Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 2

This is the second installment in a three-part series providing an inside view of how the MC culinary team prepares one of its famous, 33-course VIP dinners. The previous post described the hunt for the freshest and most interesting ingredients.

Prep as much as humanly possible

A few months ago, Anjana Shanker, a staff chef at The Cooking Lab, suggested that by helping prepare a lab dinner, I could see many of the techniques found in Modernist Cuisine in action. That first-hand experience would help me answer readers’ questions.

“But Anjana,” I said. “I don’t know what I can do. I saw you chop those shallots the other day. I don’t chop my shallots as tiny as you do.”

“Oh no,” she said. “You wouldn’t chop things. You would peel things!”

When I arrived at the lab around noon, however, all of the peeling had already been done. Maxime had brought in local chefs from Crush and Sur La Table to help out with details, like making sure all of the quail eggshells were the same height, and cutting little circles out of thinly sliced beets. Seeing how these professional chefs we charged with what may seem like easy tasks, it’s quite reasonable that I was, well, not.

Mostly I tried to stay out of the way. Unfortunately, it seemed like Sam Fahey-Burke (another staff chef and, like Max and coauthor Chris Young, an alumnus of The Fat Duck) always needed to move to the exact spot at which I happened to be standing. “Judy, can you please go stand over there?” he asked more than once, although I got pretty good at doing a waltz-like dance with Johnny Zhu (step, step, slide. Step, step slide…).

The only other time I got scolded was when I was delighting in the cloud of fog rising from a Dewar of liquid nitrogen. Anjana shooed me away, pointing at my shoes. I had come prepared, wearing ugly chef shoes, but looking down at them I realized that they were made of absorbant suede and fabric rather than liquid-repellent leather; not what you want to wear when working with a liquid that is hundreds of degrees below zero. But I was particularly curious to find out why Anjana was dunking oysters in the liquid nitrogen. “We’re cryoshucking them,” she told me. When LN is drizzled on their hinges, the bivalves pop open (for more on cryo-shucking, see page 2·458 in MC).

I was also particularly excited to see spherification, a technique I had read about but have yet to master in my own kitchen. Aaron Verzosa, who is interning in the research kitchen, was given the task of making dozens of teaspoon-size spheres of sour cream. He dropped a few at a time into an alginate bath to spherify and then transferred them from one water bath to another. The process is pretty amazing, but also time-consuming.

Some techniques or pieces of equipment, however, were so “normal” that it was almost shocking, as when someone walked by carrying a salad spinner. The same was true of kitchen crises. There were no explosions or floods or liquid nitrogen spills. Once, liquid in a tray in the refrigerator leaked down into an uncovered tray below. Max, still making last-minute changes to the menu, deemed one dish too salty and, having no extra ingredients to rectify the seasoning, crossed the dish off the list altogether. During a run-through of Nathan’s PowerPoint presentation, the program stopped working on slide 84. There was a debate on whether we should put the cutaway microwave in the conference room or in the photo studio. And it fell to me to go pick up the burritos we’d ordered for the team’s dinner. At last, a chance for me to be helpful!

When the chefs changed into their white coats, the pace picked up. People started walking faster, yet less seemed to be going on. It was like being in the eye of the storm. As much prep work had been done as humanly possible. Little beakers were filled with Earl Grey and lemon curd posset. Baby root vegetables and hon shimeji mushrooms were arranged in covered dishes, waiting for rare beef jus to be poured over them at table-side. Sauces were kept warm on a very crowded stove, each pot handle labeled in black Sharpie on blue painter tape. The menus were printed off at last, and the chefs taped them to their stations like guitarists taping a song list to the stage floor before their set.

And in came the guests.


Next week: Dinner is served. And the crowd goes wild.

Maxime in Europe; Named One of 30 Under 30 in Forbes

We are very excited to announce that Modernist Cuisine coauthor Maxime Bilet has been named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 List in the category of Food & Wine! At 29 years old, Max just makes the cut, joining other “movers and shakers” as Forbes puts it, such as Gilt Taste editor Jennifer Pelka; Lena Kwak, the inventor behind Thomas Keller’s gluten-free flour C4C (Cup for Cup); Top Chef alumnus Kevin Gillespie; and many more talented 20-somethings.

Unfortunately, Max isn’t around The Cooking Lab today to celebrate. He’s busy promoting the foreign editions of MC in Europe. You can see him in Paris tomorrow (December 20) at 6 PM at TASCHEN’s bookstore in Paris and on Thursday (December 22) at 6 PM at TASCHEN’s London store.

Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 1

There are no two ways about it: 33 courses is a lot. The amount of effort the team at The Cooking Lab puts into one of our dinner events is astounding. Though we invited only 16 guests to our dinner on November 6—mainly chefs, writers, and food critics—preparations by the culinary research team consumed more than a week. I usually stick to my office and stay away from the lab during the week leading up to a dinner, so as not to get in the way. But this time, Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine coauthor and head chef, invited me to tag along and witness the controlled chaos. This is the first installment in a three-part series that chronicles my time behind the scenes.

Shopping for 16 guests

and 33 courses

The dinner was scheduled for a Sunday evening, and the intensity started revving up the week before. Phone calls and emails were flying around fast; I could tell the team had their hands full. So I waited until the Saturday before the dinner to dive into the fray. I accompanied Max to the University District Farmers’ Market in Seattle to buy fresh ingredients. The U-District market runs every Saturday, year-round, and is Max’s favorite place to buy fresh produce. Tyson Stole, our videographer and photographer for this event, met up with us shortly after the market opened at 9 a.m.

While Max picked out some Savoy cabbages, Romanesco broccoli, and delicate mustard flowers from Nash’s, I asked him what he planned on using these for. “I don’t know yet,” he said. Given the amount of prep work the team had been doing the last few days, I was more than a little surprised.

“You mean, you don’t have a shopping list?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m just seeing what looks good.” Finding inspiration in fresh produce is a fundamental part of great cuisine, of course, but I wondered aloud how the team would respond to last-minute changes. “It’s going to drive them crazy,” he grinned.

Next, we were on to Max’s friends at Mair Farm-Taki, where we picked up a variety of fruits and vegetables, including Concord grapes, turnips, and the freshest ginger I’ve ever seen (I bought some myself). This is Max’s go-to vendor, so we paused for a photo, too. Katsumi Taki runs an organic farm in Wapato, WA, which has supplied our team with fresh vegetables for years. In fact, Max estimates that probably half the vegetables photographed in MC came from Taki.

At that point, with both of our hands full, we split up, and Max headed back to his car to drop off his purchases. The market is big enough that one can easily get distracted, and it was a few minutes before we found each other again. “Did you see the foraged watercress?” I asked. In response, Max held up a bag filled with Foraged & Found’s watercress and a variety of foraged mushrooms.

After several more trips to Max’s car to unload raw milk, colorful root vegetables, greens, and more, Max finally had everything he wanted and took off for the Lab, where prep work would be going strong all day. I bought myself some pluots (and ate them all that day) and goat chops and went home looking forward to helping in the research kitchen the next day.

Meanwhile, the cooking team kept at it. That night, after more than 12 hours at work, the team went out for a late dinner to Monsoon East (where culinary research assistant Johnny Zhu had worked as executive chef before joining The Cooking Lab).

Next week in part 2: the cooking frenzy begins

Enter to Win a Signed Apron at Nathan’s Talk at Seattle’s Town Hall!

As you may already know, Nathan Myhrvold will give a lecture at Town Hall Seattle at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, December 5. Some of his topics will include:

  • How Modernist cuisine is like Modernist art and architecture
  • How we made the spectacular cutaways in Modernist Cuisine
  • Liquid nitrogen and cryofrying
  • Why your toast seems to go from light brown to dark and burnt in a manner of seconds
  • Why we love pressure cookers and cooking sous vide
  • Plus much, much more!

Also to be included in his presentation:

  • Photos from the book and behind the scenes
  • Ultra-slow motion videos
  • Recipe videos

But now there’s an even cooler reason to go. We will be giving away two aprons autographed by Nathan at the event. Email us at with your proof of purchase (tickets can be bought for only $5 here) and you will be entered to win! You have until noon on Monday to enter. We will announce the winners at the event (you must be present to win).

See you there!

Nathan Myhrvold Will Appear on The Martha Stewart Show, November 17

Martha in The Cooking Lab

Last time Nathan appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, she came to visit us in Bellevue, Washington, at The Cooking Lab. This time, since Nathan is spending a few days on the East Coast, he’s stopping by her studio to talk about Modernist cooking and its adaptability for home use. Nathan will demonstrate sous vide salmon and pistachio gelato, some of our favorite recipes!

Tune in to The Martha Stewart Show tomorrow, November 17, for more!

Chris Gives StarChefs Tips on a Great Thanksgiving Turkey

Chris Young gave StarChefs the dish on why baking a turkey is so complicated, and how to get around it. His secret? Treat it like a giant Peking duck. Chris told StarChefs:

“The exterior of the breasts may overcook a little, but this two-step cooking process is as close as I’ve come to getting the legs tender and keeping the breast juicy without brine.”

Read all about Chris’s tips and tricks, and find a recipe for his turkey à la Peking duck here.

Max Will Demonstrate Modernist Techniques at Seattle’s Book Larder

Book Larder, Seattle’s newest food-focused bookstore, is offering a special package that includes both a copy of Modernist Cuisine and two tickets to an event with MC coauthor Maxime Bilet for a discounted price of $550. That’s $75 off the list price! Please join Max at Book Larder on Thursday, February 2, 2012, at 6:30 p.m. for a demonstration of techniques from the book, insights into MC’s creation, and a Q&A session. For more information, click here to visit the page on Book Larder’s website.

See Nathan Alongside Wylie, Emeril, and Others in South Beach

Nathan Myhrvold will join several esteemed chefs to pay tribute to chef Charlie Trotter and winemaker Piero Antinori during the Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival on February 25, 2012, in Miami, Florida. Anthony Bourdain will host the event, which will showcase the talents of the world’s most renowned wine and spirits producers, chefs, and culinary personalities such as:

  • Marchese Piero Antinori
  • Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations” on the Travel Channel)
  • Frederic Delaire (Loews Miami Beach Hotel)
  • Wylie Dufresne (wd ?50)
  • Michelle Gayer (Salty Tart Bakery)
  • Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s)
  • Nathan Myhrvold (Modernist Cuisine)
  • Patrick O’Connell (The Inn at Little Washington)
  • Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s)
  • Norman Van Aken

In particular, Nathan will prepare hors d’oeuvres to be passed during the cocktail reception.

Tickets go on sale October 24, 2011. For more information, click here.