Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Boss

8 March 2011
New York Times

Cook From It? First, Try Lifting It

DESCENDING this week on the culinary scene like a meteor, “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” is the self-published six-volume masterwork from a team led by Nathan Myhrvold, the multimillionaire tech visionary who, as a friend of mine said, “decided to play Renaissance doge with food.”

As scientific as it is gastronomic, it is virtually an encyclopedia of cooking, a visual roller coaster through the world of food and cooking tools, as well as a compendium of 1,500 recipes.

Ultimately, it is a manifesto declaring that the new form of laboratory-inspired cooking — led by Grant Achatz in the United States; Heston Blumenthal in England; and Ferran Adrià, the father of this cuisine, in Spain — is a cultural and artistic movement every bit as definitive as Impressionism in 19th-century France or Bauhaus in early 20th-century Germany. It proclaims a revolution “in techniques, aesthetics and intellectual underpinnings of gastronomy.”
At last we can dispense with ill-fitting terms like “molecular gastronomy” and just call it “modernist cuisine.” Thanks, Dr. Myhrvold.

His vision drove the project, and his involvement has been a cause for healthy skepticism and admiration. No chef could have created it and no publisher would be crazy enough to produce and distribute this 40-pound monster.

We now have a definitive work about this cuisine, how and why it works, and the tools and ingredients it could not do without. What it all means, well, I hope to know one day before I die.

For nearly two weeks I lived with this extensively hyped work — immersion circulators humming on my counters, a pressure cooker hissing, food sealer and grinder hot from use beside them — and I remain frustrated that I lack so many tools and ingredients required to actually use this behemoth.

I was left wondering how a book could be mind-crushingly boring, eye-bulgingly riveting, edifying, infuriating, frustrating, fascinating, all in the same moment. Every time I tore myself away from these stunning pages to emerge for air, I had to shake my head so hard my cheeks made Looney Tunes noises.

This work was composed over several years by a team of dozens of chefs and assistants — led by Chris Young and Maxime Bilet — in an 18,000-square-foot warehouse, the laboratory of Dr. Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures, including a large machinist area and about 4,000 square feet for the kitchen and photo studio. To do it critical justice would require numerous reviewers, versed in physics, chemistry, microbiology, nutrition, mechanical engineering; a chef who practices this rarefied spectrum of the craft; a traditional chef, and a food journalist.

I’m a member of the last group. I have a culinary education and have worked in and reported from many kitchens; I’ve written about chefs considered the best in modernist cuisine; I’ve written numerous books, many of them referenced in this volume. And still I am not qualified to review every aspect of this encyclopedia.

I will get this out of the way fast. The text, and there is a lot of it, is proficient and as compelling as my high school science textbooks. But artful prose is not the point. While the quantity of aspirin required to read this straight through can be measured in thousands of milligrams, the goal was clarity and thoroughness, and the information is indeed clear, sound and, if anything, too thorough. Buried in the verbiage is a treasure of insights, some truly original, some familiar but described from new and compelling angles. Sometimes overly proud of itself, at other times it is recklessly (and admirably) opinionated.

“Saturated fat isn’t associated with heart disease anywhere, in any large study,” the authors write, and go on to malign high-fiber and low-salt diets for people who are otherwise healthy.
Government suggestions for temperatures at which chicken and pork are safe to eat seem “to have been based not on science but on politics, tradition, and subjective judgment.” There is no single safe temperature that kills salmonella, for instance, but rather times that food must maintain specific temperatures to kill it. The authors provide the time-temperature tables.

Several pages are devoted to how to wash your hands and there is a brief foray into the Timurid dynasty of Central Asia; the book includes the equation required to calculate the radiant heat of a gas grill (which is not nearly as effective as a charcoal grill, it says, explaining why). Not sure how to balance your centrifuge? Look no further. On sous vide equipment, the Pacojet, ultrasonic baths, gelling agents, hydrocolloids and emulsifiers, the text is astonishingly thorough.

There are also some exciting reports from the testing kitchen on what is happening to a roast in the oven as the skin dries out and the water just below the surface hits boiling temperatures; why braised food tastes better the next day and dried beans sometimes never seem to get tender (try cooking them in distilled water); the crucial role of humidity in the oven and its impact on baking; and the real reason to rest meat (because dissolved and degraded proteins thicken the juices, not that the juices redistribute, chefs’ stock answer).

The authors occasionally overreach: shocking vegetables in ice water doesn’t halt the cooking, they announce — which may be true (the core temperature of hot food in an ice bath continues to rise, the book shows), but it’s not a distinction to trumpet, since the authors advise doing it anyway because it “pulls heat away from the surface evenly and with remarkable speed.”
Much of the cooking requires ingredients most people haven’t heard of and equipment few can even afford. A rotary evaporator costs thousands of dollars. A not atypical recipe step reads “Cavitate in an ultrasonic cleaning bath for 30 minutes.”

“Modernist Cuisine” is not for most home cooks. For the professional chef, modernist or not, it will be an invaluable reference. For the cooking geek with $625 to spare ($467.62 online), it will be endless fun. As a physical object it is remarkable; sometimes I found myself simply staring at the block of books.

Dr. Myhrvold, the chief technology officer for Microsoft until 1999, spent millions of dollars (more than one, less than 10, he says) to create this. Nothing seems to have been spared on the quality of the photo reproduction, on heavy stock with solid binding.

The food photography is excellent, but even more compelling are the 36 illustrated photographs using kitchen tools and appliances (a pressure cooker, a wok, a barbecue grill) that have been cut in half using an “abrasive water-jet cutter, an electrical discharge machining system, and other machine-shop tools,” the authors write, to help readers visualize what is happening inside a cooking vessel.

And I hope that much of what they’ve compiled filters down through cookbook publishing and into everyone’s cooking.

All the recipes are in metric weights, the easiest and most exact way of measuring. These recipes are laboratory precise, often measuring ingredients to the 100th of a gram. And — unprecedented outside technical baking books — all ingredients are listed as percentages, to scale them up or down as you need. Recipe formats are likewise innovative and, once you get the hang of them, are efficient and effective. As techniques are described, recipes exemplifying those methods are given, some original, many inspired by chefs as varied as Alice Waters, Tetsuya Wakuda and David Kinch, even some from books I’ve been involved with.

Among those worth the price alone for cooking professionals are the scores of parametric recipes, tables giving recommended times and temperatures for a variety of techniques, everything from how long to sous vide different cuts and thicknesses of meat to how long to microwave various vegetables. The table for custard lets you pick your desired consistency based on what percentage of egg you use and the temperature you cook it to, to create a thick Anglaise-style sauce or a stand-alone custard. I tested it, it’s brilliant, I’ll use it forever.

Cooking sous vide, shorthand for vacuum-sealing food and heating it to precise temperatures well below the boiling point, is a foundation technique of modernist cuisine. I saw not a single recipe involving meat where the meat is not cooked sous vide (other than beer-can chicken, roasted at 175 degrees, which gets a whole page treatment).

The book builds from an overview of food history, microbiology and nutrition in Volume 1; to traditional and modern techniques in Volume 2, the science of cooking meat and plants in Volume 3, and the use of thickeners, gels and foams in Volume 4 (which also has a detailed chapter each on wine and coffee). Volume 5 is devoted to recipes for finished dishes, wherein all these chemicals and tools come together to create elaborate modernist meals.

Since these dishes often require returning to tables in earlier volumes, the authors have included a sixth, spiral-bound kitchen manual on paper that could probably go through a dishwasher cycle no worse for wear, though I found its lack of indexing frustrating. (The index for Volumes 1 through 5, crucial for using this book, is superb.)

What few recipes I could actually cook were mainly solid: sous vide time and temperatures were on the money, the recipes clear. Volume 5 includes fabulous barbecue sauces and dry rubs with no unfamiliar ingredients.

The book’s pressure cooker stocks are a miracle: clear, clean and flavorful in a fraction of the time required for traditional stocks. I’ll never make small batches of stock any other way.
The only cooking discipline they do not cover is pastry (perhaps because you can’t cook a pie crust sous vide).

The progenitors of the cuisine have hailed this work as the most important cookbook since Escoffier’s. “The cookbook to end all cookbooks,” the culinary phenomenon David Chang is quoted as saying in its promotional material.

But can this truly be the food of the future, or simply an interesting style practiced by a splinter group of passionate chefs who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end cooking? Much of this revolutionary cooking is based on ingredients and techniques long fundamental to the processed food industry. Are we to embrace the ingredients and techniques of modernist cuisine at the very moment industrially processed food is being blamed for many of our national health problems?

I have no desire to make Pringles in my spare time, but I wouldn’t stop anyone who did. Dr. Myhrvold and company tell you how. When I finish work, I relax by cutting and chopping and cooking a simple dinner for the family. Dr. Myhrvold has been relaxing by repairing to a cooking laboratory.

In the end, I can only smile, shake my head and bow to him and his crew for their work of unprecedented scope and ambition.

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