Nathan Myhrvold sat down with CNN to explain how to make ultrasonic fries–the most perfect French fry yet invented, in our opinion. Watch the video above and read the rest of his interview here.
On a recent business trip to Austin, Texas, Nathan Myhrvold seized the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to not one, not two, but four renowned barbecue joints within 24 hours. Writing for Bloomberg, Nathan chronicles his encounters in Texas’s Cult of Smoke: Barbecue-Land Journeys. Driving 35 miles to Lockhart, Texas, Nathan and a few friends dined at Smitty’s, Kreuz Market, and Black’s. The next morning, he woke up at dawn to drive 50 miles to visit Snow’s in Lexington, Texas, a joint that makes barbecue so sought after that the place opens only on Saturday mornings.
Modernist Cuisine covers the art and science of barbecue in great detail. Do you have strong opinions on the subject? Tell us in the comments or on our forum.
Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine, recently shared some neat tricks for adding barrel-aged flavor to cocktails on starchefs.com. Nathan says:
“When you age a liquid in a wood barrel, whether it’s wine or it’s whisky, you wind up leeching some flavor compounds out of the wood, and those wood flavor compounds can be amazing. Until recently, those things have been the purview of the winemaker or the whisky maker, but there’s no reason you can’t do those extractions as a mixologist or cocktail chef or whatever you want to call it.”
Just last week, Star Chefs announced that Modernist Cuisine coauthor Chris Young will make another appearance at the Star Chefs Congress (October 2-4, 2011, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City) this year. Chris will make his main-stage presentation on the afternoon of October 3. His talk will cover several techniques from Modernist Cuisine.
On Monday evening, a couple dozen of us in the Seattle area who worked on Modernist Cuisine went out to dinner at Naan-n-Curry in Renton, Washington. It was a reunion of sorts, and great to see everyone who labored over the book.
The restaurant’s owner, Majid Janjua, invited Nathan back to the kitchen to try his hand at making the eponymous naan in a tan door. As always, Nathan was excited by the challenge, and ready to jump into action.
Majid’s son, Shan, demonstrated how to knead the dough and how to use the tan door. Nathan was so thrilled with the process that he said he wants to get a tan door for The Cooking Lab. Two, actually: one to use, and another to cut in half!
A busy restaurant kitchen waits for no man. When some shouted, “Naan for table four!” Nathan smoothly kept kneading his naan with his left hand and grabbed up a piping hot basket of naan with his right, giving it to me through the kitchen window for the server. “Naan for table four!” he echoed, barely even glancing up.
Even though I’ve worked with Nathan for three years, his tenacity continues to surprise me. When the naan was done, he reached right into the tan door without the slightest flinch to get it. Shan warned him that his arm hair would get singed, but something like that would never deter Nathan.
“It reminded me of taking pictures of volcanoes in Hawai’i,” Nathan said. “The tan door is kind of like a skylight, which is a hole in the cooled crust through which you can see a river of molten lava flowing underneath. You can go at it from the side, but you wouldn’t want to look directly down into it from right above.”
The naan was delicious, and the evening was a successful celebration of everyone’s great effort in making Modernist Cuisine. It was only appropriate that cooking and good food were at the heart of it all.
Nathan Myhrvold may be a scientist, but even he describes the cutaway photos found in Modernist Cuisine as magical. Take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes action as Nathan describes the thousandth of a second in which the photos were taken, and what ensued after that second had passed!
If you would prefer to watch the video on YouTube, you can view it here.
Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold and his wife, longtime benefactors of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, donated a copy of the book, signed by all three of its authors, for the zoo’s annual fund-raising auction. To sweeten the deal, they also threw in a private guided tour of the culinary research laboratory in which the book was developed. The winner may bring up to five guests on the tour.
After active bidding, Drew Carey, the renowned actor, comedian, and host of “The Price Is Right,” won the prize with a bid of $7,000, all of which goes to support the zoo and its programs. The whole team at The Cooking Lab is looking forward to Mr. Carey’s visit.
I’ve just completed a week in New York City promoting Modernist Cuisine. It was tiring but fun and the results have been very gratifying. Here are some behind-the-scenes descriptions and commentary on how it all came together.
Monday, March 21
Our week started with a breakfast at Jean Georges hosted by Nina and Tim Zagat. They have been friends of mine for nearly 20 years, and they were the perfect hosts to bring chefs, food writers, and others from the greater New York City area. We were pleased to see that Marc Vetri made the trip up from Philadelphia. We were lucky that Ferran Adrià happened to be in New York that week, and he made a special effort to come to the event.
I will confess that we were nervous about serving a four-course breakfast to the best chefs in the city. I told Max that if we screwed this up, our future NYC meals would have to be limited to Gray’s Papaya and Shake Shack not a terrible fate, of course, but we really didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. As a result, Max and the Modernist Cuisine culinary team (Grant Crilly, Sam Fahey-Burke, Anjana Shankar, and Johnny Zhu) worked incredibly hard to prepare for not only this event, but all the others we did this past week. Maria Banchero, who managed service for our lab dinners, came along to help.
Wayt Gibbs, the editor-in-chief for Modernist Cuisine, came along to talk to the guests. Ryan Matthew Smith, who took most of the pictures for Modernist Cuisine, came along to take photos for the blog. Our running joke is now that the book is done, he is available for weddings and bar mitzvahs, just watch that he doesn’t get you alone, though, because you may wind up as a cutaway view! Our public relations team included Shelby Barnes of Intellectual Ventures, Jennifer Curley and Sarah Cissna of Curley Company, and Carrie Bachman. Our publishing consultant, Bruce Harris, also attended.
Co-author Chris Young couldn’t attend this week, in part because we have too many events going on to have everybody on deck for every event. Max Bilet represented us at the Paris Cookbook Fair and World Gourmand Awards (where we won a place in the Hall of Fame). Chris represented us recently at the Flemish Primitives conference for chefs in Belgium and the Research Chefs Association, and he will also be speaking about Modernist Cuisine at the prestigious EG conference in Monterey on April 8. I spoke at the TED conference in February and took on the speaking and TV gigs this week. Going forward, there are going to be a lot of events where we only have some of the team present. To be efficient, our motto is a bit like that of the old Texas Rangers (the law enforcement group, not the baseball team): one riot, one Ranger. That said, we needed quite a team for New York City.
Everybody on the Modernist Cuisine team has worked in restaurants (myself included), but this is the first time in three years that we served food to banquet-sized groups. The Jean Georges breakfast was about 90 people, and we had four separate courses: cornbread with bacon jam, the striped omelet, our pastrami hash, and then a dessert-like course of two pots de crème, one of them a cold infused coffee custard, the other an Earl Grey tea posset. Plating and serving food for that number of people is a challenge. We were helped enormously by the team at Jean Georges, including Chef Mark Lapico, Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini, and their teams, and of course, Jean Georges Vongerichten made this possible.
We had two goals for the Jean Georges event. The first, frankly, was to show that we can cook. The photos in Modernist Cuisine show that we can make good food that is good-looking, but that still leaves open the question of whether it is also good-tasting. We don’t have a restaurant, so people can’t taste our food as customers. As a result, cooking for chefs and food critics is one way to establish some street cred. That’s why we did a series of dinners for chefs and food critics in our Cooking Lab last month. It would be pretty hard to take the 30-course tasting menu on the road, but we thought that we could pull off a more limited menu in New York City for people who couldn’t make it out to Seattle.
The second reason that we wanted to cook was to show that Modernist Cuisine can apply to many culinary styles. Part of the message of the book is that the techniques we call “Modernist” can be used both to cook in a Modernist aesthetic, or to execute dishes in a traditional aesthetic. All of the dishes at the Jean Georges breakfast were either traditional (cornbread, pastrami) or were a slightly Modernist presentation of a traditional dish (omelet).
None of these dishes involved exotic equipment. The omelet needed a combi oven or CVap oven, but that is hardly exotic, for example the Jean Georges kitchen already had a couple CVaps. The pastrami was reheated in a CVap, but was originally cooked sous vide. I don’t call that particularly exotic. None of the dishes had any exotic ingredients in them either. I laughed when somebody asked suspiciously what “chemicals” were used to stabilize the emulsion in our bacon jam, because the emulsifier used was egg yolks and there were no other exotic ingredients! The posset uses sodium citrate to coagulate the cream, but that is available in every grocery store in New York City. Also known as “sour salt,” sodium citrate is used in a traditional Jewish seder meal (especially for Passover).
I think that we made both of our points at the Jean Georges breakfast. It is famously true that you can’t please all the people all of the time, but all the same, I think that we came about as close as we could.
Later the same day, I did the Charlie Rose show. Charlie has interviewed me many times, but usually about my day job, first at Microsoft and then later at Intellectual Ventures. This is the first time we talked exclusively about food and the cookbook.
After Charlie Rose, I rushed downtown, where I spoke at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) in an event moderated by Padma Lakshmi, who is also the host of Top Chef. I only had 30 minutes to get from 58th street to the NYAS building, which is near the World Trade Center site, and this was during evening rush hour. A car and driver was waiting for me, but I was hungry. I had gotten up at 5:30 A.M. for the Jean Georges breakfast and had interviews, and only got to drink a protein shake before starting service. I didn’t have lunch either, as I was too busy with interviews. I had the driver stop at a Korean fried chicken fast food place on 32nd Street, where I got a box of soy-ginger drumsticks. It was the only solid food I ate that day. This pattern was typical of the week: I didn’t have any real meals until Thursday night.
The NYAS event was fun. Padma asked a lot of great questions. Her experience in cooking, traveling, and hosting Top Chef armed her with a great perspective. The audience also asked a lot of great questions. During the Q&A session, we passed out small samples of our pistachio gelato to the crowd of about 350 people. By the time the event ended, however, I was wiped out. Padma headed off to wd~50, Wylie Dufresne’s Modernist restaurant on the Lower East Side, but I was way too tired to come along.
Tuesday, March 22
Tuesday morning was the Today Show. It is always amazing to me how much effort goes into television. We spent hours either preparing or waiting for a four minute segment. Meanwhile, all around us, other people were doing the same thing.
During the day on Monday, I took a cab to an appointment and on the TV screen that all NYC cabs have these days, I saw a promo segment for a new show called Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, featuring a former Top Chef contestant who demonstrates Modernist cooking. Perhaps the whole world knew about this show already, but I didn’t, probably because I have been heads down working on the book. The surprise continued because at the Today Show, it turned out that Marcel had a segment after us, so I got to meet him and invite him to our ICE event (see below).
Another confession: I get nervous before I speak publicly. I have done public speaking for many years, but I still get nervous. TV is even more nerve-wracking, particularly live TV. This goes double if I have to cook on TVI get nervous that I will forget a step. In the case of the Today Show, we thought we had a good plan: Max would do the actual cooking steps while I talked to the host, Matt Lauer. This was the plan that Max had set up with the Today Show producers. Anjana and Johnny came along to help with prep. I was nervous, but at least we had a plan and I was less panicked than normal as they put the make-up on me and Max.
Then we got to the Today Show kitchen and were told that everything had changed. They thought the kitchen on their set was too small to have both me and Max, so I would have to both cook and talk. They also wanted me to do three different dishes in just four minutes. Now I was really nervous, but there was nothing we could do about it. Fortunately, my pre-speaking nerves seem to dissipate when I actually start to speak, and I get into the zone. That’s what happened on the Today Show, and I more or less made it through all three demos.
After the Today Show, I went to a very nice luncheon put on by Hearst Magazines, hosted by their president, David Carey and Maile Carpenter, the editor of Food Network Magazine. (Maile also happens to be married to Wylie Dufresne.) Hearst has an amazing building on 8th Avenue, designed by architect Sir Norman Foster, it was the first time I had been inside.
After that respite, the next high stress event was at the Core Club, a private club in Midtown Manhattan. The Core Club has a regular series of events at which book authors, artists, and others speak. This time they had me speaking for an hour and then serving a seven course dinner for 90 people. Food critic Jeffrey Steingarten introduced me and moderated the discussion, and the audience chipped in with a lot of questions of their own.
One of the challenges here is that the Core Club restaurant doesn’t have a very large kitchen, they don’t typically serve banquet style where 10-20 plates are prepared at once. Instead, their restaurant, and its kitchen, are more intimate. With great help from their team, however, including Chef Liberatore and Director of Food and Beverage Jean-Francois Scordia, we managed to pull off the dinner. Jennie Saunders, the founder of Core Club, made everything perfect, which seems to be what she always does, but I was especially grateful for it as a primary participant. The event was covered in this WSJ article.
We served one of my favorite dishes, which is a riff on the classic Italian dish, spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti with clam sauce. Instead of using spaghetti pasta, however, we cut thin strips of geoduck clam for our “pasta.” When properly cut and then gently heated, it has an amazing sweet clam taste and looks and feels enough like a noodle that the dish comes off.
Most people in New York don’t know what a geoduck looks like, so once everybody had finished the dish, I went from table to table showing them. It’s quite a sight.
Almost nobody can look at a geoduck without giggling. The polite way to say this is that the geoduck siphon (which is the part you eat) looks like a small elephant trunk, but in fact, most people first think of male genital anatomy. The geoduck is native to the Pacific Northwest, and we get ours from Taylor Shellfish, a grower that sustainably farms them in Puget Sound.
Just as I was worried about the Jean Georges breakfast, I was worried about the Core Club dinner, but we pulled it off. A couple of the dishes were repeats from breakfast, including the striped omelet and the pastrami:
Welcome to the Core Club for a sampling of
Goat Milk Ricotta and Peas
fresh ricotta, centrifuged pea puree layers, essential oil
Caramelized Carrot Soup
pressure-cooked with baking soda
constructed egg stripes, steamed in a combi oven
Pastrami, Sauerkraut, Cognac Mustard
cooked sous vide for 72 h, precisely cured, brined, and fermented
Pistachio Ice Cream, Black Olive, Cocoa Nib, Arlettes
frozen constructed cream
Gruyère Cheese Caramels
sweet and savory caramel, edible film
Part of the reason the event was a success is that Winston Industries, makers of the CVap ovens, graciously loaned us two CVap ovens to use for the event. Without them, it would have been hard to heat the omelet and pastrami to the right temperatures.
Wednesday, March 23
Wednesday morning started with Morning Living, a show on Martha Stewart Living Radio that is on Sirius/XM satellite radio. Radio interviews are, for some reason, not quite as intimidating for me as public speaking or TV. Perhaps that is because there is no audience, and no camera in your face.
Midday, I went to New York University for an event featuring Ferran Adrià and Lisa Abend. Lisa has just completed a book called The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, which follows the trials and tribulations of a set of stagiers working at elBulli. The book sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. Ferran also announced that activities were underway to turn it into a major motion picture. There is a long line of films that trace people through training, ranging from classics like The Paper Chase to farces like Police Academy. It will be interesting to see what filmmakers do with Lisa’s book (and Ferran’s cuisine).
Ferran was in New York to help promote Lisa’s book and in part promote the cuisine of Spain, for which he is a sort of unofficial ambassador. The event featured Lisa, Ferran, the Spanish Minister of Industry, and some American culinary students who had participated in a Spanish exchange program.
In addition, Ferran gave us some more detail on what is happening with elBulli. The restaurant will close for good at the end of June 2011 and construction of some new facilities will begin. He showed us some architectural plans, which look amazing. The gist of his plan is that elBulli will be a culinary research center for the creation of new dishes and new types of food.
For many years elBulli has closed for six months out of the year. Ferran told us that the original reason was simple: nobody came to the coast of Spain during the winter, so they had no customers. Over time, this forced closure became a huge asset because it allowed him to focus on creating new dishes. The basic plan for the elBulli Foundation is to take the six months of creativity and extend it to the entire year, by not serving customers at all. This frees them of dealing with customers and all of the issues that comes with them. It will be all creativity, all the time.
This model may sound strange if you think of it in restaurant terms. After all, a restaurant is supposed to be about serving people, right? In culinary terms, I can’t think of an institution quite like this, but it is common in academic or scientific research. The Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton (where I used to hang out as a graduate student and later was a trustee), All Souls College at Oxford, and many biomedical research institutes (La Jolla, California has tons of them, including Scripps Institute, the Salk Institute, and many others) do something similar. These organizations focus only on research. The unusual thing is that Ferran has managed to apply this model to creative cuisine.
Instead of academic journals, Ferran plans to put the results of their creative endeavors out on the Internet with daily dispatches. In some sense, elBulli is set to become the world’s most amazing food blog! I don’t think that fully captures the breadth of Ferran’s plans, but that is one way to look at it. The venture is being funded by a partnership with Telefonica, the Spanish-based communications company. It will be interesting to see how this unique institution evolves.
Attending Ferran’s event was fun, but immediately afterward I had to spring into action for The Colbert Report. Months earlier, when the book was first announced, they asked to interview me. I was surprised that they had even heard of Modernist Cuisine, but we accepted. Originally, the plan was to be interviewed the way most book authors are on the show. The day before the show, however, the producers asked if we couldn’t please do a cooking demo of some sort.
This was problematic. Max and the team were busy prepping for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) event later that night, so I shot over there and grabbed some mise en place (food we were prepping for ICE), a Pacojet, and a water bath. Then I got in a cab with all of it and dashed to The Colbert Report. They told me they wanted drama, so I also swung by wd~50 and borrowed a small Dewar with some liquid nitrogen from Wylie. Max had already sourced some liquid nitrogen at ICE (we use it for cryo-shucked oysters), but it was way too big to fit in a cab.
As with the Today Show, there is a tremendous amount of effort that goes into making a TV show. I was told that about 70 people work full-time making The Colbert Report, which is just a 30 minute-long show. Admittedly, they do four shows a week, but this is still a lot of human effort, a bit less than 19 person-hours of work per minute of show (assuming they work an 8-hour workday). As one example, Colbert is amazingly sharp and witty on his own, but there are 12 full time writers on the show that arm him with material.
Of course, the writers are only for Colbert, not the guest! The guest interview dialogue is exactly the opposite of pre-written material instead, it is built upon surprise. The guests have no clue what Colbert is going to ask them. Although he comes primed with some questions, I’m not sure that Colbert knows fully what he is going to say either because part of the humor is the way he reacts in real time to what the guest says So there is no such thing as a rehearsal of the interview portion.
On top of that, I had to pull together three demos: the pastrami, the pistachio ice cream, and an impromptu liquid nitrogen demo.
So whatever nerves I had before normal TV or speaking were nothing compared to how I felt before my Colbert segment. Fortunately, I got in the zone and the first two demos went well; he liked the pastrami, and then really liked the ice cream. I even managed to give a reply that maybe, just maybe, rendered him without a response for a fraction of a second. It even looked for a moment like he might burst out laughing.
The dramatic finale was the liquid nitrogen demo. I poured nitrogen from the Dewar into a plastic salad bowl with a single red rose in it. After plunging my bare hands into the liquid nitrogen, I pulled out the rose and smashed it on the table, showering myself, Colbert, and the stage with tiny pieces of fractured rose petals. It was quite dramatic.
Unfortunately, we had gone over time! Although the show is edited rather than being live, they hate to edit out portions of the dialogue. So they swept up the rose petals and filmed an alternative ending in which Colbert just thanks me. Alas, the smashed roses part of the segment was cut.
With The Colbert Report done, I had to rush the Pacojet and other stuff into a car and head down to the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). They have a regular series of late-night events that start at 9 P.M. and last until 1 A.M. or later. The idea is that chefs can come over after work and check out some demos and try some food. We started with a talk and Q&A session for about 150 people. The crowd then dispersed into the ICE teaching kitchens where we set up cooking stations. Each station had one of the Modernist Cuisine crew members and a bunch of ICE students dishing up food.
Welcome to The Institute of Culinary Education for a sampling of
cryoshucked Kushi oysters, centrifuged pear juice
Caramelized Carrot Soup
pressure-cooked with baking soda
Roasted Corn Elote
freeze-dried with N-Zorbit, brown butter powder, lime, and ash powder
Polenta and Marinara
pressure-cooked in Mason jars
constructed egg stripes, steamed in a combi oven
Pastrami, Sauerkraut, Cognac Mustard
cooked sous vide for 72 h, precisely cured, brined, and fermented
Goat Milk Ricotta and Peas
fresh ricotta, centrifuged pea puree layers, essential oil
Pistachio Ice Cream, Cocoa Nib
frozen constructed cream
Although we served more than 200 people, this was the easiest food service we did because we had tons of room (the teaching kitchens are quite large), tons of hands (from the ICE students), and the food was dished up individually. So we didn’t have to worry about getting the whole room served at once.
In a way, the ICE event was a homecoming for Max. Right after college, he took a two-month culinary course at ICE, which started him on the path that culminated in being a co-author of Modernist Cuisine. The event was also a great way to see a lot of NYC chefs and food industry people. Some of them were repeats from Monday’s breakfast, but many of them were not able to make it to other events for schedule reasons.
Rick Smilow, the head of ICE, was terrific, as were all of the ICE students and chefs that helped us out.
We had originally planned to do an event at the French Culinary Institute (FCI), the other major cooking school in New York City. That way, we’d have done a clean sweep: ICE, FCI, and CIA (see below). Unfortunately, the week we were in New York coincided with the date of the renovations that the FCI was making to some of their facilities, so doing an event with them didn’t work out on this trip. I’m sure we’ll do an Modernist Cuisine event there at some point in the future, Dave Arnold and Nils Noren of FCI are leading practitioners of Modernist cooking techniques and have several recipes in Modernist Cuisine.
Thursday, March 24
We had yet another early morning of getting up before 6 A.M. so we could drive up to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The CIA is about two hours outside the city in a beautiful setting along the Hudson River. It is housed in a former Jesuit seminary called St. Andrew-on-Hudson. The property includes the grave site of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who was also a serious philosopher and paleontologist.
The CIA is one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the world, but I had never had an occasion to visit it before this event. The school has an interesting history: It was originally founded in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute by Frances Roth, a Connecticut-based attorney, and Katharine Angell (the wife of the president of Yale University). Its mission was to train American soldiers returning from World War II to become chefs. Until 1970, the school was actually located on the Yale campus, but eventually Yale needed the space, so it moved to its present site of the seminary, which by then had closed.
At the CIA, I had a full agenda. I met many of the instructors, including Victor Gielisse. In 1992, he wrote a cookbook called Cuisine Actuelle, which featured the food of a contemporary Southwestern restaurant in Dallas. His book had long been a favorite of mine, particularly a tomatillo-jicama salad with an orange juice and olive oil dressing. I also met Francisco Migoya, the former French Laundry pastry chef who now oversees one of the restaurants on the CIA campus that serves as both a teaching enterprise for students and a working bakery and café that is open to local residents. Their baked goods, particularly their laminated dough products like croissants and their macarons, were both beautiful and delicious. Francisco is also author of The Modern Café, which is a terrific book.
I also gave a graduation speech and an hour-long presentation on Modernist Cuisine to about 1,100 students and faculty. There were several surprises in store for me. The first was the graduation robes. I have a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a PhD, but the last graduation I ever attended was high school. I knew I was going to speak at graduation, but I wasn’t expecting the full academic procession with robes, satin sashes (which all have various meaning), caps, and funny velvet hats. I am sometimes called a “Renaissance man,” but this is the first time I had ever dressed like one.
The next surprise was that the CIA made me an honorary alumnus. I had no clue up front. Dr. Tim Ryan, the president of the CIA, had briefed me on many details of the day, but managed to leave that detail out. It is a great honor and I was proud to accept it.
This event ended our week of intense promotion for Modernist Cuisine. It was a lot of hard work for the whole team, but the results were worth it. We met a lot of people and got to tell them about our book and let them sample our cooking. We are so grateful to the people who helped us do this — both on our own team and at the various places where we cooked or spoke.
In the future, we plan on doing some Modernist Cuisine events in other cities, but not on the scale that we did in New York this past week, and it won’t happen for a while. I will be in Paris April 3-6 and and in London April 10-13, where I’ll do some book promotion but no team cooking events, as I will be solo. Later on in April, I will briefly be in San Francisco and will do some book promotion there as well.
The Winter 2011 edition of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture, contains an article I wrote titled, The Art in Gastronomy: A Modernist Perspective. The 6,000 word, 10-page article is a much-expanded version of a section of Chapter 1 in Modernist Cuisine, in which I explain why the current revolution in cooking is appropriately called Modernist, as it is in many ways broadly similar to Modernist revolutions in painting, architecture, literature, and other arts.
The argument is rather involved (thats why it takes 6,000 words), but the gist of it can be explained relatively simply. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most aspects of culture and art were rocked by revolutions in which small groups of young artists joined avant-garde movements that were creating new aesthetics by breaking the old rules. The French Impressionists were perhaps the most famous example. These painters rebelled against the realistic style of painting that was in vogue in their day. Their paintings were initially ridiculed and mocked, but the works ultimately became some of the most widely loved art in the world. Similar revolutions occurred in almost every field of human cultural achievementwith the notable exception of cooking.
The revolution in cooking that began in the mid-1980s is just such a movement. Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and a number of other chefs formed an avant-garde that refused to follow many of the old rules and in doing so, created food that challenges us as profoundly as any other kind of art does. They have embraced new cooking technologies, such as sous vide, and new ingredients, like xanthan gum, and their creative use of these tools has expanded the realm of what is possible in the kitchen. At the same time, Harold McGee and others started a trend in popular books of telling both restaurant and home chefs about the science of cooking. These threads collectively created a revolution that has clear links to Modernism and its ideals.
I mention this for two reasons. First, the article featured in Gastronomica is a bit longer and thus more complete than the treatment of the topic in Modernist Cuisine. So if you like Chapter 1 on Culinary History but want more detail, this article is one place to look.
Second, if you dont yet have a copy of Modernist Cuisine (and at this stage nobody does!), this article is a quick way to get at least this part of the book. That said, it is a rather abstract topicdont expect to see any recipes or techniques in the article.
Gastronomica is available by subscription and also by the copy at larger newsstands and bookstores.
Weve been working diligently to get our book done in time for the 2010 holiday season, but have been overtaken by events. Proofreading and correcting 2,400 pages is, as you can imagine, a very big job, and it has been taking longer than we expected to complete that work. Although we are optimistic that we will be able to turn around the remaining galley proofs in less time than the first few volumes required, we are realistically still looking at a few weeks of work ahead of us.
Another source of delay arose when the external packaging for the bookthe shipping box and the shock-absorbing pieces inside it that protect the heavy volumes and their slipcase during transitfailed a rigorous series of drop tests. The book is sold as a box set, and we have designed a very impressive slipcase for the volumes that we havent yet discussed publicly because we need to be certain that we can deliver the sets to customers in mint condition. The best approach is to package the sets in their slipcases and shipping boxes right at the printer, in much the same way that computers and other consumer electronic products are boxed by their manufacturers.
At more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms), our six-volume set is well beyond the usual experience of printers, so we had them create a custom-designed box-within-a-box arrangement to serve as the shipping container. Amazon.com offered to put this package, with mock-ups of our volumes inside, through a series of torture tests at their lab. It was a good thing the tests were done because the prototype failed! Two new packaging options are now being built. They were supposed to arrive awhile ago, but these, too, are taking longer than expected.
In starting our own publishing company, weve learned a lot about the subtleties of this business. Publishing dates, for example, are not as straightforward as you might think. I initially assumed that the publishing date was simply the first day that customers who preordered the book saw it arrive at their doors. In fact, that exact date varies, depending on how long it takes for the books to clear customs, where the customer lives, what mode of shipping was selected, and so on.
Nevertheless, the whole publishing world expects a publishing date that is a single specific day. I laughed out loud when we were looking at the calendar to choose the official release date, and an old hand in publishing told me, Youll want to pick a Tuesday. Why? I was told the various reasons, and frankly none of them added up. Its one of these old practices that may have made sense once upon a time, but continues today mainly due to tradition.
For most books, the official publishing date is chosen to be late enough so that the books have already been distributed to stores, inventoried, and put out for sale on the shelves. It is thus common for the official publishing date to occur as long as one month after books have started shipping to the customers who preordered.
All of this information is a preamble to announcing that we at last have an official publishing date: March 14, 2011. That date is more precise, but obviously a bit later than the December 2010 target that we originally posted. It isnt a Tuesday, because for the life of me I dont see why it has to be. But with continued hard work and some luckthe book may actually be available sooner.
The biggest concern with the delay is that we will miss the 2010 holiday season, which is a traditional time to give gifts. Of course, the rejoinder is that the holidays come every year, so rather than being just in time for 2010, we will be quite early for 2011. Nevertheless, I personally apologize to everybody who had their heart set on giving the gift of Modernist Cuisine this holiday season.
Dr. Nathan Myhrvold’s presentation at the International Food Bloggers Convention (IFBC) today appeared to be a big hit with the food bloggers in attendance today. Despite the rather scientific nature of the book and the presentation, the audience seemed engaged throughout. The high speed, high definition videos and high resolution photographs elicited cheers from the audience who demanded to see some of them again.
After the presentation, the audience had questions ranging from the definition of an emulsion to the source of the parasites pictured in the book. After the conference organizer stopped the question and answer session in the interest of time, bloggers lined up to talk to Nathan until the next presentation began.
Look for a more detailed account of Nathan’s presentation in a few days. Meanwhile, here are a few photos.