'Modernist Cuisine': The Most Important Cookbook Ever?

More
Laiskonis_Modernist_2-10_post.jpg

Cooking Lab, LLC


One by one we arrive, dropped off at the door of an unremarkable office building. With an air of reserved anticipation, we nod to each other in recognition, or dispense with brief introductions. Only once we find ourselves ushered into a bright conference room and sit at a large table are our identities clear. Among the dozen guests are chefs David Chang, Michael Voltaggio, and Animal's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, not to mention Dana Cowin, editor of Food and Wine, and guidebook publishers Tim and Nina Zagat.

The fruits of this kitchen's labor? A 2,400-page, six-volume work chronicling almost every facet of cooking—but through the lens of a scientist.

What, one might ask, does it take to assemble such a group on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a quiet Seattle suburb? Well, when someone like Nathan Myhrvold invites you over for dinner, you quickly say "yes." And then you book a flight.

This isn't a typical dinner party and Myhrvold is not a typical host. A modern-day Renaissance man and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, he employs several hundred people through his Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures, which oversees projects ranging from nuclear reactors and hurricane control to high-tech surgical equipment and efforts to rid the world of malaria. Lucky for us, Myhrvold also happens to be a passionate cook. This passion led him toward barbecue championships, a culinary degree, and a stint in Thierry Ratureau's Seattle restaurant, Rover's. Myhrvold's love of food and his obsessive attention to detail have also produced a cookbook, perhaps to rival all others that have come before it.

It's this book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, co-authored by Fat Duck alum Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, that has lured us all to his lair. A tour of the facility reveals the kitchen, nestled into a corner of the building, an impressive machine shop on one side and a laser room and insectarium on the other (you can't very well study malaria without breeding mosquitoes, now can you?). What for us will become a makeshift dining room over the next few hours has been the nerve center for the book (to be officially released in March) over its three-and-a-half-year journey to realization. Outfitted with conventional kitchen equipment—stove, oven, mixers, etc—the cooking space is also home to a centrifuge, a freeze-dryer, and a roto-evaporator. And the fruits of this kitchen's labor? A 2,400-page, six-volume work chronicling almost every facet of cooking—but through the lens of a scientist, with an emphasis on culinary developments of the last 20 years.

Laiskonis_Modernist_2-10_inpost1.jpg

Cooking Lab, LLC

Back in the conference room, Myhrvold begins a chapter-by-chapter presentation of each volume, while a solitary copy—apparently one of only a handful of sets to already reach the U.S.—is passed around the table. The first shipment, Myhrvold explains, is literally on that slow boat from China. While most publishers choose to print in China for economic reasons, he was after quality: the paper and ink, and the special stochastic printing process that produces the highest resolution possible. The striking photography throughout the book is integral: the recurring cut-away images that detail how heat transfers into and around food as it cooks combine the high-tech (slicing in half everything from a Weber grill to a microwave to a $5,000 oven) and the low tech (fixing plexi-glass to the pots to keep the food intact while shot).

"We pretty much begin with the discovery of fire, and go from there," Myhrvold explains as he cracks the spine of the first volume, "History and Background." The opening treatise takes the reader from Apicius to Escoffier to nouvelle cuisine and "The Seeds of Modernism," finishing with a 30-year timeline placing key techniques and innovators in context. Included among the fundamentals are in-depth overviews of microbiology and food safety, even nutrition and health issues. If there are any controversial findings expressed in the work, it might be found here, as Myhrvold takes issue with certain guidelines established by the FDA and suggests little evidence exists to support claims that olive oil is any better for you than bacon fat. The book began merely as a primer on sous vide cooking, a knowledge gap Myhrvold saw in need of filling as more and more chefs began embracing the technique. The second volume, "Techniques and Equipment," takes us there and far beyond.


MORE ON HIGH-TECH COOKING:
Dave Arnold: High-Tech Drinks
Ike DeLorenzo: Recipes of the Nerds
Dave Arnold: High-Tech Distillation

As the dinner hour looms closer, we see the remaining volumes and Myhrvold interjects a few statistics for our amusement. If all the text were laid out in a single, 10-point line, it would stretch over six and a half miles. The project involved three dozen staff members at its peak. Another highlight of the set is the use of parametric tables, which transform mountains of data and countless hours of recipe testing into manageable references for, say, the production of a hot fruit gel—expressed in variables such as acidity, desired texture, and the chosen gelling agent. Another chart lays out a continuum of custards based on temperature and egg concentration (from 10 to 250 percent) and the resulting texture each equation will produce. With the third volume, "Animals and Plants," the reader is introduced to anatomy, butchering, and basic botany under the premise that cooks can't properly know how to treat an ingredient unless they have a basic grasp of its composition and microstructure.

Through volume four, "Ingredients and Preparations," and into "Plated-Dish Recipes," the fifth, all of this knowledge is applied to both original recipes and those inspired by or adapted from leading chefs from Alain Chapel and Frédy Girardet to Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert. Yet it's not all about haute cuisine and the contemporary avant garde. With equal vigor Myhrvold and his team approach omelets, hamburgers, and barbecue, even tofu. The sixth volume is a reproduction of all the recipes, in a suitable size and format to actually work from in the kitchen. As we head back into the lab, Myhrvold lets slip that a 30-course meal awaits. "We couldn't have you come all this way and not show off a little," Myhrvold grins.

NEXT: Liquid-nitrogen oysters, green pea "butter," and other highlights from the modernist meal

Jump to comments
Presented by

As executive pastry chef of New York's Le Bernardin, Michael Laiskonis was named Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation. His work has also helped the restaurant maintain four stars from The New York Times. More

As executive pastry chef of New York's Le Bernardin, Michael Laiskonis produces delicate desserts that are a flavorful balance of art and science, both contemporary and classic. Awarded Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation, he has also helped the restaurant maintain three stars from the esteemed Michelin Guide and four stars from The New York Times, in which Frank Bruni described the desserts as "sophisticated without being pretentious, multifaceted but not unduly fanciful."

In his five-year tenure as pastry chef at Tribute in Detroit, Pastry Art and Design twice named him one of the "10 Best Pastry Chefs in America." He has been at Le Bernardin since 2004. Eric Ripert, executive chef and co-owner, says, "Michael's sensibilities perfectly complement the Le Bernardin style of light, inventive, and elegant food."

Laiskonis has been featured in print, television, and radio appearances internationally. His consulting projects include an ongoing collaboration with the Ritz Carlton hotels in Grand Cayman, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, as well as work with the National Peanut Board, several pastry shops throughout Japan, and most recently, advisory positions with the Institute of Culinary Education and Starbucks. In 2008, Laiskonis became a featured contributor to Gourmet.com and participated in the launch of the Salon.com food page, and he was a contributor to Britain's Yes Chef! in 2009. He has also joined the ranks of chef-bloggers with two websites documenting his work, mlaiskonis.com and michael-laiskonis.com.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In