I had the honor of speaking at this year’s Chicago Ideas Week, as part of a session on the creative process. The entire conference was breathtaking in the scope and depth of ideas presented. I met some incredible folks, and spent the three days prior to my talk holed up in my hotel room obsessing over my slides and trying to determine how to relay my story. I don’t generally get nervous before giving a presentation or going on stage, but when that same stage was graced by George Lucas, Sean Combs and Penn and Teller the day before, it tends to raise the stakes. Anyhow, here’s my talk, and I highly encourage you to spend time watching the other talks from this year’s Chicago Ideas Week.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of telling my story at the Business Innovation Factory, a TED-inspired conference in which innovators from a variety of fields share the personal experiences that transformed their businesses and their lives. The conference was overwhelmingly powerful – I was in awe of so many of the storytellers who, in very real and tangible ways, are changing the world.
The story I told was my own. It describes the sequence of events between posting my first crappy recipe online to landing my dream job at Modernist Cuisine, to launching a very successful Kickstarter for Sansaire. Anybody who proclaims, “follow these steps and you can do it, too!” is lying. The truth is, I got really lucky several times over. But, in retrospect, there are a number of things that I just happened to do right, and they allowed me to capture the opportunities that came my way. Being boldly passionate was at the top of that list.
Ironically, this was the most difficult presentation I’ve ever had to give. Not because of stage fright, or because I needed to do a bunch of research, or because it was difficult to condense into the time I had a available (I went over my time. Oops.). It was difficult because I was telling my own story, but I had rarely stopped to put it in perspective. In fact, it was my wife, Rachel, who ultimately crafted the narrative I presented at BIF. After floundering my way through a fuzzy set of bullet points for the fourth time, she finally said, “Why don’t you let me tell you your story? I know it better than anyone.” She was right. I took out my notepad, and Rachel proceeded to connect the dots with far more insight than I ever had.
It’s highly worth your time to check out the other storytellers in the Business Innovation Factory series. They’re pretty badass.
This has been an incredible year. 362 days ago, as of the time of this writing, I walked into Modernist Cuisine headquarters for my first day of my new job. I was excited, nervous, and not quite sure what to expect, or what would be expected of me. I was thrilled that my work on SeattleFoodGeek.com had led to the incredible opportunity to leave Microsoft and work in a job that ran parallel to my passion. I had no idea just how amazing this would turn out to be, and what an indescribable dream of a year would lay ahead. With deference to the art of the humblebrag, here’s a look back at just a few of the incredible things that happened in 2012.
I met some amazing people
THE Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and legendary geek hero. We had an intense conversation about the physics of cooking pizza on the surface of Venus, and about what really happens when you decant wine.
Chef Wolfgang Puck, who achieved fame at Spago and invented California-style pizza, and renowned Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard.
Chopped host and former Queer Eye food guy Ted Allen and Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten. Ted was intrigued by a number of techniques that our culinary team demonstrated for him in the lab. Much to my surprise, Ina and Nathan had a long conversation about nuclear reactor design – it turns out that, prior to becoming a Food Network icon, she was a White House nuclear policy analyst.
…Not to mention dozens of other incredible chefs, scientists, businesspeople, artists and generally inspirational folks who were wise enough to avoid having their picture taken.
I traveled and I ate
My wife and I made our first pilgrimage to The French Laundry. Ever since I fell in love with food, it had always been a dream to visit this mecca of fine dining. We enjoyed 17 courses, including many of the restaurant’s iconic dishes (oysters and pearls, salmon tartare cornets) and incredible hospitality from the entire staff. In any previous year of my life, I would not have had the opportunity to eat this meal, nor would I have appreciated it so deeply,
I also had my first meal at Alinea. It would be an understatement that dinner at Alinea blew my mind. It would be more apt to saw that dinner at Alinea attached itself to a dozen points on my head, then ran off in opposite directions expanding my brain like a Hoberman sphere. Surrounded by my wonderful friends Jethro, Mindy and Eric (who works for Chef Achatz), we were served 25+ courses, perhaps a dozen wines, and enough caviar to make an emperor blush. That meal has forever changed the way I think about the restaurant experience.
In August of this year, Nathan and the culinary team were invited to cook for Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary, which precluded the restaurant’s announced closing by just a few weeks. I was very fortunate to be invited to tag along – although my cooking responsibilities were… limited, I managed to make myself handy as the unofficial event photographer. Throughout the weekend, in between being spoiled with dinners and parties, I got to hang out with chefs Sean Brock and Tetsuya Wakuda, both of whom have every right to be far less humble. I also briefly met Rahm Emmanuel
At the other end of the fussiness spectrum from Alinea and French Laundry, I also had my first meal at Chez Panisse. Some people perceive a tension between Alice Waters’ philosophy on food an the philosophy we extoll at Modernist Cuisine, but that tension is entirely false. We both seek to honor our ingredients and we both believe that food that is grown with more care tastes better. Well, lunch at Chez Panisse proved that within a few bites.
These were just a few of the incredible food experiences I had this year. There were dozens of others, from Momofuku Ssam Bar and NoMad in New York, to Canlis in Seattle, to grabbing an In-N-Out burger in the middle of the night in Hollywood. I feel like this has been a year of culinary rites of passage, and I feel unworthy knowing how many great meals still lie ahead.
I Helped Evangelize Modernist Cuisine
Part of my job (a big part, as it turned out) is spreading the word about Modernist cuisine, and specifically about our books. Sometimes this means getting on stage or in front of a camera, and other times it means doing whatever’s necessary to help Nathan or any other member of the team spread the word.
Here’s Nathan presenting at the American Museum of Natural History for the Modernist Cuisine at Home launch in New York City. We had just come from Google, where Nathan gave another presentation. Although you can’t see me in the photo, I was running the slide deck that night from the back of the room while Nathan was on stage and our culinary team was preparing tasting samples for the attendees.
This year, I also had the honor of officially representing Modernist Cuisine. Do you know what it feel like to go from being a fan of something to being a spokesperson? It feels really, really good. The photo above shows a talk I gave on our newest book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, at Powell’s in Portland.
While Nathan was cryofrying a burger for Jimmy Kimmel, I was just offstage. I actually did this demo, onstage on the Jimmy Kimmel Live set, in a run-through with the segment producers before Nathan arrived at the studio. They recorded my “performance” onto a DVD. That means, technically speaking, that there’s footage of me doing a cooking demo on Jimmy Kimmel Live. I’ll take it!
I also demonstrated liquid nitrogen ice cream and centrifuged tomato water live on Irish daytime TV to promote Modernist Cuisine. I also participated in a Food/Art/Science exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin. With the help of a few student assistants, we made a “wall of centrifuged foods” to illustrate the individual component ingredients that you can only obtain through culinary centrifugation. Unfortunately, I didn’t predict that the temperature created by the backlights in this display would be ideal for active bacterial growth inside the sealed test tubes. Within 24 hours, the centrifuged foods began fermenting. The gas released by the fermentation process caused enough pressure to pop the lids off most of the tubes, sending a spattering of food juice across the room. I called it a “kinetic exhibit” and pretended it was all part of the plan.
In perhaps the most rockstar moment I’ve ever experienced, I spoke to a record crowd of 2,500 fans at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, along with Modernist Cuisine chef Anjana Shanker and our former head chef Max Bilet. Neither before nor since have I seen a crowd cheer and make the sign of the horns in response to the person on stage saying the words “sous vide.”
Photo Credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu
I think this one unlocks some sort of nerd achievement: I appeared on the NOVA ScienceNOW profile of Nathan and Modernist Cuisine. At the time that NOVA was filming the segment on Nathan, I was our PR manager. We had a few minutes of downtime while we were waiting for someone to arrive for an interview, so they asked if I’d sit in. I didn’t expect that they’d use any of the footage, but when we watched the show, there I was!
I Made a Web Video Series with CHOW.COM
We call it MDRN KTCHN and all 12 episodes of season 1 are live. The show wouldn’t be possible without my awesome production team: Roxanne Webber and Blake Smith, without the fantastic support of CBS Interactive, and of course, without my job as Director of Applied Research at Modernist Cuisine. This show has been an incredible platform for reaching people who are interested in Modernist cooking, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve created. Season 2 will be off the hook.
I’m on the Forbes 30 Under 30
To top it all off, as if a square millimeter of this year’s lily might go ungilded, Forbes Magazine named me as one of their 30 Under 30 in Food and Wine. Holy. Shit.
This year has been a phenomenal confluence of professional success and personal passion. Every day I work with people who I respect and admire, I’m having a blast doing it, and they pay me for the privilege. I owe thanks to my friends and family, particularly my wife Rachel, who gave me the support and courage to take a risk and pursue my dream job. But I also have an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Nathan, not only for hiring me and giving me these opportunities, but for literally creating the business of Modernist Cuisine. None of what I described above would have been possible without his trust that a food blogger and fanboy with a Microsoft day job could have something to contribute to the incredible work that takes place at Modernist Cuisine.
OK, enough gushing already. 2013 starts soon, and I’ve got big plans…
Navigating the world of Modernist cooking equipment can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, but don’t worry, I’m here to help. This year’s list gift guide includes everything you need to start cooking like a Modernist in the comfort of your own home kitchen.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is an old management adage, but it’s just as applicable to precision cooking. An accurate, responsive probe thermometer is the single most critical tool in any chef’s arsenal for ensuring properly-cooked proteins. But, in Modernist cooking, temperature control is just as critical for hydrating hydrocolloids and activating enzymes. I recommend the Thermapen because of its exceptional accuracy and lightning-fast read times.
Any fan of Modernist Cuisine knows that an accurate, digital scale is required for every recipe in the book. This scale, by American Weigh, measures in 0.1 gram increments up to 2 kilograms, making it one of the most versatile I’ve found.
How would you like to give all of your favorite cheeses the same melting properties as Velveeta with out any compromise in flavor? Well, my friends, this ingredient does the trick. A carefully-measured dash of sodium citrate acts as an emulsifier to keep your cheese from separating into an oily mess when it melts. For more, see my CHOW video on High-Tech Melty Cheese.
The whipping siphon is not just for savory foams anymore! This indispensable tool also makes quick work of flavorful infusions, pressure-marinates meat, carbonates drinks, carbonates fruit, and much more. If you’re tempted by a cheaper, off-brand siphon, I’m afraid you (and the Modernist cook in your life) will be disappointed. iSi is the only siphon brand I’ve tested that can handle thick foams and purees.
As we explain in Modernist Cuisine at Home, The key to moist meat and crispy skin is injection brining. Brines help the meat absorb more water and hold onto it during the cooking process. Unfortunately, it has the same effect on poultry skin, and moist skin is just the opposite of crispy. To get around that conundrum, we recommend injection brining, which both protects the skin and speeds up the total brining process.
A chamber vacuum sealer is one of the most-used and most-critical pieces of gear in any Modernist kitchen. Unlike edge-style sealers, like the FoodSaver, a chamber vacuum easily seals bags of liquid. It’s the perfect companion for sous vide cooking, but it’s far from a one trick pony. Want to make pickles in 60 seconds, or compress fruits and vegetables? Done. How about extracting the dissolved gas from your omelet? Done. And if you’re preparing food for a potluck, leave your Tupperware behind: a vacuum bag is the ultimate way to transport your foods, cooked or raw.
It is literally worth owning a pressure cooker just so you can make the Caramelized Carrot Soup from Modernist Cuisine at Home. I’ve tried other brands, but my favorite is Kuhn Rikon. It is much quieter than pressure cookers with a “bobbling weight”, and has an easy to read pressure gauge. It even works on induction cooktops! You’ll find incredible time savings and more flavorful results from the dozens of pressure cooker techniques that Modernists cooks love.
I’m not much of a horsepower guy, unless we’re talking about blenders. The Vitamix is sets the industry standard with over 2 horsepower (peak) and blade speeds up to 240 miles per hour. That intense power yields finer purees, smoother soups, and stronger emulsions… not to mention fabulous margaritas.
Of course, I have to give a shoutout to two fabulous sous vide bundles that our partners at PolyScience and SousVide Supreme have put together for the holidays.
The Sous Vide Professional™ CREATIVE Series is my personal immersion circulator of choice. Featuring the same precision as its big brother, the CHEF Series, this circulator runs even quieter, making it perfect for home kitchens. And, of course, it makes the perfect gift bundle alongside Modernist Cuisine at Home.
This bundle from SousVide Supreme is everything you need to get started cooking sous vide at home. The SousVide Supreme water bath features a self-contained heating element and a small countertop footprint. The bundle also includes an edge-style vacuum sealer – perfect for sealing meats and vegetables for those long cooking times that produce such exceptional results.
[Disclosure: I and the Director of Applied Research for Modernist Cuisine. I have business relationships with some of the manufacturers suggested in this list. However, all of the recommendations listed here are based on my personal preferences alone and do not reflect an endorsement by Modernist Cuisine, LLC. I have not received, nor will I receive any money, products or preferential treatment for the recommendations on this list.]
This may be the most dangerous food I’ve ever created. I came up with the idea near the end of a very long day of work, when delirium had set in and all of my ideas were at their most absurd. But, in the morning, the idea still lingered with me, so, despite my sense of impending moral conflict, I present Hypermelon.
Hypermelon is melon that has been vacuum infused with an energy drink. Strong vacuum pressure causes the cellular structure of the melon to change, and when atmospheric pressure is returned, the melon sucks up a proportionally large amount of any surrounding liquid. In these experiments, I infused watermelon with 5 Hour Energy and Sugar-Free Redbull. It’s pretty easy to extend the recipe to Rockstar Energy Drinks or other high-caffeine beverages. The watermelon helps to mask the semimedicinal flavor of the energy drink, making consumption of those beverages even more dangerous.
Here’s a short video showing the vacuum infusion process. As you can see, the watermelon sucks up quite a bit of liquid. In fact, it only takes 200g of watermelon to absorb an entire 5 Hour Energy.
I encourage you to exercise caution when making hypermelon. This shit is no joke.
I really wanted to make glow-in-the-dark oysters. More accurately, I wanted to make oysters fluoresce under ultraviolet light (sometimes called “black light”). Why? Because it’s cool, of course. [If you were hoping for a more noble, practical reason, you’re probably reading this blog by mistake.]
I knew two things before beginning this experiment: 1) the quinine in tonic water fluoresces under UV light, and 2) oysters are “filter feeders,” meaning they trap particles from the water as a means of taking in nutrients. Modernist Cuisine includes a recipe, which is an adaptation from Dave Arnold and Nils Noren, for Beet Juice-Fed Oysters (book 3, page 206). The recipe calls for submerging live oysters in beet juice strained through a 500 micron sieve and letting them feed for 48 hours. The flesh of the oyster turns pink and red as it takes on the microscopic particles of beet juice.
Following this example, I thought there was a good chance that the oysters might filter the quinine out of tonic water in the same way, leading to slightly sweetened oysters that would glow iridescent blue under a black light. In my experiment, however, they did not. The picture you see above is one of my test oysters under a fluorescent UV bulb. Although it looks cool in the photo, it is very much not fluorescing. If I put a white cloth next to the oyster, the cloth lit up like a warehouse rave, but the oyster was only reflecting the bluish hue of the visible light from the UV blub. Interestingly, a portion of the shell just at the hinge is fluorescing (it’s a brighter blue-green in the picture) but I did not achieve my intended result of an iridescent mollusk.
Why didn’t it work? I have a few theories:
- Perhaps the oysters were DOA. Shamefully, I purchased the oysters at the type of grocery store that also sells name-brand cola and US Weekly. I should have known better, and I’ll never do it again, but it’s quite possible that these fugly-ass oysters were dead before I got them home.
- Salt problem? The Modernist Cuisine recipe calls for 2.6% aquarium salt. I’m not sure what that is, so I used regular table salt. Perhaps that’s an important difference.
- Is tonic water lethal to oysters? The shells were still tightly closed when I removed them. I did notice that, for about 30 minutes after I covered the oysters in tonic water, they were releasing a constant stream of very small bubbles from the edges of their shells. I assume this was a result of them circulating the water through their muscular little bodies. But perhaps the fact that the bubbles stopped after 30 minutes is evidence that they didn’t survive the pre-cocktail environment of a bottle of Canada Dry.
- The quinine in tonic water might be inaccessible to the oyster’s filtration system. Either the quinine particles are too large, too small, or for some other reason can’t be filtered by the oysters.
- Not enough quinine? Perhaps everything did work as I anticipated, but the concentration of the quinine was just to weak to show up in the oyster bodies.
I may repeat this experiment with higher-quality oysters and additional quinine. Alternately, if any geneticists out there want to grab the fluorescence gene from a modified zebrafish and put it into a Samish Sweet or a Blue Pool, I’ll gladly shuck and slurp with you!
Jethro and I were asked to create a dish with “wow factor” for a group of scientists for an upcoming event. We wanted to craft a bite that’s first and foremost delicious, but also illustrates some of the hallmarks of modernist cooking: textural transformation, surprise, and use of unconventional techniques to refine and reinterpret something traditional. It also had to be practical and economical, since we’ll be serving nearly 200 people in two hours. This meant quick plating time, low portion cost, and minimal prep. After some brainstorming, we decided that a cryopoached (liquid nitrogen-frozen) puff would fit the bill. Jethro had already made the Fat Duck’s Cryopoached Green Tea Sour (which I recognized from Modernist Cuisine), but we wanted to make a version that was our own, and frankly, one that was simpler and cheaper.
I knew from prior experience that coconut milk foams nicely through a whipping siphon – I use it as a garnish for MC’s caramelized carrot soup. Jeth and I came up with a list of complimentary flavors, including licorice and lime. We combined coconut milk with a shot of absinthe, which made a delicious puff. However, the strong licorice flavor of absinthe turns a lot of folks off, so we decided it wouldn’t be a crowd pleaser. But coconut and lime? Who wouldn’t love that. And, for a little color and flavor contrast, we dusted the tops with ground, freeze-dried strawberries.
When cryopoached properly, the “meringue” has a crunchy exterior shell that gives way to a light, foamy interior. But, within a second of being in your mouth, the whole thing melts into liquid – the sensation all but forces a smile! We got the best textural results when we poached the meringues for 20 seconds, flipping once, then letting it rest 10 seconds before eating.
Makes: a lot
Total kitchen time: 20 minutes
Special equipment required: liquid nitrogen, whipping siphon
Freeze dried strawberry, powdered
5. Dust over the frozen meringues and serve immediately.
Also, an important safety note: DON’T LICK THE SPOON! Any metal or dense materials that come in contact with the liquid nitrogen will get cold and stay cold – cold enough to burn your skin and freeze your tongue like a flagpole in a snowstorm. As a gentleman and a friend, I’m choosing not to post the picture of Jethro’s “lesson” in thermodynamics, but let’s just say that the spoon now has more taste buds than he does.
*Thanks to Mr. Eric Rivera for the carrageenan tip!
I’m overjoyed to announce that, starting in January, I’ll be joining the Modernist Cuisine team full-time as the Business Development Manager… and Modernist Cuisine Evangelist! If you’ve been following the blog (or if you’ve ever had a 5-minute conversation with me) you know that I’ve been a huge fan of Modernist Cuisine since I first heard about the project. From my first interview with Nathan Myhrvold in May, 2010 to my recent experience of interning with the kitchen team, it has been my dream to join this team. Now, I’ll have the tremendous pleasure of helping Modernist Cuisine grow in new and exciting ways, and spread our message to a much broader audience.
We are fortunate to be witnessing a worldwide, culinary revolution. Much like Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire forever changed cooking in the early twentieth century, Modernist Cuisine enables contemporary ideas, tools and cooking techniques to spread more widely than any other book before it. In fact, I’ve been infamously quoted as saying “Escoffier would crap his pants…” at the sight of the five gorgeous, comprehensive volumes. However, with the U.S. book launch completed and foreign editions now broadly available, our work is far from done.
More than ever, we are excited about the huge potential we see in the road ahead. We’ll be exploring ways for The Cooking Lab to contribute to the Modernist revolution, not only through our books but also through new services and products that we hope to develop ourselves and in collaboration with a wide range of other companies, from food and equipment manufacturers to chefs and restaurant owners, to publishers and producers. We’ve got a list of great ideas to turn into realities, but we also want to know what you’d like to see from us. If you have an idea, a request, or a partnership opportunity, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Contact us online or email email@example.com.
I’m incredibly excited about the future of Modernist Cuisine, and I’m honored by the privilege of helping to shape it!
After much ogling, I finally took the plunge and purchased a VacMaster chamber vacuum sealer when I caught an irresistible deal for an older model on Craigslist. I had known for a while that my FoodSaver was woefully inadequate at sealing wet foods for sous vide, but after witnessing how much of a workhorse the chamber sealer is at the Modernist Cuisine lab, I knew it was an essential missing piece of gear for my own kitchen. These are the results of my first real experimentation with the chamber vacuum sealer: “quick pickling.”
A chamber sealer pulls a much stronger vacuum than a FoodSaver – so strong, in fact, that it will boil water at room temperature. When you apply this ultra-strong vacuum pressure to plant foods, you can physically change their cell structure in a way that causes the foods to quickly absorb liquids that surround them. Modernist Cuisine explains the phenomenon best:
The cells of plant tissue contain pockets of air and water called vacuoles. As the outside pressure decreases during vacuum sealing, these vacuoles act like balloons rising up through the atmosphere, and like balloons they eventually pop. The popped vacuoles cannot reinflate[…] so they collapse under the weight of atmospheric pressure as soon as the sealing chamber is opened.[…]
Incidentally, this phenomenon also is the reason that infusing liquids into fruits or vegetables under vacuum compression works so well. Once the vacuoles rupture, they quickly fill with any surrounding liquid.
So, I set out to exploit this phenomenon with a bunch of different plant foods. Here are the results.
The image at the top of this post shows the outcome of my tomato experiments. On the left is a raw tomato, sliced 3mm thick. In the middle is a tomato infused with olive oil. On the right is a tomato infused with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Since the oil replaces much of the water in the tomato slice, you can safely top these tomatoes with salt without the salt melting, which is a neat trick.
The image just above shows a macro shot of the oil and balsamic tomato slice. You can actually see the expanded vacuoles, which are now filled with oil. As the pressure in the vacuum chamber dropped, the tomatoes boiled vigorously in the olive oil – they actually looked like they were being deep-fried, but at room temperature. I think there’s more to explore here…
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. These are classic pickles. I infused 3mm cucumber slices in a brine of rice wine vinegar, sugar, salt, water, coriander seed, black peppercorn and fresh dill. Because the cell walls are collapsed, these pickles don’t quite have the same “snap” as traditional pickles, but they were still excellent. Having total control over the flavor of the brine and being able to make pickles in less than 60 seconds more than makes up for the difference in mouthfeel.
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. Because the quince was so firm, I sliced it to 3/4mm on the mandoline. I pickled the slices with Noble Tonic No. 4 and thyme. Although they are quite acidic as a standalone snack, they’d make a fantastic garnish for something fatty, like a slab of pork belly or a chunk of tuna. They’re also much more attractive when they turn translucent.
[Raw on the left, infused middle and right]. Much to my surprise, the jicama didn’t compress much or turn translucent. However, it did do a fantastic job taking on surrounding flavors. My first test was Sriracha and light coconut milk. This worked like a charm – the liquid was quite thick, but even after I rinsed the jicama, the flavors remained. The second test was a brine of apple cider and fennel seed. This has the potential to become a fantastic slaw. Although I was happy with the flavors, I didn’t compare the results of the vacuum compression to simply soaking jicama in these liquids, so I can’t say for sure that vacuum did any magic here.
[Raw on the left, infused on the right]. This was one of the most promising results – I infused 3/4mm sliced raw turnip with Nobile Tonic No. 1 Maple Syrup. In fairness, I could lick that maple syrup off a cast iron griddle and still love it. However, the sweetness of the syrup added a wonderful complexity to the bitter, spicy finish of raw turnip. I could see these infused turnip sheets used as a wrapper for a filling, or perhaps deep fried into chips.
I’m very excited about the results of this first round of testing, and I look forward to more experimentation with the chamber sealer.
As you may know, one hallmark of the photography in Modernist Cuisine is their use of cutaway photos that show what’s happening inside your food – and cookware – as you cook. Since I plan on (eventually) trying to recreate all of the recipes in the book, I thought it might be prudent to recreate those cutaway shots, too. Unlike the MC lab, however, I don’t have a waterjet.
Enter the fantastic folks at Flow International Corporation. They happened to catch my half-joking tweet asking if anyone had a waterjet I could borrow, and as it turns out, they do. In fact, Flow manufactures waterjet machines and invited me to visit them at their headquarters in Kent, WA. When I arrived, they led me – and my box of fully intact cookware – into their demonstration room, an enormous space punctuated by a handful of monstrous waterjets machines.
Under normal circumstances, they’d load a 3D model of the object we were cutting and the cutting nozzle would follow an exact path through the object. However, since I just wanted my pans cut “in twain” the operator switched the machine into manual mode and piloted the cutting head across the surface of the pan like a Jedi. The video below shows the cutting process.
Water and abrasive grit forced at 87,000 psi through an opening the size of a human hair is powerful. And, it doesn’t discriminate – it’ll cut paper, tile, glass, stone, metals (including titanium) and just about anything else that gets in its path. As it turns out, water jets are also commonly used for cutting food products. Since the water jet doesn’t generate much heat as it cuts, it’s perfect for portioning frozen meat and fish or slicing a sheet of nougat into individual candy bars. Of course, now I totally want one of these machines for home. Cutting the crust off a loaf of Wonderbread would never be the same again.
The image at the top shows one of my new half-skillets and depicts the problem with cooking a thick steak on a hot surface (see those gray bands of well-done?). Now I can do my very own cutaway shots, just like the big boys
Huge thanks to the fantastic folks at Flow for helping me out!
This is effin cool. We centrifuged a can of pumpkin to yield a few tablespoons of a clear, orange pumpkin-flavored liquid. We saturated it with sugar and spiked it with pumpkin pie spice, then heated the mixture to 300F and cast it into hard caramel molds. Then, we spun the hard caramel in a cotton candy machine to make 2” puffs of pumpkin-flavored cotton candy. Then, we squeezed the puffs into the shape of a skull and cut out triangles for the eyes and nose. Finally, we put it on a stand with a candle behind it. Presenting the pumpkin cotton candy jack-o-lantern, as interpreted by Jet City Gastrophysics.
Last week, I gave a talk at Seattle’s 0th ever Nerd Nite! My talk was titled “Food, Science and Electric Bacon” and was a similar history of Modernist cuisine and explanation of geeky food techniques that I presented at the International Food Bloggers Conference in New Orleans a few weeks back.
I’ll post the video of my “lecture” when it’s available, but in the meantime, give a listen to this Podcast I recorded with he wonderful folks at Nerd Nite. Unlike the video, this one’s work-safe.
Over a year ago I experimented with laser-cutting nori, the dried seaweed paper used commonly in making rolled sushi. Because nori is flat, thin and dry, it cuts extremely well with a laser and I was able to get extraordinarily high-resolution cutouts. Because I didn’t always have access to the laser, I wanted to find a way to keep producing cut nori at home – and I found one. The QuicKutz Silhouette SD Digital Craft Cutting Tool ($199) is a computer-controlled craft cutter designed for cutting paper and light cardstock. It works by moving the material backwards and forwards while moving a very sharp blade side to side (and up and down). Although the nori was too brittle to handle intricate cutting on the Silhouette, I was still able to successfully cut a few dozen different patterns. If you want to experiment with this technique at home, a craft cutter is the way to go.
The picture at the top is (what I’m calling) Butterfly Shrimp. It’s wholly impractical, a little ridiculous, and really funny. I’ve also created an edible butterfly using wasabi as the body, with two wings skewered in.
The next images are of the most intricate pattern I attempted to laser-cut. It’s an amalgamation of traditional Japanese stencil designs. I think of this nori sheet as a kind of edible doily… a garnish that is ornate to the highest degree. It casts cool shadows, too.
The same sheet, folded on itself. Wouldn’t that make beautiful sushi? (click for many more photos…)
Join Modernist Cuisine photographer, Ryan Matthew Smith, for a hands-on food photography workshop at TASTE in downtown Seattle. Ryan will explain the lighting techniques used during the making of Modernist Cuisine, as well as critical Photoshop steps to make your images pop!
Sunday, September 18th
10:00 AM – 4:30 PM
TASTE restaurant at the SAM
1300 1st Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
$125 per person, includes lunch. Click here to purchase tickets. Enrollment is limited to 12 students.
- An introduction to Ryan’s food photography
- Demos of strobe light techniques used in Modernist Cuisine
- Lunch provided by TASTE restaurant
- Hands-on action shooting workshop. Attendees will learn to shoot food in motion!
- Photoshop Lesson 1: Curves - The nearly everything tool
- Photoshop Lesson 2: Layer masking techniques - How to localize your adjustments
- Photoshop Lesson 3: Making a single image from multiple captures
- Q&A session
- Student portfolio critique (optional)
A DSLR camera and previous Photoshop experience is recommended, but not required. If you have a DSLR, please bring it for the hands-on shooting workshop. If not, there will be a camera available to borrow. You will have the opportunity to work with high-end Broncolor lighting equipment and also experiment with budget-friendly Alienbees strobes. However, the lessons you’ll learn will enhance your food photography skills regardless of the equipment you use at home.
Your ticket price includes lunch provided by TASTE restaurant. Confirmed attendees will be allowed to upload samples of previous work into a Flickr pool for the student portfolio critique at the end of the workshop.
If you have questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
My feet hurt, my back is a mess, I’ve got blisters from endless brunoising, and my fingertips are still burning from the liquid nitrogen. It was the best week ever!
Last week, I spent four days working as a stage (pronounced stahzje, definition: cooking intern) at the Modernist Cuisine kitchen lab in Bellevue. It was an amazing experience that deepened my respect for the talent and dedication of everyone involved with the book and its promotion.
Dinner was scheduled for Thursday night and prep began on Monday morning. There were 15 guests and 30 courses. Each course was broken down into multiple components which were listed on the kitchen’s whiteboard each morning. I didn’t keep an exact count, but I estimate the number of component dishes to be somewhere around 200. There were six full-time chefs: Maxime Bilet, Johnny Zhu, Grant Crilly, Sam Fahey-Burke, Anjana Shanker, and Aaron (who transitioned from 4th week stage to full-time employee during my stint). Maxime Bilet was in and out of the lab Monday through Wednesday, wrangling suppliers and keeping a pulse on progress, but present in full-force on Thursday to lead the execution of the dinner service. Depending on the day, there were up to three stages (myself included), and of course, the hardest working guy in the kitchen, Tyson, who washed dishes non-stop.
So, with that many hands on deck, how much could we possibly need to prep four days in advance? A lot, it turned out. My first order of business was to unbag, thaw, drain and juice 60 lbs. of frozen corn. This corn would ultimately become corn butter, which was served with the second course, alongside pea butter with thinly-sliced rectangles of toast. In case you’re having trouble visualizing what 60 lbs. of corn actually looks like, it’s approximately a home-sized freezer packed full. And how much butter does that yield? About 120 grams – not quite 1 cup. It’s roughly equivalent in scale to harvesting saffron, except it requires a massive centrifuge instead of dozens of Italian field laborers. It took me over three hours to juice all that corn, then divide the juice precisely into 400g bottles for the ‘fuge. Then, in batches of 6, the corn juice spun at 10,000 RPMs for an hour. The result was a product very similar to the corn butter I made at home, but with an even greater separation between the liquid and solid layers. I gently scraped the layer of corn butter out of each bottle, then, like almost every other food in the kitchen, I sealed it in a vacuum bag.
[Hopefully impressed by my lack of complaining] the chefs moved me on to other components that felt a more like cooking and less like panning for gold. I helped Sam make a praline batter from roasted hazelnuts, and I helped Grant remove the red, outer skin from stalks of rhubarb. It turns out that if you peel rhubarb to remove its red exterior, it looks strikingly like celery. The chefs used that illusion to garnish the Fruit Minestra, the first of the dessert courses. Very clever.
Next, I worked on my first brunoise. If you aren’t familiar with the term, “brunoise” means little, tiny cubes. The size of the cubes ranges from 1-3mm (depending on who you ask), and they are generally made by julienning foods with a mandoline, then cutting the food into strips, turning the strips 90 degrees and cutting them into cubes. It sounds pretty easy, and conceptually, it is. But in practice, this turned out to be my nemesis. Because the cubes are so small, a difference in size of .5mm can equate to 25-50%, and it’s that discrepancy is noticeable to the eye… especially eye of a chef.
My first brunoise assignment was a white onion. I’ve cut onions [at home] for years, and I’ve cut them with roughly the same technique that Sam showed me: cut off the top, split the onion in half, make a few slices with your knife parallel to the cutting board, make some more slices with your knife parallel to the onion root, then cut across the onion to produce little chunks. The difference was, I had always cut an onion for the sole purpose of turning it into small pieces. I had never before cut an onion “for service”. This turned out to be an important distinction. Foods cut for service had to be perfect… like, take-out-your-caliper-perfect. “Easy enough,” I thought. My plan was to take a little extra time and care with my knifework and, presto, perfect little cubes. Wrong! No matter how slowly I went, that asshole of an onion would invariably shatter into little round shards, extruded rhombuses, and other quadrilaterals devoid of right angles. As the week progressed, I found the same to be especially true of shallots, and to an extent, every other food that I tried laboriously to cube: candied orange peel, cucumber flesh, maitake mushrooms, and likely several other ingredients that I’ve subconsciously repressed.
At some point, each chef assigned me something to brunoise, and invariably each of them instructed me, “Take your time, do it right.” I thought this was awesome. I hadn’t previously spent much time in a working kitchen, so my expectations were largely based on clips I’d seen of reality TV chefs flipping over pans and screaming at people (often in English accents). None of this was anywhere to be found in the Modernist Cuisine kitchen. Even when timing was tight and the pressure was on, nobody lost their cool and not once was I ever made to feel incapable because of my inexperience. That’s not to say that they relaxed their standards one iota for their stages – “Those cubes are getting a little big, Scott,” was all the instruction I needed to know that I should discard my pile and start again. If a chef noticed that I was struggling with a task or a technique, he or she would stop me, help me with instructions, tips or tricks, then set me back on course. It was an amazingly supportive environment… in spite of all those little fucking cubes.
By the end of the first day, I was exhausted and I felt like I had gone barefoot ice skating on a hot lake of Microplanes. I had bought brand new non-slip work shoes for the internship and, although I had the foresight to equip them with Dr. Scholes, I was not prepared for the impact of a full day on my feet. It doesn’t happen often in the software world. When I got home, slipped off my shoes, and sank into bed, the relief was so orgasmic that it put me to sleep.
I arrived bright and early on day two and got straight to work. It’s amazing how much confidence you can build in a single day of experience: I knew my way around, I had learned most of the protocols and I had compiled a list of each chef’s known peccadillos (ex. Sam likes the saucepans hung small-to-large from right to left; Max hates it when grocery packaging touches a cutting board; Grant prefers wood boards over plastic). I marched into the kitchen confidently, grabbed an apron and a stack of towels and got straight to work. Yesterday’s whiteboard full of components had been replaced by an entirely new list, just as long.
I started on the Gazpacho, prepared in the least traditional fashion I’ve seen. This soup was made primarily from plums and pluots (a hybrid between a plum and an apricot). The sliced fruit had been marinating with other components in a vacuum bag overnight. My job was to blend it in the VitaPrep, then pass it through a tamis, discarding the thick pulp. Even though the blender did a great job pureeing the soup, the mesh of the tamis was so fine that it took me hours to scrape the soup through. The liquid that it rendered was bright orange, less viscous than water, and intensely fruit-flavored. Once I had pressed through all the liquid I could, it went straight into a vacuum bag and into the chamber sealer.
I’m told that all stages make the same mistake the first time they try to vacuum seal liquids. Some (not all) liquids start to boil and foam as the pressure in the chamber drops. As this boiling becomes more intense, it’s not uncommon for the liquid to erupt out of the unsealed bag and make a mess of the vacuum chamber. Grant was kind enough to show me a workaround: if you set the liquid in a regular upright container and pull a vacuum without trying to seal it first, you can boil off most of the dissolved gasses. Then, when you go to vacuum seal the bag, you can avoid the unpleasant flood of liquid past the sealing bar. This trick was instrumental to my success vacuum packing – only once did I make a mess of the sealer and that was from learning a different lesson: spot prawn shells are sharp as shit and will poke through a vacuum bag (or five).
Anyhow, days two and three continued at this pace. We worked from 9 until 5:30 or 6:30, busily knocking out components, vacuum sealing them, and arranging them in the quickly-diminishing refrigerator space. Some items, such as cryoshattered berries and a vacuum-set green apple foam, went straight into the deep freezer at -60C. Other items went into one of many sous vide baths humming along throughout the kitchen, and yet other components, such as the house-made cocoa pasta, were left out to dry on sheet pans.
When day four arrived, I knew it would be crunch time. We were on a great pace for delivering dinner that evening, but there were some components that we couldn’t prep until the day-of, and the tingle of anxiety in the air indicated that it would be a long, busy day. We started work at 7AM that morning. The mixing bowls and cutting boards that normally lived underneath the center prep table were swapped out for sparkling, clean dishware. Any unnecessary equipment was stashed in towering storage shelves to clear floor space for the two round tables and chairs that would seat 15 lucky guests. The evening before, I had [obsessively and compulsively] rearranged the “spice” cabinets and dry goods storage so they looked organized and uncluttered (I use quotes around the word “spice” because most of the powders on those shelves were unfamiliar food additives, modified starches and powdered dinosaur genitals).
Johnny had me clean [what must have been] ten pounds of morels for service, explaining how to check for any remaining grit at the end of each wash. I was told that there must not be any grit; that is, among the miles of folds and crevices surrounding each mushroom, they must be washed so thoroughly that not a single grain of sand remains. When I was finished I laid the gorgeous morels on a towel-lined sheet tray to dry. “One more thing,” Johnny said. “Eat one.” I grabbed a small, raw mushroom and started chewing. “Any grit?” he asked? I thought this would be my Grant Achatz olive pit moment (3/4 down the linked page) where I had proudly returned with my accomplished task, only to be proven incomplete by the experienced chef. Luckily, there was no grit. If I had learned anything at this point, it was not to take shortcuts.
By the time we were ready for dinner service, the whole kitchen was electric with energy. I had the honor of wearing official Modernist Cuisine whites for dinner service, though I tried hard to hide my fanboy grin when I put on the jacket. It was kind of like getting to visit the set of Star Trek, put on a Lieutenant’s uniform, and fire off a few photon torpedoes. If that’s your thing, it’s unavoidable that you’ll pop a [metaphoric] boner in the process.
During dinner service, the other stages and I waited at-the-ready on the far side of the kitchen while the chefs, including Nathan, were “asses to elbows” firing and plating each course. Every now and then, one of the chefs would ask for “hands” and the lucky stage who happened to be closest got to jump in on the action. I had the privilege of helping plate several courses, including the Beef Stew, Polenta Marinara, Fruit Minestra and Banana Truffles. I even got to hop on the line for some last-minute morel chopping while the Morels and Cream course. Although my contributions were minor in the grand scheme of things, it gave me a huge rush of excitement just to be involved.
Watching Maxime and the other chefs in action was pretty amazing. Since the kitchen is open to the diners and only about ten feet away from their tables, any cuts, spills, burns, mistakes or re-fires would have been particularly noticeable. However, the chefs worked so smoothly and seamlessly together that their movement appeared choreographed. Every dish that left the kitchen looked good enough to photograph, even though they were often sending out 15 plates at a time. The servers, who have been retained through all of the previous dinners, were exceptionally knowledgeable about the menu and their professionalism and poise could make you forget, for a moment, that you were having a three-star meal in the hallway between a machine shop and a mosquito incubator. It really was a fantastic production, and I can say with certainty that it’s one of the most unique dining experiences on the planet.
Now that I’ve had the pleasure of being both a guest at one of these dinners and helping to prepare it, I can tell you that time does not pass at equal rates on either side of the kitchen counter. Even thought the dinner I ate was just about the same length as the dinner we served, time flew by when I was seated and eating, though it seemed to crawl forward when I was on my feet shuttling ingredients around. It was about 10:30 PM by the time we had the kitchen clean and I took off my whites. By then, we were all a bit loopy. Maxime poured me a glass of leftover white wine and I nearly chugged it out of thirst and reflex. We nibbled on bits of leftovers, reflected on the success of the evening, swapped a few sophomoric jokes and finally parted ways. I cannot remember being more exhausted, nor can I remember feeling as proud for what I had helped accomplish in those four long days.
I want to publicly reiterate my sincere thanks to Sam, Grant, Johnny, Anjana, Aaron, Maxime and Nathan for allowing me this opportunity. It was an experience that I’ll never forget, and I’m sure it will play a formative role in my future cooking. I appreciate your generosity of time, knowledge and spirit and have a deepened respect for the work that you do.
If you’re interested in reading more about the meal itself, Alvin Schultz posted a great writeup. You can also check out the slideshow of my experience as a dinner guest at the lab, which covered many of the same courses.
Many thanks to Ryan Matthew Smith for the action shots above!