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
The three-hour procession of dishes—many just a single bite—highlight Myhrvold's efforts and offer a treetop view of what modern techniques and equipment have made possible. As Bilet and his team prepare and serve each course, Myhrvold circulates, explaining the products and processes in play. Wet pickles are compressed with starch and fried into crisp chips. Foie gras is blended with shallot jus and cognac in a laboratory homogenizer to produce what he calls a "constructed cream." We're served oysters, effortlessly shucked after a quick dip in liquid nitrogen. And spaghetti vongole is re-interpreted with geoduck clam filling in as the pasta itself.
Just past the halfway mark, we're served polenta with a marinara made not of tomato, but quince. House-made sea urchin "bottarga" is grated over a sheet of cocoa pasta meant to mimic kelp. King salmon is served as a vehicle for Myhrvold's "bullet-proof" beurre blanc, followed by a take on pastrami on rye, and, of course, barbecue.
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If there is one aspect of cooking that Modernist Cuisine ignores, it's pastry, for which Myhrvold apologizes more than once to me and pastry chef Waylynn Lucas of Bazaar in Los Angeles. He is quick to point out that it is often through pastry chefs that many contemporary techniques, if not an overall mentality, seep into the larger, more traditional culinary realm. As we head into the meal's final courses, we're presented with fresh ricotta and a rich green pea "butter"—the pure fat that separates when peas are given a spin in the centrifuge. Pistachio nuts and sugar are emulsified into the smoothest, nuttiest ice cream possible. And as the meal ends on a whimsical note, we're served a plate of gummy worms, produced in a mold normally used to make fishing lures.
We slowly make our way out, with much on our minds to digest, and I corner Myhrvold and only half-jokingly suggest that a pastry edition should follow. "Let's see how this one plays out," he responds, for the first time showing any trace of concern over the book's reception. Earlier, I had asked Food & Wine's Dana Cowin if she saw potential for a breakthrough to a wider audience of cooks. She had admitted to an initial apprehension that it may only serve the interest of a sliver of chefs, but she is now excited about the book's broad scope and in-depth coverage. A representative from the kitchen store Sur La Table agreed, noting that even sous vide technology has become affordable enough for the home kitchen.
If a cookbook can come anywhere near the goal of having something for everyone, Modernist Cuisine definitely comes close. In his early review blurb, Tim Zagat proclaimed it "the most important book ... since Escoffier." As we pile into our cabs at the end of the evening, he ponders revising that statement, acknowledging it may live on as the most important cookbook—ever.