Little-Known Facts About Modernist Cuisine

The Seattle Food Geek, in a very entertaining post on April 1st, hypothesized about why certain things in Modernist Cuisine are the way they are. Among his insights:

The iconic “cutaway” photos in the book were actually created using a prototype device that resembles a light saber. Intellectual Ventures has several working “light sabers” which it uses for testing defenses against (according to a research assistant) “pests significantly larger than a mosquito.”

For the rest, check out Scott’s post.

Modernist Cuisine Around the World

Taschen press releaseOur first priority in writing Modernist Cuisine was to complete the book in English. That’s my native tongue, and it also happens to be the world’s favorite second language. We planned from the start, however, on having MC translated into multiple languages. The effort involved in creating this book was too big to just leave it in one language, and the techniques in MC can be applied to any cuisine.

So I’m thrilled to announce that we now have a deal with Taschen, the international publisher of many strikingly beautiful and unique books, to create translated editions of Modernist Cuisine in many languages. Initially they intend to produce French, German, and Spanish editions, but we hope to see the book eventually appear in six or more languages. For more details, see the Taschen press release. Stay tuned for details on the release dates.

We are very excited about this development. Taschen is an incredible company that is driven by an incredible man. Benedikt Taschen immediately grasped the significance of Modernist Cuisine. It’s the first time that his company has taken on a cookbook.

The Cooking Lab (my company) will continue to publish the English edition. Learning about the publishing business has been fun, and we are very committed to continuing to publish our book in English. I think that Taschen will do a much better job in producing the translated editions than we would, given their long and successful experience in the book business.

Sales and Shipment Update

Here is the latest word on the shipments of Modernist Cuisine from the printer.

Land

Somewhere between Vancouver and Toronto, there are 250 copies on a train. This is the first shipment to Amazon Canada, where Modernist Cuisine has been long awaited by Canadian customers, as well as a few people outside of Canada who ordered from Amazon Canada. These copies are expected to arrive by March 31 and will be shipped as soon as possible after that.

There are 500 copies on a train to an Amazon service center in Indiana, from where they will likely ship on April 4. Another 600 copies are due to arrive at an Amazon facility in Arizona on March 29.

Boat

The last ship left China today, which means that there are 4,130 copies of Modernist Cuisine across a series of nine boats bound for ports in the U.S. and Europe. A boat docks in New York City on March 31 and every few days after that. Some of the boats will not reach their destination for a couple more weeks, but by mid-April, all of the first printing should have shipped to customers.

Orders

Total orders for Modernist Cuisine now total about 7,600. The pace of orders has fluctuated a bit as major press pieces come out, but has remained pretty steady.

Second Printing

The second printing is happening! The presses are running today for Volume 1 and we are busy making minor corrections to the other volumes. They will all be in press by the end of the week.

Stephen Colbert Bites Our Pastrami

Modernist Cuisine and Nathan Myhrvold were featured guests on last night’s episode of The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert, a noted ice cream critic, sampled our dairy-free pistachio gelato and pronounced it yummy. “You’ve achieved ice cream that tastes like ice cream, that’s a true breakthrough!” he said.

Our dairy-free, egg-free pistachio gelato

Colbert also enjoyed the transformative experience that is MC pastrami, which is made from short rib and cooked sous vide at low temperature for 72 hours. “Oh my God…oh my God,” Colbert said with his mouth still full of melting meat. “I don’t need teeth. This is fantastic!”

Our melt-in-your mouth pastrami below Colbert’s mind

In a funny bit that didn’t make it into the segment that aired, Nathan poured liquid nitrogen into a bowl on the table at which he and Colbert sat. “You should absolutely never do this,” Nathan said as he repeatedly dipped his fingers into the ?321 °F liquid (and this is the important part: quickly removed them!) “Actually I haven’t had any feeling in these hands for years,” Nathan quipped.

At the end of the interview, Nathan immersed a rose in the furiously boiling nitrogen, then lifted it out and whacked it on the table. It smashed into hundreds of confetti-size bits. “You’d make a lousy valentine,” Colbert said.

Manufacturing Modernist Cuisine

The presses will soon be humming again with the second printing of Modernist Cuisine. Printing, binding, and packaging a 2,438-page, six-volume set with the highest production quality is quite an involved process. Some parts of the manufacturing—including assembly of the volumes into their slipcases, rounding of the backs, and glue-up of the endpages, ribbon bookmarks, and backs—are still best done by hand. Although these manual steps slow production somewhat, they are needed to ensure that the books look great, lie flat when open, and retain their integrity over many years of use.

For a view inside the plant, check out these video highlights from the first print run.

Nathan Myhrvold discusses Modernist Cuisine on UWTV’s Media Space

Just a few days after the first shipment of Modernist Cuisine passed through the Port of Seattle, author Nathan Myhrvold sat down with UWTV’s Media Space to discuss the book’s mission, its impact, and why he created a striped omelet. You can find a detailed account of the event on UWTV’s website or watch the video of the interview below:

Nathan said Modernist Cuisine was driven by a confluence of need, opportunity, and available talent. He explained how the need for a comprehensive book covering recent innovations in cooking led him to build The Cooking Lab and assemble the team that made the project possible. At 1.1 million words and 2,438 pages, Modernist Cuisine makes advanced Modernist cooking techniques and information accessible to the average person.

While he didn’t have time to answer questions from Twitter during the interview, Nathan’s answers to some of those questions are presented below:

Amyrolph: What’s your favorite recipe [from the book]?
Nathan: Given the number of recipes and variations in the book, it is impossible for me to pick just one. I am, however, a well-known barbecue lover, so those recipes will always rank high in my book!

Ryanositis: Great photography for your new book! How did you get some of those cutaway shots?
Nathan: At The Cooking Lab, we have access to nifty toys like high-speed video equipment and a full machine shop. The cutaway shots you see in the book are actual cutaways: that is, we actually did cut things in half to take the pictures! As I’m fond of saying, we now have two halves of the best stocked kitchen in the world!

Larry_B: Is there a subset of equipment or supplies that are reasonable for home cooks?
Nathan: Yes. Chapter 10 on The Modernist Kitchen includes three tables that list, in rank order of usefulness, cooking equipment we recommend that is beyond the ordinary gear that pretty much all home cooks have. The first table details “Must-Have Tools for the Modernist Kitchen,” the second table is “Inexpensive but Invaluable Modernist Tools,” and the third lists “Classic Tools for Modernist Cooks.” Perhaps more important, the book explains what we looked for in the equipment and why, so the reader can make better choices when deciding if and what to buy.

Amyrainey: How have you managed the online movement that’s formed around Modernist Cuisine? How do you plan to leverage this enthusiasm?
Nathan: I’m not sure we’re managing it so much as participating in it and nurturing it. Modernist Cuisine came about largely as a result of my involvement in online forums, so we made a commitment to remain engaged online throughout the project and beyond. We are very active and engaged on our blog at modernistcuisine.com and on Facebook and Twitter, where we invite your comments!

SunaG: Is molecular gastronomy just fancy processed food?
Nathan: This is a topic I have covered extensively on the blog, but the short answer is that it depends on your definition of processed and fancy. All food is processed in one way or another: from picking it off the vine or digging it out of the ground to butchering and cooking. Contrary to popular belief, making even the simplest bread is a highly complex process. Everyone is free to assign arbitrary values to the type and amount of processing they prefer. I would simply suggest that these values are, in fact, arbitrary.

Autumnlerner: What are your thoughts on the raw food movement and Modernist cuisine? Compatible?
Nathan: Again, this depends largely on your definition of raw. The book covers everything from foods that are prepared and served cold to dishes that undergo multiple cooking stages to achieve a range of doneness within a single food. But to address your question, the Modernist and raw food movements are entirely compatible as long as people can eat what they want. And at various points in the book we do explain a variety of techniques, such as marination, that can achieve cooked textures without the application of heat.

Dakini_3: Can Modernist cuisine be vegetarian and sustainable?
Nathan: Sure. Modernist techniques can be used to create foods with so many flavors and textures that any single ingredient can be completely avoided without sacrificing taste. In fact one of the advantages of using modern ingredients is the new paths it provides to familiar culinary destinations. For example we have recipes in the book for a vegan pistachio gelato and for “meat” made of watermelon, as well as fantastic recipes for homemade tofus.

The issue of sustainability has more to do with how and where the ingredients you select are produced than with how they are prepared. We encourage cooks to make sustainable decisions before they even enter the kitchen.

Mrsmoy: How can Modernist cooking be applied to hunger relief (if at all)?
Nathan: This is an interesting question to which I don’t have a ready answer. There does seem to be some potential for improving the safety, nutrition, and storage life of the available food, but this aspect would benefit from the attention of expert chefs who are familiar with Modernist techniques and ingredients.

Joepavey: What’s the biggest science cooking disaster you’ve had?
Nathan: Well, it wasn’t a big disaster for me personally because I wasn’t the victim, but getting the shot of food being flung above the wok was a painful experience for Max! Let’s just say a fire extinguisher was involved.

Larry_B: What about food safety and typical sous vide temperatures?
Nathan: This is another issue that we cover at length in the book and on the blog, in part because some of our findings conflict with conventional wisdom and even some FDA recommendations. The short answer is that sous vide cooking is completely safe if done properly. For the (much) longer answer, you’ll have to buy the book. Scientific American recently published a lengthy excerpt from our chapter on Food Safety Rules that explains some of the reasons we find certain FDA and USDA recommendations to be problematic.

Houston, We Have Lift-Off!

Space Shuttle Discovery blasts offAfter yesterday’s successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission, comparisons to the pending launch of Modernist Cuisine are irresistible (to us anyway).

Discovery began its final mission having already achieved unprecedented success. According to NASA, over Discovery’s 38 spaceflights, it has carried 246 crew members around Earth 5,628 times over a period of 351 days spent in orbit. First launched in 1984, Discovery has a total of 142,917,535 miles on the odometer.

Similarly, Modernist Cuisine approaches its March 14th launch window having already achieved several milestones. Modernist Cuisine has already been widely lauded by reviewers and will enter the Cookbook Hall of Fame at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards on March 3, 2011.

Pre-orders from all of the retailers who will carry the book have rocketed well past the 3,000 copy mark, more than half of the book’s total first print run. Last week, Modernist Cuisine entered the top 100-selling books on Amazon.com. [Update: On March 9, the book entered the ranks of the top 50.] As the following chart illustrates, the book’s pre-release sales pace has soared into the stratosphere.

Amazon Sales Rank Chart; vertical axis is in powers of 10
Amazon sales rank chart; vertical axis is in powers of 10

(Note that the vertical axis of this chart is logarithmic, so each division in the vertical scale corresponds to a ten-fold improvement in the Amazon.com sales rank.)

Like Discovery, just getting Modernist Cuisine to the launchpad has been a huge undertaking. The six-volume, 2,438-page set weighs 39 pounds, contains 3,126 photos, and took five years and a team of more than 50 to create. Granted, what we did isn’t rocket science. But we’re proud of it nonetheless.

The first copies of Modernist Cuisine have now landed safely on U.S. shores and are making their way to bookstores and customers. We wish the crews of Discovery and the ISS a similarly successful journey and safe return.

A Close Look at Eight Pages from the Book

The Modernist Cuisine team worked with the eGullet Society for Culinary Art and Letters to produce an extensive Q&A feature that includes eight previously unreleased pages excerpted from three different volumes of the book. The feature was published today at egullet.org. We’ll continue answering reader questions on that forum thread throughout this week.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Trials and Variables

In Parts One and Two of this three-part series, I described the processes by which we developed the recipes and captured the images for Modernist Cuisine. In this final post, I will explain how one of the most tedious aspects of our job turned out to be among the most useful.

With most cookbooks, a chef must usually spend a lot of time deciphering a particular recipe in order to break down its components to the essentials. Modernist Cuisine is different in that we furnish the chef with parametric recipes and tables that provide the crucial components of a dish, and then we offer some suggested variables.

For example, a typical sausage recipe will contain meat, fat, binders, and spices calculated to specific measurements. In contrast, Modernist Cuisine provides a table that shows a ratio of meat to fat to binder, plus any other components, for different styles of sausage. Providing a ratio allows the chef to introduce his or her own preferences and tastes to create their own distinctive dish without having to reverse-engineer it from a static recipe.

These tables require a large, sometimes exhaustive, amount of data. For example, just to fill out the additives portion of the sausage table, we set up and tasted 56 variations of additives, binders, and emulsifiers, all in at least three different concentrations! For the 14 temperature grades in our egg chart, we tested the entire range of 55-80 °C / 130-176 °F, degree by individual degree. The sheer number of variables became mind-numbing at times, but the utility of this raw data is invaluable.

The hot fruit and vegetable gels table.

This series has encompassed in a nutshell what the kitchen team behind Modernist Cuisine does all day. While our work can be wearing, we think it is definitely worth the results, and we hope that you do as well. We look forward to the forthcoming release of the book and to finding new ways of pushing the boundaries of cuisine. As we discover more new and exciting things, we will post the results right here, so check back again soon.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Food Styling

In Part One of this three-part series, I described how we developed the recipes for Modernist Cuisine. In this second installment, I will shed some light on how we captured the high-quality, amazingly vivid photographs found in the book.

Most of the credit for the imagery in Modernist Cuisine goes to Ryan Matthew Smith, our photographer, who seems to make every frame explode with detail and vibrancy. But for every photo that causes a reader to say, “That’s crazy; how did they do that?” a member of the kitchen team likely did something risky to get that shot.

One photo in particular has attained near-legendary status due to its level of danger: the Pad Thai cutaway. The picture is already impressive because of the use of the cutaway technique, a method frequently employed throughout the book. (We have the luxury of working near a machine shop, so anything that a chef might want cut in half, such as an appliance, can usually be sliced within a day or two.)

The famous Pad Thai Cutaway photo features a cutaway wok with all of the ingredients for pad thai suspended above it in mid-flight, including the noodles. To capture the realism of noodles being wok-fried, Max and Ryan had to toss all of the components, in smoking-hot oil, as high as possible into the air. This is a feat that turns out to be akin to juggling napalm.

The Pad Thai Cutaway features a halved wok containing sizzling hot oil, noodles, and the dish’s other components.

While no chefs were harmed (much) in capturing images for the book, it is important to note that for every remarkable shot that graces the pages of Modernist Cuisine, someone on the kitchen team spent hours making it work, often by doing something many people would consider crazy.

Check back again soon for the final installment of this three-part series, in which I’ll explain how the kitchen team developed the parametric recipes and tables found in Modernist Cuisine.