Archive for February, 2011
Tuesday night was the official book launch party for Modernist Cuisine, the 2400+ page epic that can only be defined loosely by the term “cookbook”. Although it doesn’t begin shipping until March 7th (and you may have to wait longer than that), the book has already sold over 3400 copies in pre-order and has entered Amazon.com’s Top 100 for books, not just cookbooks.
The launch party, hosted at the Palace Ballroom, was a sold out but still intimate evening. Admission included a small plate of samples from the book – dehydrated pear, a cube of pastrami with a rye cracker, fried chicken, and a dehydrated corn chowder that blasts into existence only once inside your mouth.
Tom Douglas introduced Nathan Myhrvold, the book’s creator, with obvious reverence and respect. Apparently, on Monday night, and a handful of renowned chefs, including Tom, gathered at the Intellectual Ventures kitchen lab in Bellevue and were treated to a 30-something course dinner of a lifetime. One of the ironies in the way this book was made was that there is no restaurant associated with their kitchen – they have no customers, so until recently, nobody knew what the food tasted like, exactly. Luckily for a handful of world-class chefs and prominent journalists (and on a separate occasion, one extremely fortunate food blogger, me), the Modernist Cuisine team has been throwing a series of dinner events to prove just how good these dishes taste.
Nathan spoke to the crowd, armed with a PowerPoint to show off spreads from the book, and talked with his usual candor about the process of creating the book. He commented on the risk-averse nature of both the US Department of Health and the world of book publishing – the former being a politically-driven machine full of inconsistency, and the latter being a least-common-denominator-driven machine full of compromise and devoid of flexibility. He seems to have set both of those industries straight, likely to their embarrassment.
The audience oohed and aahed when Nathan showed footage captured by his super-high speed camera – a corn kernel popping, oil drips hitting a a hot coal, droplets of liquid nitrogen dancing on the surface of a counter. At one point, he showed an extremely slow motion shot of a champagne cork popping from the neck of a bottle. It was the stuff rap videos are made of, minus the spinning rims.
During the Q&A, Nathan made the themes of the book very clear: they refused to compromise on quality, nothing should be “dumbed down”, and the vast majority of the book really was accessible to anyone with some basic kitchen gear. However, it was near his closing remarks that Nathan really explained his motivation. “I wanted to write this book as a way to give back to the world of cuisine, which has given me so much.” Indeed, I hope the world of food can continue to find benefactors as generous and as genius as Dr. Myhrvold.
Modernist Cuisine [Amazon]
If you haven’t already, read How The Modernist Cuisine Book Caused My Existential Crisis – Part 1.
And so I wallowed in my untimeliness, still gawking with the turn of every page at the unparalleled photography and exhaustive parametric permutations of each new recipe. “What could I possibly write now?” I questioned. And then I had a realization….
It occurred to me that the modernist food revolution I was so sad to miss has actually just barely started. Rather than feeling “late to the party”, I now recognize that the publication of Modernist Cuisine represents a critical phase for the movement: democratization.
Until now, only a few chefs in the world have been able to execute the types of dishes featured in the Modernist Cuisine book. Most of these chefs (Ferran Adira, in particular) are highly skilled and highly creative people, but they’re also people who have the time and resources to devote to such an R&D-heavy brand of cooking. Experimentation certainly doesn’t come cheap.
Let’s take, for example, the problem of thickening…
Right now, I’m one of the few very fortunate people in the world who have a copy of the Modernist Cuisine book. I’ve been a vocal fan(boy) of the project for nearly a year now. As my wife can attest, discussing the subject of this book has been a favorite pastime of mine… at cocktail parties, friends’ birthdays, on vacation, to tech support call operators, at drive-through windows, and to just about anyone else who will listen. About two weeks ago while I was driving to work, I got an email asking if I could swing by the Intellectual Ventures office to pick up a review copy. I nearly drove my car through the median in my eagerness.
I got the books, brought them home, and posted an “unboxing coming soon” teaser article. That was two weeks ago. Since then – not a single mention. The books that I’ve been salivating over for nearly a year finally arrive and I don’t post a word. What happened?
I had an existential crisis.
I love discovering that someone is secretly a geek. I love it even more when that person also happens to be a chef.
I had the recent pleasure of dining at Kirkland’s lowercase waterfront hotspot bin on the lake and I got to spend some time chatting with the newly-arrived chef Paul Hyman (disclosure: this was a hosted dinner). Chef Hyman’s Louisiana roots were evident in his passion for food (everyone I know from Louisiana is a food fanatic), and his previous positions at highly-respected kitchens in Boston and Portland made him seem like a very natural fit for an upscale Pacific Northwest restaurant like bin. However, I quickly realized that behind the mandatory Ranch Name + Organic + Popular Cut Served with Locally Grown Seasonal Vegetable (which was delicious, by the way) this chef was secretly channeling his deepest inner geek.
Take, for example, the dinner menu’s only pasta course: Corzetti. Rather than opt for the more predictable handmade ravioli (which are to Seattle menus as Subarus are to Seattle streets), he chose a fresh pasta that I’d never seen on a menu before. I was intrigued. The chef came to the table holding a pair of round wooden blocks and explained that they were handmade stamps for the little discs of pasta he served. Not only does stamping the pasta create more surface area for it to hold sauce (winning geek points already), but these corzetti stamps are only made by a few people in the world and required a trip to Italy just to obtain. Exclusive, nice.
Click through for more, plus photos of dinner.
Ferran Adrià is the most influential chef, living or dead, period. He’s also likely the most controversial. At his Catalonia restaurant El Bulli, Ferran has spent the last few decades turning the culinary world on it’s head, breaking rules, toying with emotions, and inventing never-before-conceived ways of imagining food.
Unfortunately, you may know Ferran best by his most extreme techniques, which are often implemented poorly by far lesser chefs (yep, I’ve been guilty of that). His most recognizable methods include making foams and turning liquids into encapsulated spheres, both of which quickly denigrate from masterful haute techniques into party gags rather quickly. However, in the hands of (by all accounts) a master/genius/sorcerer/+5000 Mana Food Priest, these methods contribute to a transformative and even transcendent dining experience.
Through Colman Andrews’ unprecedented access to Ferran, we learn about his fascinating and serendipitous career progression from military dishwasher to short-order beach bum, eventually becoming the most renowned chef in the world. We also learn much of the history of El Bulli and how the location, landscape and struggling seasonality of the restaurant ultimately contributed to its unlikely success.
What we don’t learn, though, is much about Ferran, personally. Although he dispenses a bevy of prolific statements throughout the chapters, nearly nothing is written about his life outside the kitchen, his wife or his relationships with friends. In fact, reading about his many simultaneous projects and ventures, I began to wonder if there was any off-duty time to discuss at all!
Skeptics of “molecular gastronomy”, a term which Ferran and others abhor, may find this book less than satisfying – the brief chapter on the opposition to Ferran’s food only lightly grazes the surface of the common knee-jerk responses to modernist cooking, and regrettably does very little to dispel the pervasive untruths that are frequently held against Ferran and his disciples. However, for a geek like me wishing to emulate the patterns and unbounded thinking that made Ferran Adria such a powerful force in the modernist food movement, this book was a fantastic glimpse into the mind of a genius.