, you can put soy and wasabi on nearly anything (even on Korean tacos from Los Angeles food trucks). In a world where these ingredients can be used anywhere, why not put them on the plainest of substrates?

This was only one of the many dishes, each a work of art expressed in food. Some, like the soy and wasabi, were a commentary or reaction to trends or traditions. Others were purely creative inventions all on their own. Each presented a unique view of food, and it is that search for novel perspectives to which Ferran has dedicated his career so far. It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with in the next stage of his work.


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.