Modernist Cuisine’s Printing Process & Quality

A number of people have asked about the kitchen manual, printing quality, paper, and binding of the forthcoming Modernist Cuisine. From the very beginning of this project, the book was to be of the highest possible quality. From the depth of the information and accuracy of the data, to the resolution of the images and the durability of the paper, the Modernist Cuisine team went to great lengths to ensure that the finished product would be of the highest quality. Here are a few examples of what went into the process.


Nathan describes the printing process at IFBC 2010.

The Kitchen Manual

For starters, we realized that it would not be prudent to actually take the volumes into the kitchen with you. The volumes are incapable of withstanding splashes of flour, olive oil, liquid nitrogen, or water, all of which would ruin the stunning photography. The book, however, felt incomplete without something durable enough for the kitchen. Our solution is a highly practical, spiral-bound Kitchen Manual. It is printed on waterproof, tear-resistant synthetic paper. The Manual features easy-to-use, condensed versions of many of the parametric, example, and plated-dish recipes contained in the five volumes.

The Printing Quality

We are fortunate to partner with iocolor (Seattle, WA) and the Shenzhen Artron Color Printing Company (Shenzhen, China), which are both known for their high standards of quality control, innovative printing procedures, and track record for producing high-quality printing for museums, artists, and photographers. Since the photography is such a key aspect of Modernist Cuisine, it was understood right from the beginning that only the highest resolution and widest gamut available for reproducing the spectacular photographs would be acceptable.

Stochastic screening is a difficult printing process that reproduces images in much the way that traditional film grain does. In standard book printing, a halftone dot is used to simulate changes in tone. (A printing press can only print or not.) This trompe l’oeil uses dots that range from small in the highlights to large in the shadows; they are lined up in rows with 175-200 dots per linear inch. This technique was first attributed to William Fox Talbot in the 1850s and by the turn of the century, it was in regular use. Because the surface areas of individual dots control the spread of the ink, the process tends to vary around the middle tones, causing issues with color balance.

For Modernist Cuisine, it was decided that stochastic screening would be used, a process that has become feasible on a commercial scale with the advent of computer-to-plate (CTP) systems that image printing plates directly, skipping the step of creating film. In stochastic screening, all of the dots are the same size, and the frequency of the dots creates the variation in tone. It was determined that a dot of 15 microns in size would be used to maximize the subtle detail in Modernist Cuisine. This FM (Frequency Modulated) approach is more stable on press, but even so, every Komori LS40 press utilizes scanning spectrophotometers to ensure consistent quality across the entire book.

The efforts at creating superfine details are also supplanted by the use of ChromaCentric inks. This new ink set has much less color contamination in the cyan, magenta, and yellow scheme, resulting in purer hues with which to work. This trait is especially noticeable in the ink’s ability to convert the full range of color from the RGB files captured by the digital camera used in the photography. The results are truer, more lifelike colors that traditional printing inks would leave dull and out of gamut.

The Paper

Once the printing process was determined, the next task was finding the absolute best paper available for Modernist Cuisine. It’s one thing to look at paper samples in a book and pick one that you think will work, but for Modernist Cuisine, we submitted all of the likely candidates to actual printing tests. In order to achieve exact color reproduction on the tested papers, we first churned out test forms on the presses with each of the candidate papers to determine optimum printing conditions and gathered colormetric data on each contender.

Once the test sheets were analyzed, profiles for RGB to CMYK conversion were created, plate setter curves were set, and ink tolerances were entered into the on-press spectrophotometers. It was now time to convert the digital camera files for the printing conditions of each paper and then print the test papers with a sampling of pages to be used in the book. Papers were judged by how well the ink sat on the coated surface, the amount of show-through between neighboring pages, overall look and feel, and finally, resistance to scuffing. The matte-coated paper actually has a surface that is quite rough, so it was determined early on that a protective varnish would be applied, not just to make the images “pop,” but to ensure that the massive nature of these tomes would be able to withstand use for many years.

Once the 128 gsm weight of paper was chosen — it was a tough choice because anything heavier would have resulted in books that would require an assistant to read — OJI paper from Japan was chosen over all of the samples, and our testing proceeded to figuring out the type of varnish that would be applied to the paper. We produced samples that ranged from dead matte to super glossy; a mix of varnishes was chosen to showcase the fantastic images.

The Binding

First-stage dummy books on the chosen paper were created, while we knew full well that the later additions of ink and varnish would add weight and thickness (about 8-10 mm) to the volumes. Producing the dummy books also allowed us to determine what kind of reinforcement would be needed for the special round-backed binding used on these volumes.

Second-stage bindings are now being created from actual printed and vanished sheets to obtain accurate measurements for the finished products before actual production continues. Even with the special round-backed binding, we recommend that you remove a book from the case by grabbing the middle of its spine, and not pulling on the top of the spine.

The result of this fanatical focus on quality will be a beautifully detailed set of volumes that should remain stunning for a lifetime or more.

Meet the Kitchen Team

Sam Fahey-Burke

Sam Fahey-Burke: Chef

Mr. Fahey-Burke grew up in Athens, Ohio and attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) immediately after high school. After completing his internship at Aureole in New York and graduating from culinary school, he enrolled in a six-month fellowship program at the CIA, which he spent at the Italian restaurant on campus.

Mr. Fahey-Burke then moved to Bray, U.K., where he worked at The Fat Duck for two years. He also held positions at COI in San Francisco and FiftyThree in Singapore before joining the Modernist Cuisine team as sous chef of the culinary lab.

Anjana Shanker

Anjana Shanker: Chef

Ms. Shanker was born and raised in Coorg, Southern India. Her interest in food can be traced to her childhood spent on a cardamom, coffee, and orange plantation, where there was an emphasis on local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients. Ms. Shanker inherited a love of cooking from her mother, who enjoyed sharing the family’s culinary secrets as they prepared elaborate meals together.

While growing up, Ms. Shanker dreamt of opening a café to feature her homegrown coffee and spices. She eventually left Coorg to attend college in Chennai, but her agrarian upbringing continues to influence her cooking. Ms. Shanker applies modern techniques to the flavors from her past and remains committed to using local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients.

After attaining a BA in economics and history, Ms. Shanker worked for Nestlé and Singapore Airlines. She later moved to the U.S. to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona where she graduated with honors. This training broadened her gastronomic education and exposed her to different culinary traditions. Ms. Shanker’s culinary training continued at Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale, and Lampreia in Seattle.

Ms. Shanker is inspired by chefs Alain Passard and Michel Bras’s vision and approach to cooking. She is constantly honing her skills and knowledge in their path. Preserving the essence and flavor of ingredients has become a passion for Ms. Shanker, as is her work with the Hunger Intervention Program, a Seattle charity where she has volunteered for the last three years.

Johnny Zhu

Johnny Zhu: Chef

Originally from Shanghai, Mr. Zhu grew up in Seattle. His roots and upbringing helped shape his passion for food, as he grew up in a family that loved to eat, travel, and share their culinary adventures. Experiences such as eating his way through Singapore for his 30th birthday helped Mr. Zhu realize his love for intense flavors.

Mr. Zhu honed his love of food into a career. A graduate of Reed College and the Western Culinary Institute, he has worked for such notable restaurants as Alinea, Jean-Georges, and Spice Market. Mr. Zhu was chef de cuisine for Veil in Seattle and then head chef for Eric Bahn’s Monsoon restaurants before joining the Modernist Cuisine team.

The Language of Food

Masters of a given skill or discipline often converse using a passionate and descriptive language that is somewhat unique to their craft. Mechanical engineers use terms like “fluid motion.” Architects describe structures as having “dynamic lines” and “elegant curves.” Drummers use “bright” and “cold” to describe the sounds of certain cymbals.

Artists often say that a particular work or the raw materials from which it is made, “speaks” to them in some way. Some artists can translate what a piece says to them into language that evokes that feeling in the rest of us. Maxime “Max” Bilet is one of those artists. On a recent visit to The Cooking Lab, I asked Max about the role language plays in the creation and enjoyment of his art.

In art, as in science, a common language for expressing values and variables enables collaboration and progress. Scientists use math to convey theories and findings while artists rely on adjectives to express the elements of a piece. But as Max points out, “Whether or not you have the words for it…if someone is giving it their love, their creativity, and their hard work, you experience it no matter what your involvement with food is. Everyone connects to food and I wouldn’t presume that we know better.”