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?
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."