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March 30, 2011

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking


I'm not gonna lie.  I'm not sure I've ever been more nervous before an interview than I was before talking to Nathan Myhrvold.

Four graduate degrees? An Ivy League PhD at twenty-two and postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking? I had to fan the flop sweat from my body as I sat by the phone waiting for the chance, I assumed, to embarrass myself in front of a legitimate intellectual giant.

Mere minutes into my conversation, I realized I'd worried for nothing.  Nathan Myhrvold may be brilliant, accomplished, and wealthy, but he's also just a nice guy who's really passionate about a number of things, not the least of which is food and cooking.

Yes, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, the encyclopedia Myhrvold co-authored, has finally seen the light of day.

I was lucky enough to receive my copy a few weeks ago.  Now that my Q&A with Myhrvold has finally hit newstands, I'm eager to record a few of the impressions here that, due to pesky space limitations in the paper and ink world, did not make it into the Globe.

The first and most obvious question is: Is the book any good?  There's been a lot written, both positive and negative (and I'll address that shortly), but my personal opinion is that Modernist Cuisine lives up to the hype.  I'm probably guilty of bandying about words like "masterpiece" and "bible" too often, but I'm not sure any other superlatives do Myhrvold's masterpiece justice.

Modernist Cuisine may well be the greatest cookbook ever.

I know that it is, at the very least, the best cookbook in my collection.  Yes, many if not most of the recipes are inaccessible to me, even though I have a thermal immersion circulator and a lot of modernist ingredients, but Myhrvold, and his co-authors, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, have created a jaw-dropping work that simultaneously catalogues in exhausting detail the techniques and ingredients of modern gastronomy while reinventing the entire cookbook format.

I told Dr. Myhrvold during our interview that I appreciated his cookbook because it took me back to one of my geeky childhood thrills: visiting the library, grabbing a volume of the encyclopedia, and simply opening it to some random entry in order to gaze at all that information, both textual and photographic.  Modernist Cuisine fills me with that same sense of wonder.

Frankly, most of the time I don't give a damn about the recipes, even the ones that I can cook, because I'm engrossed in a detailed discussion of chicken skin or some other obscure, yet fascinating, detail.

Still, those recipes that I have tried are good, like the Colonel's Secret Recipe chicken, which was amongst the best fried chickens I've ever tasted, even if it didn't quite capture the flavour of KFC.

The best recipes in the book aren't for specific dishes, however, they're the "Parametric Recipes" that provide foundations for preparing any number of kitchen essentials (both modernist and conventional). The parametric recipe for stocks is my new go-to for that staple, as are the parametric recipes for sous videing tender and tough meats, poultry, and offal.

The recipe format itself deserves praise.  I loathe volume measurements, and this book doesn't contain any.  Quantities for every recipe are listed in metric and as a baker's percentage, which makes scaling dishes simple. This is a good thing, too, given that one of my few quibbles with the book is the small portion sizes in many recipes.

I'd like to offer one more nugget of praise before addressing some of the criticism leveled at modernist cuisine.  My sense is that the Modernist Cuisine team have finally solved the messy problem of what to call this particular approach to food.  Goodbye and good riddance to 'molecular gastronomy,' I say.  The people who cook in that style have always hated the term, and those who dislike it have always said the 'molecular' portion of the term with a sneer indicative of their contempt for what they view as an inferior style of cooking.

So, from now on can we please adopt the term 'modernist cuisine' (note the lower case 'm' and 'c' to distinguish it from the book)?

In addition to my Q&A with Dr. Myhrvold, The Globe & Mail also published companion articles by Mark Schatzker criticizing modernist cuisine, and by me praising it.

I'd like to take the time to address Schatzker's main argument (and I'm simplifying here): modernist cuisine emphasizes technique over ingredients.


Anyone who's read The Sorcerer's Apprentice's: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's elBulli, Lisa Abend's brilliant (but, frankly, harrowing) look into the lives of stagiaires at the world's most esteemed restaurant, learns how obsessive he and his chefs are about the quality of their primary materials.

Likewise, anyone who attended Rene Redzepi's Q&A with Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store here in Toronto, now knows of the centrality of ingredients to noma's food.

Thomas Keller's reverence for his materials is legendary.  To those of you who argue that Keller isn't a modernist, I refer you to his cookbook, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.

The lesson's clear: great chefs use great ingredients. Period. Whether they're traditionalists or modernists doesn't matter.

The other flaw in Schatzker's argument is that his criticism is only valid if traditional cookbooks don't behave in exactly the same way as Modernist Cuisine.  In his critique of Modernist Cuisine's hamburger recipe, Schatzker writes:

Alas, there is a problem. Humans may be able to measure quantities of Activa RM down to the nearest microgram and prepare blends of ground beef using exact ratios of short rib and aged rib eye. But nature doesn’t work that way.

For example, is that aged rib eye from a 14-month-old barley-fed Charolais steer or a 24-month-old ryegrass-finished Galloway heifer? Because both will feature different profiles of fatty acids and volatile aromatic compounds. And if you use the latter, don’t bother with the cylinderizing, liquid nitrogen and deep-frying: Just form a patty with your hands, hit it with sea salt and high heat, and you will discover burger bliss. (And just how many Microsoft stock options do you have to cash in before grinding an exalted cut like rib eye seems like a good idea?)

The problem is that traditional cookbooks don't differentiate between that barley-fed Charolais or his Galloway cousin either.  I see a lot of cookbooks these days, and the ingredients, especially for common dishes like a burger, almost always include generic ingredient lists.  When it comes to burger recipes, I'm usually happy when a cookbook recommends specific cuts of meat for the patty, which is exactly what Modernist Cuisine does.

And that's because cookbook recipes tend to follow a specific format: a set of ingredients, usually suitably generic (ie. 500 grams of lean ground beef), followed by a set of instructions, almost always specific (ie. cook on a grill heated to at least 400F).

Let's take a moment to envision Schatzker's idealized cookbook, which would apparently be exactly the opposite, an elaborate shopping list with vague instructions:

500 grams of ground 24-month-old ryegrass-finished Galloway heifer aged rib eye from your local farmers' market.
Sea salt 

Combine ingredients with your hands. Char the outside and heat the inside over high heat. Serve.

Absurd, right? So please don't tell me that technique only plays a supporting role.

Sure, you can buy that "24-month-old ryegrass-finished Galloway heifer" and "discover burger bliss," using a little salt and some high heat, or you can sous vide it, zap it with liquid nitrogen, and deep-fry it to discover burger perfection.

I know what I'd choose.

* I conducted two phone interviews with Dr. Myrhvold.  I offer them here, complete and unedited. The total, combined length is approximately two hours.





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