Recipes of the Nerds



Before it was even released two weeks ago, the serious, science-packed cookbook Cooking for Geeks was beating out Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan, and all the blustering diet books in Amazon's food and wine sales rankings. It sold out quickly at many outlets, including Amazon, where you have to wait "one to four months" for your copy. The book is one example of a product demanded by what seems to be a real and growing subculture of food and cooking wonks: technology nerds who are ready to conquer the kitchen.

The theme here is: understand the underlying scientific principles, and you can rather quickly master the craft. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and Robert Wolke's What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained are among the voluminous stream of recommendations that fill the Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and Google Buzz pages of people (like me) with connections to both technology and food. And over at the Cooking Channel—the reduced drama Food Network spinoff property designed as a refuge for shows involving actual cooking—geeks turn the stand-and-stir upside down. Food Jammers presents "blueprints" (recipes) for 3-D pizza are presented, and the hosts build a MacGyver-style DIY coffee roaster.

It's with a mix of amusement and trepidation that I see my brethren taking to the kitchen. (Before becoming a food writer, I spent years as a software engineer in the cubicles and non-corner offices of Silicon Valley.) They will certainly succeed. But is a soufflé an art or a problem to be solved?

There are no color photos at all (even the dishes appear as tiny black-and-white images). Apparently, these are not necessary—and they won't work well in the e-book version anyway.

Regardless, Cooking for Geeks is a model for this new genre. Its publisher is O'Reilly Media, the gold standard for technical documentation and instruction books, known for everything from compendiums like Building a Web 2.0 Application with ASP.NET to breezy beach reads like Algorithms in a Nutshell. The company's readers are legendarily loyal. The spines of O'Reilly books are designed to line up visually on a bookshelf, as few computer programmers own just one.

Now, after some 20 years of bits and bytes, the publisher (and technologist-turned-author Jeff Potter) is offering one of its first books that is not related to computing languages. Cooking for Geeks includes recipes for Duck Confit Sugo, Lemony Quinoa with Asparagus, Oaxacan Drinking Chocolate, and Béchamel. But the company hasn't forgotten its audience. Readers are advised to prepare the duck confit with special attention to furthering the Mailliard reaction (it occurs when meat browns, yielding that characteristic caramelized flavor). The section on meat tenderizing contains diagrams of collagen molecules, with an inset in case you need a quick refresher on the shared electrons of covalent bonding.

And the recipes are quite good. I made "Bacon-wrapped Scallops," which calls for more Maillard reactions, and some painted-on transglutaminase (also known as "meat glue") to firmly stick the bacon on the scallop. Don't laugh. The ingredient is a favorite of Momofuku's chef and owner (and multiple James Beard Award winner) David Chang. It's in his cookbook, too. Amazon's smart algorithms are already recommending Cooking for Geeks to Momofuku purchasers.

Cooking for Geeks offers a straightforward application of scientific methods over traditions or recipes. With apologies to Jacques Pépin, it aims to be a La Technique for nerds.


The book's author, Jeff Potter, 32, explained the strategy of the book to me over lunch near his Cambridge, Massachusetts home: "For people my age, most of our parents didn't cook. We have no traditional way of preparing food. The book gives us a scientific approach rather than 'do-it-this-way' recipes." Potter's writing is clear, fact-packed, and engaging—especially if you are fond of the Discovery Channel. But the lanky, awkward, and, well, nerdy author is a bit fidgety and unfocused in person. After a long and partially Latin explanation of how high-temperature searing has probably killed most of the bacteria on the tuna in my plate of Niçoise salad (thank you, Mr. Potter), and a Cartesian diagram pitting "science" against "recipes" drawn on my napkin, he gets to the heart of the matter. "Science short-cuts trial and error. And it's more interesting."

Potter's book has a useful and uniquely spare design, more like an academic journal than a best-selling cookbook. There are no glistening close-ups, no luscious color photos of Tuscany. Actually, there are no color photos at all (even the dishes appear as tiny black-and-white images). Apparently, these are not necessary—and they won't work well in the e-book version anyway. Recipes are written in a novel way that eliminates the up-front ingredient list in favor of boldface call-outs in the procedure (hello, programmers).

Dozens of experts hold forth in interesting two-page inserts (Hervé This on molecular gastronomy; Adam Savage of Mythbusters on testing things; David Leibovitz on American cooking), and as you turn (surf through?) the pages, you encounter a fast-moving smorgasbord for food geeks and foodies alike. The charts and diagrams are particularly compelling. I now have a copy of the New England food seasonality chart from page 130 on my refrigerator. On the whole, Cooking for Geeks offers an improbable victory of text over the standard food porn.

At times, the book panders a bit with forced usage of computer terminology, e.g. "overclocking" your oven (intentionally running it at a higher temperature than recommended), and too-explicit nods to hacker culture that may be lost even on younger technologists. Full-page recipes from industry luminaries including publisher Tim O'Reilly (Scones and Jam) and grim-faced founder Meg Hourihan (Chocolate Chip Cookies) are gratuitous, but they still made me smile as I recalled my days in Silicon Valley, where their names are legend.

For me, the book is hard to put down. Its overall clarity and organization, as well as its success, may point to a sequel (or a 2.0 version) of sorts. It seems to me that this is a real phenomena. In the past two weeks, Google matches and Twitter mentions on this particular title have risen exponentially, to a level normally reached only by books from well-known chefs and personalities—and after a much longer time period. It's evidence of a lot of creativity and brainpower connecting to the cooking world through books, TV, and above all, the Internet. It will be interesting to see what the nerds cook up next.