The Food Lovers' Cookbook Collection
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is a revolutionary series of cookbooks that explore the science of cooking and the techniques required to reveal that science. The series is as ground-breaking as the Time Life Good Cook series was all those years ago.
The books were produced as a project of polymath chef Nathan Myhrvold who worked as the Chief Technology Officer for Bill Gates at Microsoft until he resigned to concentrate on his first love - cooking!
Myhrvold authored the series with the help of chefs Chris Young (formerly of the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck) and Maxime Bilet (who has cooked in New York, France and London). However there was an entire team behind this amazing feat including some ground-breaking photography from Ryan Matthew Smith and some beautiful production work on the layout of the books.
But it is Myhrvold who is the key. Even at the tender age of 9 years old he was fascinated by cooking and soon began to read Escoffier, Julia Child, James Beard and Richard Olney among others.
As he grew older his love of mathematics and science overcame came to the fore and he began academic studies. As Myhrvold reports: "By the time I was finished with school, I had quite a collection of degrees: a Ph. D. in mathematical physics, a masters degree in economics, a masters degree in geophysics and space physics and a bachelors degree in mathematics."
Following these he started a post-grad fellowship with Stephen Hawkins in quantum theory and gravitation at Cambridge University (a field of study that provides many of the answers to how the universe started and how matter is transient). On a break from these studies he set up a small software company which was soon acquired by fledgling giant Microsoft. He worked for the company and, like many, he acquired a significant shareholding. Bill Gates soon appointed him Chief Technology Officer for the emerging giant.
He worked in that position for well over a decade, but he still wanted to explore cooking. He applied for a position on the advanced diploma program at the Ecole de la Varenne run by the redoubtable Anne Willan. Because he had no formal cooking experience they suggested he gain experience in a restaurant kitchen first and then apply again.
He therefore did a stage at local (Seattle) fine dining restaurant Rovers (a restaurant at which we have enjoyed some fine meals during the past twenty years when we have been working in that fine city). Here he learned classic French techniques including how to bone a duck which held him in good stead when he finally got to La Varenne.
After graduating from La Varenne he resigned from his job at Microsoft with a very, very healthy stash of money and set up his own company and became engaged in a bewildering range of activities including discovering more fossils of Tyrannosaurus Rex than anyone else (they are now in the Smithsonian Museum) and winning international awards for wild life photography.
All these activities were mere precursors to the main game which was to establish a project to document the essence of the modernist food culture that was sweeping through the world. Modernist food was being fuelled by the experiments of Ferran Adria in Spain and Herve This in France, the emerging genius Heston Blumenthal in the UK and the serious documentation of Harold McGee with his fine books on the science of food.
So he assembled a talented team including Chris Young who was running the experimental kitchen at the Fat Duck and Maxime Bilet who had a similar CV at restaurants in the US, France and London.
And so to the books.
The first volume opens with a short history of cuisine accompanied by interesting breakouts (one on Apicius, one on the history of Laser a juice extracted from fennel used a seasoning, one on early French gastronomy and another on the ten commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine in the sixties published by Henri Gault which was a definite precursor to the era of modernist cuisine). But even the history ranges widely with the gastronomy of the Aztecs and Kentucky Fried Chicken receiving attention.
There is even a long section on Microbiology for Cooks including sections explaining bacterial contamination and how to avoid it and a section on why you shouldn’t eat people! There is even a section defending MSG.
There is no doubt, however, that the significant influences on the thinking behind the book were Ferran Adria at el Bulli, Harold McGee, Herve This and Heston Blumenthal who in turn mentored or influenced such towering figures as Andoni Aduriz, Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne and Rene Redzepi.
And, of course, there were other doing their own thing such as the inimitable Michel Bras who has been evolving his own cuisine in the wilds of the Central Massive in France at his beautiful restaurant near Aubrac and Laguiole. His Gargouillou was a sentinel dish for modernist cuisine pointing the way to the future. When we visited his restaurant there were over thirty different components that had been each cooked in a separate pan before being formed into a unified, delicious whole.
There are three types of recipes in these imposing tomes. The first are Example Recipes which express a culinary principle. The next are the important Parametric Recipes which reflect the author’s mathematical and scientific background. These are recipes where the parameters are set by one key ingredient or characteristic such as a rhubarb puree cooked sous-vide or a ham consommé. These are about technique and approach and achieving an outcome rather than how to plate the product with other things.
The third type are the Plated-dish recipes which more closely resemble traditional recipes.
All of this is accompanied by some truly revolutionary photography by Ryan Matthew Smith who needed to invent new techniques to express some of the ideas.
For the professional chef there is a wealth of information available in the various volumes particularly relating to technique. There is a heavy reliance on the Modernist tool-of-trade, namely the water bath. One good thing about the Parametric Recipes is that precise temperatures and times are given in every recipe, so we hope that chefs buying this book will no longer ever serve unset proteins which we see too often at present.
Sometimes the recipes are unappealing but the techniques interesting. For example the recipe for Dashimaki Tamago does involve egg whites, egg yolks, soy sauce and the all-important dashi broth but also includes a favourite Modernist ingredient of N-ZORBIT M which is a tapioca maltodextrin widely used in the recipes as well as Agave syrup. We can’t help thinking that the perfectly delicious recipe from another poly-math, Shizuo Tsuji in his book Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art will do us.
There are hundreds and hundreds of recipes in these books and they all add to a chef’s knowledge and to their technique in cooking modernist dishes. It is well-worth reading, studying, absorbing and implementing provided one thing is kept in mind. Technique is important but the only thing that really matters is that what is finally put on the plate must be delicious.
There is also an edition coming out later this year for the home cook where the recipes will be completely redone so that they are not as reliant on high tech equipment. We look forward to that edition as well.