When I began writing Modernist Cuisine, I had several goals in mind: to explore the scientific principles behind cooking, to explain the latest Modernist techniques from the top restaurants around the world, and to punctuate the collection with stunning visuals. Nearly every review that came in cited our photography; even commenters who took issue with the Modernist approach or found the book too long or daunting praised the photos and illustrations.
I think we owed that enthusiastic reception, in part, to the fact that our photography stood out as distinctive in a world crowded with food imagery. We created cutaway photos that offer dramatic views inside previously hidden realms of cooking. We stepped away from recent trends in food photography, which have long seemed to me to focus more on the ambiance than the actual food, and shot our dishes on black and white backgrounds that highlight the beauty inherent in the subjects. We also deployed a wide range of photographic techniques, such as compositing, microscopy, macro photography, and diffuse lighting, to create photos that are informative as well as visually interesting.
This approach required extra time, effort, and money, but it was worth it. I love photography as much as I love food and cooking. It’s been a passion of mine for as long as cooking has (since grade school)!
Soon after the publication of our second cookbook, Modernist Cuisine at Home, I started thinking more seriously about the hundreds of thousands of photos that my team and I have made and collected over the years’ those that made it into the volumes of our books and the many more that didn’t. I decided to showcase them in a new way by creating a book dedicated to the images themselves.
We pored over our vast photo library and ultimately selected 405 photos for our book, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine. Of those images, 145 are presented full-bleed across one or two full pages. As we look at these images, it’s hard to resist the temptation to comment on their backstories, to share some of the scientific, culinary, or photographic context to the image. We didn’t want to add captions on the images that would distract from their impact, so we have instead included a chapter in the back of the book that presents some short but interesting backstory for each photo. Readers who dip into that section will learn, for example, how I coaxed crystals of vitamin C to produce a kaleidoscopic explosion of colors, how we use enzymes to remove the peel from the tender juice sacs of a grapefruit, or how you can quickly turn fresh herbs into a crispy snack or garnish in your microwave oven.
We also included a chapter that reveals, in a very visual way, all of the major methods that we used to make these images. From cut-in-half kettle grills to levitating hamburgers, we explain how it was done. We even have a few pages on how to get the best food shots in restaurants if all you have handy is a point-and-shoot camera or a camera phone. While we were at it, we cut a camera lens in half to illustrate how it works.
One thing you won’t find in our new book is a single recipe. When I first told friends about our new project, they thought it was a nice idea, but asked, “Of course, you’re going to have a few recipes, right?”
No. This is a photo book. If you’d like to try our recipes, and we hope you will, please check out our other books, or click here.
In 2011 Modernist Cuisine tested the then dubious proposition that people would buy a six-volume cookbook. The Photography of Modernist Cuisine is a similar experiment: Will others share our desire for an art-quality book that immerses readers in vistas of food that are familiar, yet profoundly new? I hope that readers will be drawn to our photos and will share with us the child-like wonder and curiosity that we feel when we look at them.
When we found out that Top Chef would be filming season 10 in Seattle, we couldn’t let them leave town without stopping by the Modernist Cuisine lab. About midway through the season, we hosted Padma Lakshmi and the remaining contestants for a 22-course tasting to give them firsthand experience of some of the iconic dishes from Modernist Cuisine.
The 22-course meal (menu reprinted below) was prepared by our five full-time development chefs, including our previous head chef, Maxime Bilet, plus three stagiaires. The feast contained hundreds of individual components, so the team began its prep work weeks in advance. The entire dinner service lasted two and a half hours, which may sound lengthy but works out to an average duration of just six minutes and 48 seconds per course. Our original menu boasted more than 30 courses but had to be trimmed to meet time constraints.
The Top Chef production crew outnumbered the contestants by a wide margin, so we weren’t able to feed the entire crew. But, whenever possible, we sneaked samples of each dish to the crew members perched on the mezzanine above our kitchen and around the corner in our conference room, which had been annexed as “video village”, a space for the producers to watch video feeds from each camera.
Hardcore fans of Top Chef may recall that Nathan Myhrvold was a guest judge on last year’s“BBQ Pit Wars” episode. It was a pleasure to host the Top Chef team on our home turf and to give them a taste of our version of Seattle cooking.
Salt and Vinegar Pommes Soufflées
pregelatinized starch, spray-dried vinegar
Bread and Butter
centrifuged pea “butter”
freeze-dried corn, brown butter, cilantro blossoms
Last night, NOVA scienceNOW aired “Can I Eat That?,” a show on the science of food and cooking, which profiled Nathan Myhrvold in the final segment. Host David Pogue narrates a behind-the-scenes look at Nathan’s inspiration for creating Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home. For those of you interested in seeing The Cooking Lab’s equipment, how the cutaway photos were made, or what Nathan looked like as a kid, we think you’ll enjoy this. It is a great illustration of the story of Modernist Cuisine.
Take a tour through The Cooking Lab with Bloomberg Pursuits, tonight at 9 p.m. (EDT). Nathan Myhrvold will be taking Pursuit’s host Trish Regan through cryofrying steak with liquid nitrogen, making fries with an ultrasonic machine, centrifuging peas to separate them into three layers, and more! Watch the video above for a sneak peek.
Tune in to the Bloomberg Channel (check your cable provider for listings), or watch it live here.
It has been a long and amazingly fruitful 4 1/2 years here at The Cooking Lab. You’ll soon be seeing the release of our most recent project with Nathan, Modernist Cuisine at Home. I’m thrilled to share this new transmission of modern cooking with the passionate food world. I believe it will provide yet another shift in the perception of culinary education and the power of delicious food.
How incredibly fast time passes by. 3122 pages, 1927 recipes and over 230,000 photos later, Our projects have been gifted with more recognition and respect than we could ever have imagined. We’ve won the praise of some of our greatest culinary heroes: Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Charlie Trotter, Wylie Dufresne, David Kinch, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Marcus Samuelsson, and Alain Ducasse, among a very humbling list of culture changing icons. We’ve won Gourmand, IACP and James Beard Awards. We’ve built a community around the heart of the project; to embrace the many roles of food through a more precise and rigorous understanding of culinary art and science. I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished.
With the completion of Modernist Cuisine at Home, this seems an appropriate time for me to move forward. As a team, we have accomplished everything, and beyond, what we set out to do with these comprehensive projects. Change is exhilarating and challenging, but this journey is all about the search for refining a meaningful vision of life. That can’t happen without accepting how important change is to that search. We are all responsible for our personal choices and I intend on taking this opportunity to explore the realm of possibilities that this fragile and precious life has to offer.
I have been the recipient of some profound lessons from some very patient teachers in this lifetime. I did just turn 30 after all and the most perceptible thing I have going for me is a pretty wild tangle of silvered hair standing atop my overstimulated brain. Wisdom indeed! …The road ahead is intrinsically connected to those lessons. Land IS food and needs to be protected. Food is our life-force and should be revered with far more consideration. Change begins in the mind and the heart but the mind cannot function without sustenance and the heart cannot grow without sharing the beauty of experience. I look forward to facing these challenges through my work with the culinary world. Every piece has its value, whether it’s high-end gastronomy, modern farming or ingenious solutions for basic nutrition.
I will always be part of this Modernist Cuisine family; a colorful mixture of open minded individuals, artists, scientists, knife wielding culinary crazies (chefs),engineers and people of the pen. I will miss the daily rituals with my team, “the routine of the unpredictable” as I like to think of it. I will remember the many discoveries that I’ve shared: the profound (centrifuged pea “butter”) and the absurd (tossing hot oil in a cut-in-half wok towards my face hurts!) and everything in between. I greatly look forward to witnessing their future successes.
Sam “The Man”, keep on cracking the whip and making the best gelato on earth. I am so proud of the leadership role you have grown into and embraced these past three years. Anj, don’t let those boys off the hook, you are the powerful “Lady of the House”, you have a beautiful palate and we’ll be sharing coffee honey in Kerala before long. Zhulander, continue to be resourceful and inventive. I can’t wait to see your full line of smoky pork product interpretations on supermarket shelves. Just promise me you won’t let anyone make you wear a costume. A-Ron, you have been a true example of what a young chef should aspire to. Keep your head down and stay true to the work ethic and passion you’ve demonstrated and you’ll be running your own show soon enough. Kimberly, you have an incredible vision for the future of food. I know you’ll find that perfect bridge between nutrition, taste and splendor. Mme. Krystanne, you keep that mighty engine running. You’re the coach from now on, but I hope you can let your smile shine sometimes too. Bruce, Carrie and Hatchess, thank you for being the remarkable guides of THE mission. Scott, Larissa and Ms. Lukach, good luck with the future of Modernist Cuisine and The Cooking Lab, I think they are in very good hands.
To the rest of The Cooking Lab team and for those who have already moved on, Smithy, Grant, Susan, Tracy, Christina, Biderman, Ben, Andy, Jameson and Melissa, your hard work has been so incredibly important to making this happen in the right way. Thank you. These projects could not have been possible without a tremendous amount of support and effort from many individuals.
Thank you to all of our friends at the lab who have worked alongside us since the beginning. Mike V., Ted, Nels, Laura, David N., David B., Chris L., Barcin, Zihong, Pablos, 3ric, Geoff, Ozgur, Sheing, Leo, Keith R. and all of the others, thank you for bearing with us during our learning phase. Thank you for meeting our obstacles with open minds and transforming our ideas into very real manifestations of art and education. Only at the lab could there be a day when a paleontologist fixes one of our ovens while a machinist with expertise in nuclear submarines cuts our microwave in half on a water jet.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without my external team of supporters and teachers, Kathryn and Gary, Lee, my parents, Mamie, John, Alina, Noelle, Katy, Stephanie, Albane and Marcus. Thank you for you guidance and love throughout this process.
Thank you to our readers. The people who have made Modernist Cuisine this successful are spread far and wide, across the vastest spectrum of backgrounds and geography. Without an audience of loyal people willing to invest in our books and look beyond the perceived value of food and culinary education, none of this would have been worth the effort that was put into it. You’ve been an essential key to shifting that paradigm.
Finally and above all else, I am forever grateful to Nathan. You are the very reason I’m able to share all of these memories, individual connections and future hopes. You’ve given me such an incredible combination of creative insights, resources and freedom. Thank you for giving all of us this unique possibility and trusting my ability to lead this team. Thank you for the opportunity to collaborate on this tremendous body of creative work and for all that I have been part of during my tenure under the wing of your greater vision. Thank you for your camaraderie. I will continue to grow and share from everything I have learned from you.
For the next month I will continue with my role at The Cooking Lab and try to contribute a few last worthy pieces to this eternal puzzle. We will be cooking at Charlie Trotter’s anniversary dinner on August 17th and my last official day will be September 1st, the day we perform at Bumbershoot. I hope to see you there.
À très bientôt,
About five years ago, after work had begun in earnest on my first cookbook, I reached a critical decision. It was clear that if I didn’t hire some more people to help me with it, I would never get it done. So I decided to start hiring a team that could help me expand the outline I had written into a complete book: Modernist Cuisine. Without that team, the project simply would not have been possible.
Of the many people who joined the Modernist Cuisine team, none made more of an impact than Maxime Bilet. Max became head chef for the project, and he threw himself into the work. He not only served as head chef but also touched almost every other part of the project. Modernist Cuisine and our forthcoming book Modernist Cuisine at Home were both group efforts, and without the skill Max showed in guiding recipe development and helping establish our distinctive visual style, the books would not have been nearly as successful.
Max was our go-to guy for culinary experiments. Hundreds of times over the past five years, an idea would come to me, like vacuum-distilling milk, or rendering fat in a pressure cooker with baking soda and my next move was always the same: contact Max. He took these crazy ideas in stride and worked with the team to try them out. Some turned out to be as silly as they sounded, but others worked or at least inspired new ideas that worked.
Once Modernist Cuisine was off to the printer, we started hosting dinners at our research kitchen for chefs and food writers. Over the course of the next year or so, many of our culinary heroes including Thomas Keller, David Chang, David Kinch, Wolfgang Puck, Pierre Hermé, Andoni Anduriz, Charlie Trotter, among many others came our lab to enjoy 25- to 30-course tasting menus alongside food critics, such as Jeffrey Steingarten and Corby Kummer, and legendary gourmands like Tim and Nina Zagat. It was of course a huge honor to serve such dignitaries, but it also gave us a taste of what it must feel like when the Michelin inspectors arrive on the night your restaurant opens.
I’ll never forget the first such dinner. As the guests were seated and the waiters brought our first dish, Max and I looked at each other, and I said, “Oh my God, what have we done?” It suddenly struck me that we were facing, together, a moment of judgment. Either we would show them that we can actually cook food that tastes as good as it looks in the photographs we have published, or we were about to make complete fools of ourselves. Max looked at me and swallowed hard. “It’ll be OK,” he said, but I could tell that he was just as daunted by the situation as I was.
In the end, Max was right; the food was even better than OK. Since then, I’ve been proud to cook many times alongside Max and the rest of our talented culinary team at The Cooking Lab. And I am proud, too, of our latest accomplishment together, a new book that makes it easy for home cooks to experience first-hand the amazing results that a Modernist approach to cooking unlocks.
You can’t work with other people without facing the fact that eventually they need to pursue their own dreams. Indeed, I myself was able to create the Modernist Cuisine enterprise only because, a number of years ago, I decided to retire from Microsoft. So, as much as I hate to see Max go, I know that it is the right move for him, and I along with everybody else at The Cooking Lab wish him the best of luck.
When Wired magazine asked us if it would be possible to tweak our Olive Oil Gummy Worm recipe so that the finished product would glow in the dark, we knew we had to try. Research chef Johnny Zhu whipped up a batch that week, and when they were set, we all stood around nervously dimming lights and setting up a black light. What was there to be nervous about? We knew the science behind glow-in-the-dark success (quinine), but we always get anxious when we’re about to find out if one of our experiments is a success. We needn’t have worried though. They glowed: oh man, did they glow!
Check out the recipe on wired.com or in the June 2012 print edition to find out where we sourced the quinine. You might be surprised to learn that you have some already in your fridge or behind your wet bar.
Tune into Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel tonight to see what the team creates for the man who’s tasted it all. Part of a Seattle-themed show, the episode also happens to feature Andrew’s visit to harvest geoducks at Taylor Shellfish–the very place we get our giant clams from, too! At another place close to our hearts, FareStart, where coauthor Maxime Bilet and the Staff Chefs happen to be volunteering a few days from now, putting on a dinner, Andrew teaches a class on cooking offal. Andrew of Bizarre Foods also visits the famous Pike Place Market and Vashon’s Sea Breeze Farm, and drinks a lot of coffee.
This episode airs tonight, February 6, at 9 pm (8 pm central) on the Travel Channel.
With our centrifuge, rotavap, combi ovens, and myriad other cool cooking gadgets, The Cooking Lab is full of wonder. That’s why H2 (formerly known as The History Channel) will be bringing you an inside look on their hit show, Modern Marvels. Our episode, titled “Under Pressure” airs this Monday, January 30, at 10 pm (check local listings for channel number; time may differ according to region).
Just as Nathan Myhrvold set out to write a 600-page book on cooking sous vide and wound up with the 2,438-page Modernist Cuisine, I started out with the simple idea of writing a blog post about what it takes to put on one of our dinner events at The Cooking Lab. I realized early on that one post would never do and adjusted my plan to allow for three separate posts, detailing shopping at the farmers’ market, prepping, and finally, the dinner. All went according to plan until I started writing about the dinner itself. It turns out that 33 courses is not only a lot to make and eat, but also a lot to write about. So here is, at last, the fourth (and final) installment in my three-part series chronicling the lab dinner we held last November.
The guests’ enjoyment is always the best part
The tasting menu paired the 33 courses with six wines from the Pacific Northwest (click the menu at right to enlarge it), not counting the champagne that started off the evening during Nathan’s presentation. Needless to say, with the wine flowing and the food seeming to go on forever, guests were in good spirits. The look of utter shock on Johnny Iuzzini’s face when he ate the Raw Quail Egg–described on the menu as simply “a touch of protein to invigorate the appetite”–was a highlight. He was the last at his table to try it, so the other guests already knew that it was not actually an egg, but a trompe l’oeil made from passion fruit. Johnny laughed so hard, his head sank to the table.
Yet another surprise followed. The Polenta Marinara is a recipe found in Modernist Cuisine, but it’s titled in the book a little more descriptively as Strawberry Marinara. Another recipe straight from MC was the Mushroom Omelet, which was a great hit, as always. If you have a whipping siphon, it’s worth trying at least the siphoned egg foam that is used to fill the omelet. It is wonderfully creamy in texture but still intensely eggy in flavor. Nathan took a break from his work in the kitchen to explain to the guests the method we use to create perfectly even stripes in the omelet.
By this point in the dinner, some of the courses the team was plating up were filling enough to serve as entrees all by themselves. The Roast Chicken was delicious, but many guests had to put down their forks before they had polished off all of it. The pastrami was also challenging in its size and richness, but even the New Yorkers in the group said they hadn’t had pastrami this good; most of the guests gave it their all.
A we neared the end, the courses took a turn from savory to sweet. The Citrus Minestrone happily combined the two by pairing a quenelle of cucumber sorbet with vacuum-infused vegetables, all surrounded by a citrus consommé. I’ve never been a fan of cucumbers, but I enjoyed this immensely! And of course, I also enjoyed the pistachio gelato (as I mentioned in my last post, I never pass up a chance to eat it), which was served with macadamia and strawberry flavors. Max explained that they were serving far more desserts than they had at past events–part of the reason that this tasting dinner was the widest in scope yet attempted by our team. Pastry extraordinaires Pierre Hermé and Johnny Iuzzini were attending, and we wanted to show them that the Modernist Cuisine team can hold its own when it comes down to sweets.
It was around this time–10:30 PM, and the guests had been eating for about four hours–that MC coauthor Chris Young walked in, like a prospective father showing up at the end of a baby shower. Wearing jeans and a hoodie, he had come straight from the airport, hoping to catch the tail end of the dinner and greet the guests. As Max later explained to me, it was actually a treat for the team to watch people eat. It’s not something we get to do a lot. He said, “Because most of our food is communicated through language and imagery, it’s a very unique–and I think important–moment in our process for us to share the message of Modernist Cuisine through taste.”
The dinners also offer us a great opportunity to see people who, owing to busy schedules and geographic separation, we don’t get to see often enough. Oddly enough, Max and Nathan had just met with Pierre Hermé in Europe the week before, but due to projects of his own, Chris wasn’t able to make the trip.
The dinner ended with delicate snowflakes of violet sugar cut with a laser, Gruyère caramels, and olive oil gummy worms.
All 16 guests stood to give the culinary team an ovation after the meal. This was especially considerate considering that the act of standing probably required real effort at this point. Nathan thanked them for the applause and introduced each member of the team, from the chefs to Amy, our PR guru, to our photographers Melissa and Tyson, and even me, the blogger. It takes a lot of people to deliver a 33-course MC dinner.
After the dinner had ended, I asked Nathan and Max to sign my menu. Max asked me which dish was my favorite. After a moment’s thought, I said “France in a Bowl.” At the time, in the beginning of November, the team was developing my crazy idea of a Thanksgiving Stew, which Nathan had referred to as “Modernist cuisine in a bowl.” So, it was my hope that perhaps the “in a bowl” concept was catching on. There are, I thought, endless possibilities. But I also liked it because the base of the dish was a foie gras custard with hoisin sauce. The historical ties between France and Vietnam, and therefore the inclusion of hoisin along with the quintessentially French snails, frog legs, and chanterelle mushrooms, proved in my mind that cuisine is indeed always changing–even French cuisine. The outside influences from other ethnicities, the discovery of new ingredients, the development of new technology, and scientific breakthroughs all propel food forward, just as they affect so much else in human culture. Cuisine evolves, and it is exciting to witness the transformations that are underway.
I then turned the table on Max and asked him what he would point to as a highlight of the evening. He said, “It was amazing to share our food with some of our favorite chefs in the world, and to try to give back to them as much as they have given us through their inspiration and contribution to Modernist cuisine.”
While exciting, that aspect was also a bit daunting. Max had been especially thrilled to serve Andoni Luis Anduriz, a ground-breaking chef who flew all the way from San Sebastian, Spain. He also felt a little trepidation about cooking for old friends like Johnny Iuzzini, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Scott Boswell. But he needn’t have feared; everything went wonderfully. “I am extremely proud of the team,” Max said. “They came together after weeks of testing and prepping, and the effort they invested into each detail was apparent in all of the dishes we served tonight.”
Of course, just because the meal was done did not mean the night was yet over. Johnny Iuzzuni rounded up many of the chefs and guests to hit the town. I, however, helped clean up, matched coats with guests, and went home to a welcoming bed after a very long day.
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