As the First Books Arrive by Air, We Ponder: Did We Print Enough?

The 49 lb. box on a dollyWe were so excited to see the first bound copies of Modernist Cuisine in their beautiful acrylic cases that we couldn’t wait for them to cross the Pacific by boat. So we had a small number shipped to us by air, despite the eye-popping delivery cost involved when you ship a 49 lb / 22 kg package halfway around the world in an airplane.

It was worth it. Several of us gathered in my office as we opened the outer carton, then opened the inner carton, then removed the kitchen manual and elaborate padding, and then, at last, lifted out the case with the five major volumes inside. A chorus of “oooooh” went up in the room, and at that moment, the weight of what we have made really sank in. I don’t mean that just figurativelyModernist Cuisine is so massive you can almost feel its gravitational attraction. You don’t want to drop it on your toe!

Cracking the sealThose of us in the room had seen the photos in these volumes and read the text over a hundred times during the past several years, as we developed the material from rough concept to final, proofread form. But it really does look different, and so much better, when finally printed on a state-of-the-art press and bound, largely by hand, into a high-quality book. Subtle details like the rounding of the spine (so that the books open flat), the extra-wide gamut of the photography, the exquisite sharpness of the text, and the silky feel of the varnished Japanese art paper all really add to the experience.

Lifting off the outer cartonSince then, a few others have laid hands on the books, and many of them seem to have similar experiences. The very positive reception raises the question of whether our first printing will be large enough to satisfy the initial demand.

I’ve been asked many times how many copies we ordered for the first printing. My first impulse was to decline to answer; was this something that one talked about? Would it help or hurt sales of the book?

So I asked one of my publishing consultants what is normally done. “What do ‘real’ publishers say about details like that?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy to answer. They lie!”

Apparently, it is a time-honored tradition among publishers to exaggerate any statistics associated with their books. In fact, it happens so frequently that there is a common phrase in the business: the “announced first printing,” which is the number that the publisher wants you to know. It may or may not be the actual number of first-run books.

Opening the kitchen manualThe economics of printing reflect the fact that there is a lot of work up front getting the presses set up, making the plates for each color of ink, and so forth. For a small print run, those up-front costs can dominate the overall cost. The per-copy cost often drops dramatically as the number of books printed rises. As a result, a publisher commonly orders just 5,000 copies of a new hardcover book initially. That is enough to achieve a substantial economy of scale while hedging against the risk that customers won’t want that many. That said, some books are published with a first run of only 1,000 books or even fewer.

Lifting up the top layer of paddingAlso for most books, the first run is also the last run; that’s all of that given title that will ever be created. Books are sent back to press for second and subsequent print runs only if sales warrant. One commonly hears in publishing that about 40% of all books that are printed are pulped because nobody buys them. This partly reflects the economics of printing, but there are other business and marketing factors that often induce publishers to print too many books, as an industry insider explains here.

Removing the inner cartonAfter thinking it over, I decided that the best thing for Modernist Cuisine is to be transparent and tell everybody what our print run really is. We ordered 6,000 copies of Modernist Cuisine.

We had a lot of internal debate about that number. About a year before the book came out, I took a bunch of printed pages to New York City and made the rounds of publishers. At that point, I hadn’t yet come to the decision Unwrapping the main caseto publish the book myself. One question that I asked about was print run. The answers that I received between 2,000 and 3,000 copies were one of the principal reasons that I eventually decided not to work with those publishers. If they thought that they could sell only that many books, then they probably would; the estimate would likely be self-fulfilling. I didn’t want to work with companies that had that little faith in the book.

Sliding volume 5 out of the caseOf course, I also realized that they might be right! Even so, a tentative approach to printing seemed like a bad idea, given the even bigger plunge I had already taken on writing the book. So my initial plan was to print 10,000 books in the first print run.

We ended up with a number in between, in part because every new book inevitably contains a number of typos. Despite our extensive proofreading, this is bound Perusing volume 4to be true for Modernist Cuisine as well. Given that it contains well over a million words, even a 99.999% accurate proofreading process will miss something like a dozen errors. Once the first copies are out, we and others will catch those mistakes. We might as well fix them on the second printing; otherwise there are that many more copies out there with the error.

Plus, warehousing the book costs money. We did a lot of spreadsheet analysis into how much it costs to warehouse various quantities of books for up to two years. Initial demand is now looking so strong that perhaps we didn’t need to worry about storing books (more on that in my next post), but it’s always important to ask the “what if” question before you leap, rather than after.

Does this mean that the first edition is 6,000 copies? Well, that depends on your definition, because The colored edges of the pages make it easy to find a particular chapter there are no strict standards. Publishers use the term to mean the first typesetting of the book that includes the content. There can be multiple print runs within a single edition, including the first edition. Book collectors often do use the term “first edition” to mean “first print run.” Others, especially in the textbook business, reserve “edition” to mean a substantial revision to the content, as distinct from simply a reprinting with the typos fixed.

Our goal with Modernist Cuisine is to reach as many people as we can, so rest assured that we will continue to print the book by ordering new print runs as often as we need to.

Photos by Ryan Matthew Smith. Copyright 2011 Modernist Cuisine, LLC

The cutaways look fantastic in print

Modernist Cuisine to Enter the Cookbook Hall of Fame at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Modernist Cuisine will be inducted into the Gourmand Hall of Fame of Cookbooks during the Paris Cookbook Fair on March 3, 2011. The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, a unique international competition for the book sector that this year drew the participation of publishers in 154 countries, has named Modernist Cuisine the most important cookbook of the first ten years of the 21st century.

Modernist Cuisine Box Set
Best in the World Badge

“If Leonardo da Vinci was alive today, he would write a cookbook called The Codex of Cooking,” said Edouard Cointreau, the President of the Gourmand Awards. “This cookbook exists at last. It is Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.”

The book was written by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, all respected scientists, prolific inventors, and accomplished cooks in their own rights. Bilet will receive the award in Paris on behalf of the team.

“Nathan, Chris, and I are thrilled that Modernist Cuisine is being hailed as such a significant culinary publication,” says Bilet. “We are very proud of the book and are honored to be recognized among the world’s leading culinary authors.” The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards adds only one book every year to its Hall of Fame, and Modernist Cuisine is just the tenth book to receive this high honor.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is a six-volume, 2,438-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food that ranges from the otherworldly to the sublime. The authors and their 20-person team at The Cooking Lab have achieved astounding new flavors and textures by using tools such as water baths, homogenizers, and centrifuges, and ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes. Modernist Cuisine is a work destined to reinvent cooking.

The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards were founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau to honor those who “cook with words,” and to help readers and retailers find the best food and wine books published worldwide.

For more information, visit

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.

Sneak Peek – First Image of the Modernist Cuisine Set

As described in a recent post, quite a lot of effort went into making Modernist Cuisine a long-lasting and high-quality experience for the reader. From the paper stock and type of binding, to the inks and printing method, the team researched and scrutinized every detail before making final selections for the project.

We are excited to share with you the first image of Modernist Cuisine, which will also include a kitchen manual (not shown).

First image of the Modernist Cuisine set.

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.

Does It Matter Why We Love Chocolate?

Looking at Modernist Cuisine as a (nearly) complete body of work, the amount of information and level of detail can seem overwhelming. On the surface, it is tempting to think of the book as a research report or textbook on food science – but that is far from the full story. If you stumbled upon Modernist Cuisine in a bookstore’s cookbook section, you might ask, “Where’s the love?” The short answer from the Modernist Cuisine team would be, “It’s in there!”


Pushing the culinary envelope requires a thorough understanding of the physics and chemistry involved in cooking food. To gain and convey this understanding, we had to use some laboratory equipment and the mathematical language of science. But don’t let the technical terms fool you. We understand that love is a key ingredient in any kitchen – including ours. Our team of 20-plus chefs, writers, researchers, and photographers are passionate about cooking and sharing all they have learned on this journey with readers.


We’ll be the first to admit that the project (which began as an exploration of sous vide cooking) has grown into something much larger and more scientifically comprehensive than originally envisioned. The Modernist Cuisine team totally understands that a science-focused tome on modern cooking techniques isn’t for everyone (at 2,400 pages, it isn’t exactly “light reading” for the home cook). Rather, it is designed and written to be the most comprehensive resource for information on the latest techniques and the science of cooking. While that won’t resonate with everyone who loves cooking, we believe it will speak to food geeks like us.


In a sense, Modernist Cuisine can be compared to a book on the latest advances in neurochemistry. There exists a lot of neurological research on the chemicals that trigger feelings of love and happiness in humans. Chocolate is believed to contain several chemical compounds that interact with those neurotransmitters and can trigger the associated feelings.  Not everyone who is interested in love, happiness, or chocolate needs or wants to know the names of their associated neurotransmitters. Most are happy simply knowing that eating chocolate makes them happy without knowing exactly why that is. Others are compelled to find out exactly how the love-chocolate interaction works, and thus require a higher level of detail. Modernist Cuisine was written for them.


By exploring the latest advances in food science and cooking technology, the authors are not damning or seeking to replace traditional cooking techniques. Traditional techniques have their place — and their limitations. Modernist Cuisine is meant to pick up where traditional techniques and cookbooks leave off. The type and amount of detail one desires in their culinary reference material is a matter of personal taste, but knowing that there is a scientific explanation for much of what we know intuitively should not obstruct the experience. The answers are out there, but if eating chocolate makes you happy, the Modernist Cuisine team hopes you’ll continue to enjoy it whether you know why or not.

Official Release Date for Modernist Cuisine

We’ve 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 book—the shipping box and the shock-absorbing pieces inside it that protect the heavy volumes and their slipcase during transit­­—failed 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 haven’t 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. 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, we’ve 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, “You’ll want to pick a Tuesday.” Why? I was told the various reasons, and frankly none of them added up. It’s 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 isn’t a Tuesday, because for the life of me I don’t see why it has to be. But with continued hard work— and some luck—the 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.



The Cooking Lab Reception

Last night, the authors of Modernist Cuisine hosted a small demonstration and reception at The Cooking Lab, where the book was created. (I say “created” rather than “written” because the book contains more original art and research than some universities — but that is for another post). In attendance were approximately 30 food bloggers, many in town for the International Food Bloggers Convention (IFBC) which kicks off later today. I will leave the coverage of the reception itself to the other bloggers for now, but you can see a copy of the menu here. I personally am still thinking about the ultrasonic fries and pressure-cooked grits.

The authors — Nathan, Chris, and Max — clearly enjoyed the passion and energy of the assembled group. Nathan was constantly surrounded by a group three people deep, who barraged him with questions about everything from metallurgy to physics. Chris engaged in detailed and thoughtful conversations with smaller groups and individual bloggers. I overheard a few guests ask, “You did WHAT to that cherry?” (You probably had to be there to really appreciate that, but the authors created a delicious foie gras that looked like a cherry.) Max, who happily conversed and entertained from the kitchen side of the lab, said of the evening, “Every conversation I had was meaningful.”

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t a social gathering of the book’s or the authors’ fans; they were food writers and connoisseurs. They asked some tough questions and pressed for their answers. But they did so out of what appeared to be genuine interest. The conversations I saw struck me as in-person analogues of the sincere and bidirectional online interactions on which the IFBC is based.

But you needn’t take my word for it. If you are in Seattle and happen to be registered for IFBC, stop by the Modernist Cuisine display on Friday night and see for yourself. The first 50 or so attendees to stop by for a taste of our caramelized carrot soup with young ginger, licorice root, and carotene butter, will also receive a sample booklet to take home to the family. See you there!