The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 3

Arriving at Our Style

[See part one of this series for rec­ol­lec­tions by pho­tog­ra­pher Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team, and part two for his account of the lessons he learned about shooting food.Ed.]

One question people ask me again and again is: “Why did you choose to shoot most of the images for Modernist Cuisine on a solid black or white background?” There is no simple answer to this. Five main factors drove us toward this approach as the best solution for our design.

  • Efficiency
    MC is a really big book, it is heavily illustrated, and we had just a couple of years to complete the photography. So every day I had to complete a huge volume of shots (we took some 147,000 during the course of the project). Having a solid, consistent background kept the shooting moving along quickly. We had to light just the subject, not an entire set, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time setting up lighting.
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The solid black also allows for maximum contrast for certain subjects
  • Consistency
    One of the design challenges for a multi-volume work like Modernist Cuisine is the need to unify the diverse parts of the book with a common visual language. For a book of such wide scope with so many photos, common type styles and illustrative elements aren’t really sufficient, the images need to all share some common “look” so that readers never turn the page and suddenly feel like they have dropped into a different book. By using a small number of backgrounds, we hoped that photos spanning a wide range of subjects would nevertheless share a family resemblance.
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Especially nice for liquids, a solid backlight can really bring out the fine details of a splash
  • Flexibility
    Many chapters in Modernist Cuisine are chock-full of complex layouts, in which half a dozen or more art and text elements must fit on the page in a clear and attractive way. These jigsaw puzzles are a lot easier for the designer to solve when the photos have a solid background that matches the page. Photos in which the subject extends to the edges of the frame, what photographers call “full bleed”, images effectively limit design options to devoting most or all of the page to a single photo or segregating the images in boxes. Photos on solid white or black backgrounds, in contrast, can float around text blocks and run smoothly off the page.
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When filling a spread with annotations, a solid background helped keep captions easy to read
  • Isolation
    Throughout the book, but especially in the many step-by-step photo sequences, we tried to maximize the clarity and impact of the photographs by emphasizing the foreground subject. We found that with the background blank, the reader’s eye is naturally drawn to the focal point of the image, which makes the step-by-step instructions much easier to follow.
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Keeping the viewer looking at the intended focal point is key for step-by-step photographs
  • Style
    I have always preferred a minimalist approach to photography. I like the subject to stand alone as the center of attention. Solid backgrounds thus resonated with my personal aesthetic.
One of my personal favorites from Modernist Cuisine

Of course, every design choice has its trade-offs. Our initial attempts to shoot on white paper and black velvet left some subjects looking like they were floating in space. We fixed this problem by changing shooting surfaces to white or black glass. The glass throws up subtle reflections that ground the subjects.

 

That solution brought its own challenges, however. The reflections were often too strong, sometimes even mirror-like in intensity. So we simply toned down the reflections in Photoshop by using gradients and soft paintbrushes.

A subtle reflection helps provide a sense of ground

Nathan’s Modernist Cuisine TED Talk

As enthusiastic as any proud parent, Nathan presents Modernist Cuisine during his TED Talk for TED University in March. This is one of the first times anyone saw a copy of Modernist Cuisine. Focusing on the major concepts of the book, as well as giving a few behind-the-scenes glimpses of how MC‘s iconic cutaway shots were made, Nathan reveals his passions for cooking, photography, and science. This TED Talk follows up on Nathan’s exploration of his varied interests, which he discussed in his 2008 talk.

Nathan also was a guest on NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow on July 1, explaining some of the scientific aspects of barbeque. You can listen to the entire podcast here.

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.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

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.

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.

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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 ModernistCuisine.com 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.

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 1

Getting the Pot Boiling

About three-and-half years ago, I was fresh out of my fourth run at a college education. This time, however, I actually managed to finish a two-year program and earned a degree in photography from the Art Institute of Seattle. I set out to get a job with little more than a couple of portfolios filled with nature and architecture photography; I had no real-world work experience to speak of. After four months just scraping by, I saw an ad on Craigslist seeking a photo editor with excellent compositing skills and three years of work experience. It made no mention of a book.

The position seemed intriguing, so I sent in a link to my website and a very long email pumping myself up (it probably read like I was trying to fight off assignments, clients were blowing up my phone, and I had been an established photographer for 10 years). Wayt Gibbs, the editor in chief of Modernist Cuisine, wrote back. I was in for an interview!

I’m terrible in interviews: I get nervous, avoid eye contact, clip my answers short, talk extremely quietly, answer “I don’t know,” and sweat profusely. I confess I was a bit starstruck at first: I had heard of Nathan during a photography lecture at school, but it had never occurred to me that I might one day meet the man, let alone interview to work for him!

Luckily, Wayt and Nathan looked past that and focused on my photography. Most of the meetings were spent by Wayt and Nathan explaining the project to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t have to say much other than YES THAT SOUNDS AMAZING while trying not to come off as unprofessionally enthusiastic.

The basic rundown was that Nathan, Wayt, and a couple others had begun work on a cookbook, and I would act as both Nathan’s photo assistant and lead photo editor on the project. Nathan is an award-winning photographer, and he was planning to shoot the entire book himself (on top of doing most of the writing and running Intellectual Ventures). Long before this, he had come up with the concept of making “cutaway” shots to illustrate what goes on inside food as it cooks. In fact, he had already shot some test images for the first cutaways and had made a bunch of amazing photo micrographs in his home microscopy lab. My job would be to do the Photoshop work, keep all the photos organized, and handle rights and permissions for any stock photography we used in the book.

An early photomicrograph Nathan shot of trichinella in pig muscle.

In my first two days on the job, I went to Nathan’s house in a Seattle suburb to assist him and Chris Young with the first photo shoot. We started in the kitchen, shooting images for step-by-step illustrations of combi oven techniques. Then we moved to a studio set up in the garage to take photos of two pans that the Intellectual Ventures machine shop had cut in half. These images eventually became part of the very first three cutaways.

A test shot made in December 2007 to work out ideas for cutaway photographs.

The broccoli cutaway that appears both inside volume 2 and on its cover was the highlight of that first shoot. Chris and Nathan worked away, slicing blanched broccoli in half and pinning the florets in place with toothpicks, while I moved lights and cards for Nathan before he snapped the shot. At the end of the day, we had a very iconic photo that would heavily influence the direction and style of photography for the book.

We used toothpicks to hold broccoli florets in place during shooting. The handle of the lid was later removed digitally.
First lay­out sketch for the steam­ing broc­coli cut­away. Note the graph con­cept that shows steam­ing cook­ing faster than boil­ing. When we con­ducted exper­i­ments in the lab to gather data for the real chart, how­ever, we found to our sur­prise that the reverse is true: boil­ing is slightly faster, as shown (and explained) in the final ver­sion in the book.

Nathan set many goals for us during that first week, and we accomplished most of them. But one remains unfulfilled. After shooting a rib eye steak in Nathan’s combi oven, he, Chris, and I were standing around the kitchen polishing off the perfectly cooked rare meat when Nathan shouted out, “Let Ryan have more; he’s way too skinny!” A moment later he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll fatten you up by the end of this project.” Although I ate very well during the course of the project, I’m still stuck at 155 pounds!

The final broccoli cutaway image