Posts Tagged ‘modernist cuisine’
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…
Ever wondered to yourself, “WTF is Modernist cuisine?” Here’s our answer. If you’re curious to learn more about the history of the movement, the reason that Modernist chefs don’t like the term “molecular gastronomy” or the difference between Modernist cuisine and Nouvelle cuisine, there’s no better resource than volume 1 of Modernist Cuisine.
This morning, we (the Modernist Cuisine team) announced our next book, Modernist Cuisine at Home. You can read all about the book at the Modernist Cuisine website, but it gives me tremendous personal satisfaction to finally get to share this project with the world. Although I only joined the MC team at the beginning of the year, already well into this book’s development, I have had the privilege of helping our team finish the book, which I believe will make a serious impact on home cooking.
If you’re a regular reader of SeattleFoodGeek.com, you know that bringing Modernist cooking into home kitchens is what I live and breathe. It’s the reason there’s a centrifuge in my basement, a PID controller on my freezer, and a 25lb. steel plate on my grill. I believe that a Modernist attitude – the desire to challenge convention, the willingness to embrace new ideas, the hope to always improve – is an important part of cooking, both professionally and at home. That’s why I’m thrilled at the prospect of reaching a broader audience of home cooks with Modernist Cuisine at Home. At $140 list price (which will be closer to $100 with book pricing magic), this book is widely more accessible than the original Modernist Cuisine, but retains the same spirit of creativity, innovation and scientific wonder that got me excited about Modernist cooking in the first place.
But it’s not the price that excites me most; it’s the fact that all 406 recipes and variations are designed for the home kitchen. Why is this such a big deal? Because, although I love cooking from Modernist Cuisine, it’s a challenge. Take, for example, the pistachio gelato recipe. Since I’ve pretty much got the best job on earth, I get to eat that gelato regularly. It’s incredible. The flavor is so vibrant, and the texture of that gelato is the yardstick by which I measure all other ice creams. But when I tried to make it at home, it didn’t turn out well. I didn’t have locust bean gum, and it isn’t easy to find locally, so I substituted some other hydrocolloids. My version was terrible. It turns out that my “instinct” for hydrocolloid substitution sucks. However, the Modernist Cuisine at Home adaptation of this recipe calls for emulsifiers that I could find at any grocery store, yet it produces a gelato that is nearly indistinguishable. The chefs have done the experimentation on my behalf so I can count on the recipe being a success. As a home cook, this gives me tremendous confidence.
I’m also excited by what Modernist Cuisine at Home represents as a milestone in the Modernist cooking revolution. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a day where Whole Foods carries locust bean gum or when Cuisinart makes a centrifuge, but I do believe that the way we cook at home is changing more radically than ever before. I’m proud and honored to have been involved with the development of Modernist Cuisine at Home, and I can’t wait to see its impact.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
I’ve assembled a list of must-have cooking gear, kitchen toys, and foodie fetishes for 2011. If you have a food geek in your life and you’re looking for gift inspiration, I’m here to help. They say “‘tis better to give,” but ‘tis best to give to someone who’ll cook you dinner in return!
|Bob Kramer 10" Carbon Steel Chef’s Knife by Zwilling J.A. Henckels®
Say hello to the “it knife” of 2011. Bob Kramer is the only Master Bladesmith in the world who specializes in culinary knifes, and his rare, hand-made blades sell for thousands of dollars. (see my post on touring Bob Kramer’s workshop.) Now, he’s produced a line of exceptional quality carbon steel cutlery that conforms to his exacting standards, but is affordable enough for the home chef.
|Skillet Bacon Jam
Seattle residents are already familiar with the spreadable jar of heaven known as “Bacon Jam”. Produced by the same Skillet group that brought us the Skillet Street Food truck and the Skillet Diner, the jam is a mixture of rendered bacon and spices that adds a succulent kick to sandwiches, burgers, omelets, Ritz crackers, or any other bacon-submissive food. Makes a great stocking stuffer – just hope you can fit into your stockings after you’ve plowed through a jar.
$15.95 – Amazon.com
|Rouxbe Cooking School
In this day and age, anything that’s worth doing is worth doing online – learning to cook is no exception. Rouxbe is the world’s leading online cooking school that teaches people of all levels to become better, more confident cooks. Focused on techniques, not recipes, Rouxbe offers over 1,100 close-up instructional videos that capture the exact same curriculum found in professional cooking schools around the world.
$23.00/month (other packages available) – Rouxbe.com
Any serious food geek cooks sous vide. And those who don’t? Well, they’re waiting for you to buy them a sous vide machine… that is, if you’re not up for building one yourself. By far, the easiest way to get started with sous vide cooking is the SousVide Supreme line of water ovens. Their machines are available in multiple sizes and colors and they’re currently running some fantastic deals for the holidays, including a Modernist Cuisine gift set!
$299 and up – SousVideSupreme.com
|VacMaster Chamber Vacuum Sealer
Whether you’re cooking sous vide or tackling a whole slew of other modernist techniques, a vacuum sealer is an absolute necessity. FoodSaver-style sealers work fine for dry foods, but for wet foods like meat and fish or liquids of any kind, you need a chamber sealer. Unlike an edge sealer, which sucks all of the air out of the bag from one edge, the VacMaster removes the air from the entire chamber, then seals the bag. When the vacuum is released, the pressure of the atmosphere compresses the bag against its contents for a fool-proof, air-free seal with no messy liquid sucked from the edge of the bag.
|Excalibur 3500 Deluxe Series 5 Tray Food Dehydrator
If you thought dehydrators were just for jerky and fruit snacks, you’re missing a whole world of possible applications for dried foods. For example, why not whip up some Shrimp in Cocktail Leather for your next dinner party? The Excalibur dehydrator is the brand trusted by chefs everywhere. The rectangular drying trays provide 8 square feet of drying space, and the 85º – 145ºF thermostat let’s you dehydrate everything from soup to nuts (and yes, jerky too)!
$189.95 – Amazon.com
|Presto 1755 16-Quart Aluminum Pressure Cooker/Canner
For some reason, lots of folks think of pressure cookers as “your grandmother’s kitchen gadget”. And, while it’s true that grannie may have reached for her pressure cooker as a way to save time in the kitchen, their usefulness extends well beyond expediency. Pressure cookers are fantastic for extracting flavors, for example, when making stocks and sauces. When coupled with a little baking soda, they’re also key to making the best vegetable soups I’ve ever tasted. I’d recommend purchasing a pressure canner rather than just a pressure cooker. The difference is the inclusion of a pressure gauge which allows you to can many foods that you couldn’t otherwise safely preserve.
$71.99 – Amazon.com
|Noble Tonics: Handcrafted Matured Maple Syrups & Vinegars
This is my new favorite breakfast condiment: Tahitian Vanilla Bean & Egyptian Chomomile Blossom Matured Maple Syrup. Just speaking its name evokes images of meticulous artisans patiently watching over these syrups as they mature in charred American oak barrels. It is to maple syrup what Château d’Yquem is to wine. The complete line includes two maple syrups, a sherry bourbon oak vinegar, an heirloom lemon matured white wine vinegar, and XO, a viscous, rich “finishing vinegar”.
$22.95 – $69.95 – MikuniWildHarvest.com
|Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook
Although this cookbook was only released a few weeks ago, it’s already one of the most talked-about cookbooks of the year. And rightfully so – this book is so much more than a cookbook; it is a window into the soul of Eleven Madison Park. Featuring breathtaking photography and over 125 sophisticated recipes, this will be one of the [very few] cookbooks I reference on a regular basis, both for inspiration and for technique.
$31.50 [hardcover] – Amazon.com
|Momofuku Milk Bar
Imagine an incredible collection of desserts that all seem like they were designed by stoners with phenomenal pastry skills. That would, more or less, be Monofuku Milk Bar. Written by pastry chef Christina Tosi, the book includes an entire section on cereal milk ice creams. Other notable dishes include the infamous “crack pie”, “compost cookie”, and “gutter sundae” (directions: Go to the hardware store. Buy a gutter. Invite your friends and family over. Make a gutter sundae to celebrate). Yet, somehow, the whole thing is irresistible!
$20.18 – Amazon.com
This has been a great year for chef David Chang and his ever-expanding influence. Case in point: Lucky Peach. In an era when print publishing is dying a very public death, Chang had the chutzpah to start his own food journal. Issue Two’s theme is "The Sweet Spot," and will feature Rene Redzepi on vintage vegetables, Tajikistani apricots with Adam Gollner, a visit to Callaway Golf and Louisville Slugger, time-sensitive fermentation, banana pie with Momofuku Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi, and much, much more.
$9.50/issue – Amazon.com
|Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker
Top Pot Doughnuts are a treasured part of Seattle’s edible landscape. Let it be said that no other doughnut pairs as well with a nonfat, fair trade, soy, double, vanilla cappuccino. Committed bakers, casual home cooks, and sweet-toothed fans will eat up these 50 tried-and-true recipes from classic Old-Fashioneds to the signature Pink Feather Boa and become experts themselves after learning the secrets of doughnut-making tools, terms, and techniques (no, you don t need a deep fryer).
$10.98 – Amazon.com
|Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
If you’re searching for a food geek gift that will make all others pale in comparison, look no further. For the price of a stand mixer and a handful of tasteful stocking stuffers, you can give the gift that will keep your food geek cooking for a lifetime. I’ve already written quite a bit about Modernist Cuisine, but for the first time ever, you can wrap it in a bow and put it under the tree. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a 40 lb. cookbook!
$450.84 – Amazon.com
|iSi Professional Food & Cream Gourmet Whipper
Thanks to Ferran Adria and others, the term “culinary foam” now means more than whipped cream. If you’re interested in experimenting with foam-at-home, you’ll need to own a whipping siphon. A now-essential part of both sweet and savory preparations, whipping siphons are also great for quick infusions and making carbonated snacks. Unlike cheaper siphons, this model is designed to handle more viscous liquids commonly called for in modernist preparations.
|Krups 203 Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder with Stainless-Steel blades
Textural transformations are a hallmark of modernist cooking, and powders play in important role in achieving the correct mouthfeel and presentation of many dishes. If you’ve ever attempted to turn a solid into a powder using a blender or food processor, you’ll understand why it’s important to have the right tool for the job. This spice grinder is compact, inexpensive and incredibly efficient at making very fine powders in a matter of seconds.
$19.00 – Amazon.com
|Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens
Modern food-enthusiasts (see how hard I tried not to use the word “foodie”?) never travel without a camera in-hand. But, approaching your plate of foie gras and truffles with a cell phone camera is as gauche as wearing a sport coat and shorts just to spite the dress code. If you or the food geek in your life are ready to get serious about food photography, there’s currently no better value than the iconic Canon 5D Mark II. It shoots 21MP stills and broadcast-quality video, all for less than a bottle of Chateau Margaux.
$3,019.98 – Amazon.com
|Nikon 1 J1 10.1 MP HD Digital Camera System with 10-30mm VR 1 NIKKOR Lens
So, you’ve realized that you want to improve your food photography, but you don’t want to lug a giant (and conspicuous) DSLR to every restaurant you visit. Nikon’s “1” line is a brand new imaging system that’s designed to be highly portable and highly performant. Featuring interchangeable lenses, a high-speed sensor for great low-light shooting, and the ability to snap stills while you’re shooting 1080p HD video, this is a great camera for the fooderazzi.
$599.00 – Amazon.com
Man, o man do I love butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, delicata squash… you get the point. When I was young, one of my favorite side dishes at family dinners was an acorn squash, halved, filled with butter and brown sugar, and roasted until soft and sweet. It tasted like candy, but technically qualified as a vegetable – a loophole that I still enjoy exploiting.
During my recent, steamy love affair with my pressure cooker, I’ve discovered that it does fantastic things to squash. For example, last week, Jethro served THE BEST butternut squash soup I’ve ever eaten – pressure cooked, of course. There are two fundamental benefits to pressure cooking, as opposed to roasting, squash:
- Speed. Fork-tender squash takes 15-20 minutes in the pressure cooker, rather than 30-45 minutes in the oven.
- All-Over Tan. Put another way, the pressure cooker achieves deep, even browning on all surfaces, with a significantly reduced risk of burning. Let’s explore that more…
One of the best tricks I’ve learned from Modernist Cuisine is that adding 0.5% baking soda (by weight) to things you’re about to pressure cook results in fantastic caramelization. The baking soda increases the pH of the food, which allows the Maillard reaction to take place at the the relatively low-temperature environment of the pressure cooker – typical Maillard reactions start around 310F, but a pressure cooker operating at 15 psi only reaches about 250F. That means that you get deliciously-sweet, browned squash without running the risk of accidentally scorching your squash.
Also, pressure cookers brown more evenly than ovens. Think of your oven like a cheap tanning bed, with lights above and below the subject (in this case, food). The top and bottom of the food is exposed to a lot of light and gets nicely tanned. The sides, however, remain pasty-white because they’re mostly in shadow. The environment inside a pressure cooker, however, is more akin to bathing in a pool of self-tanner. The heat and pressure generated by the steam come from all sides, and as a result, your cubes of squash are beautifully browned from every angle, not just the top and bottom.
If you’re ready to drink the Kool-Aid, here are some pressure cooked squash recipes to get you started.
Basic Pressure Cooked Squash Recipe
- Remove the skin and seeds from your squash and cut into evenly-sized 1” cubes.
- Add 1/2 cup of liquid to your pressure cooker. I recommend centrifuged squash water (thanks Jethro!), chicken stock, or other flavorful liquid. Water works fine, too.
- Toss your cubed squash in .5% its own weight in baking soda. You can eyeball this measurement – about 1/2 tsp. of baking soda for 2 lbs. of squash. Add the squash to the pressure cooker.
- Pressure cook for 20 minutes. Remove and season to taste.
Pressure Cooked Squash Soup Recipe
- Follow steps 1-3 above. For extra richness, add butter or duck fat to the cooking liquid.
- Check after 20 minutes. Pressure cook an additional 10-20 minutes if the squash isn’t tender enough to fall apart yet (cooking time will vary by species).
- Using an immersion blender, puree the squash until smooth, adding additional liquid to reach the desired consistency.
- Season to taste with salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, roasted garlic, nutmeg, maple syrup, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider, tarragon, ginger, or whatever else suits your fancy.
Go wild with variations. Add other stuff like apples or canned pumpkin or bell peppers or carrots or leeks. I promise it’ll be good.
[BTW, the picture above is an acorn squash, uncooked.]
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!
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.
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 email@example.com.
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!
Pea butter is one of the primary reasons I was compelled to put a laboratory centrifuge in my house. It is an iridescent, velvety substance produced in miniscule quantities by spinning peas at high G-forces. It’s also one of the most vivid flavors I’ve ever tasted, and I needed to make it at home.
The existence of pea butter was unearthed by the Modernist Cuisine team, using a centrifuge the size of a washing machine. My cooking compadre, Jethro, was the first kid on the block with a home-sized centrifuge (if you’re single, or have a basement) and did a great write-up on his pea butter experience back in February. Jethro whipped frozen peas into a powder, then centrifuged them for 5 hours. Contrary to his technique, I found that I was able to extract roughly the same yield of pea butter by blending thawed peas into a liquid and spinning it for 3 hours. I believe the reason is due to Brownian Motion (see the explanation on the eGullet Centrifuges thread).
I also decided to try the same technique with corn. Corn and peas are both wet and chewy, they both contain starch, and they’re both really sweet. After 3 hours of spinning at 1500Gs, I couldn’t detect a corn “butter”, per se, but I did get a thick, milky corn liquid that was extremely flavorful and rife for culinary applications.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be hunting for ways to use these centrifuged components. Check back for recipes that will spin you right-round.
In Part 1 of this article, we got a behind-the-scenes look at the equipment, lighting and shooting setup used by Ryan Matthew Smith to achieve the stunning food photos in Modernist Cuisine. Now, we’ll take a look at the second step in the process: cleaning up your pictures in Photoshop to really make them come to life.
Ryan is amazingly talented with Photoshop and he has shared some of his favorite tricks and techniques with me. There is a lot more to be learned than what’s covered in this article, but this is a great start for any food photographer looking to squeeze a little more succulence out of your shots.
The steps below are my attempt at cleaning up the grapefruit picture shown here. Although my process achieves a similar result to Ryan’s work on the same photo, chances are, an experienced Photoshop guru like Ryan can correct this image faster, cleaner and more accurately. However, as I was quite pleased with the finished product, so I thought I’d share my steps with you.
At the end of the article, I’ve listed a handful of other useful Photoshop tips that Ryan was kind enough to share.
Last night, I enjoyed the rare privilege of experiencing a 29-course tasting menu prepared by the Modernist Cuisine team. The dinner was spectacular and showcased some of the most innovative and sophisticated cooking techniques on the planet. Often the flavors were new and complex as well, though now and then, a dish would surprise me with a familiar taste from childhood or years past. I don’t dare try to describe every plate, but the majority of the dishes they served can be found in the book, in one form or another.
I’d like to give a big Thank You to the Modernist Cuisine team for hosting such a spectacular evening, and for their continued generosity.