Introducing 'Modernist Cuisine'

'Modernist Cuisine' reveals the art and science of creating great food.

By , Kitchen Report

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    The cover of Volume 2 in a six-volume set that makes up 'Modernist Cuisine' and retails for $625.
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Last summer at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, I sat through a presentation that stripped cooking out of its frumpy apron and strapped it into a space shuttle bound for galaxies unseen.

Addressing a room full of captivated foodies Nathan Myhrvold, CEO of Intellectual Ventures, used giant visual projections to introduce us to his soon-to-be-published cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine." It is now rolling off the presses in a limited run of 6,000 copies.

Through its pages, author Dr. Myhrvold and his team of 20 scientists, chefs, and photographers transports the simple act of cooking into something much more complex. Think molecular biology and astronomical physics as your guide to carving meat. This encyclopedic-cookbook, a six-volume, 2,400-page set “destined to reinvent cooking,” is now on sale to the general public for $625. That's six hundred and twenty-five dollars. If the price is too much to swallow, Myhrvold urged us bloggers to see it as it is “less than $15 a lb.” Clever.

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But Myhrvold's approach is not clever science fiction. He is a champion of flavor, and "Modernist Cuisine" his daring lasso aimed for the stars.

“Some people say sous-vide sucks the soul out of cooking,” Myhrvold said, referring to the process of cooking plastic-sealed food in a water bath to retain flavors. “We disagree! It’s about the art and science of creating great food.”

Julia Child, meet CSI. Myhrvold is the former chief technology officer for Microsoft. Most – not all – techniques in "Modernist Cuisine" require scientific accuracy and very expensive gadgets.

I have to admit, I had a little trouble warming up to Myhrovld‘s presentation but I was wowed by the concepts and photos. I had a vague feeling of being in high school Algebra class and only being somewhat confident that I understood what was being said, tortured by an inner dialog of existential questioning of my intelligence. I just don't like to think that hard in the kitchen. But for serious food geeks who get a rush out of the science of cooking this is your tome come true. The photos are gorgeous, did I mention that already? You can read more about it here. If you love math and science, you’ll get a kick out of "Modernist Cuisine" theory.

Is it worth the bother? At the conference, the blogger sitting to my left, Lynn Gowdy of Sacatomato, promised that having a hands-on experience of this scientific approach is truly life-changing. She once helped a friend cater an event who used similar methods and she says the flavors are “mind-blowing.”

In truth, Myhrvold does really cool stuff in his high-tech lab kitchen in Seattle. During the demonstration we watched a video of an exploding kernel of corn in slow motion on the big screen and that was on par with a ride at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. And so was the series of photos illustrating six fresh chicken eggs being shot through with a bullet.

Michael Ruhlman, who had the privilege of holding and reviewing a copy of "Modernist Cuisine" for The New York Times, was "left wondering how a book could be mind-crushingly boring, eye-bulgingly riveting, edifying, infuriating, frustrating, fascinating, all in the same moment." (Read Ruhlman's review here.) This captures how I felt as the lights flickered on as Myhrvold wrapped up his presentation at the International Food Blogger Conference last summer.

Without a doubt, the intellectual effort behind "Modernist Cuisine" awes. But in many ways it shines glittery and distant – like the stars themselves – leaving this humble home cook down on earth with regular wooden spoons, chipped bowls, and no wings to fly.

Kendra Nordin blogs at Kitchen Report.

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