What to Say About Modernist Cuisine

I wrote an article about Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, an interview with Nathan Myhrvold, and a profile of co-author Maxime Bilet for the ICE newsletter. I’ll post some of that when it comes out, but this is more of a stream-of-consciousness post to try and understand why it was so hard to write about a book I’ve been hearing about since 2008—the first time I talked to Max and to Chris Young, the other co-author, about it. I saw early pages when Chris brought them to StarChefs’ International Chefs Congress in September 2009. I saw some more again in May 2010 when I was lucky enough to have coffee with Nathan and his extraordinary publicist, Carrie Bachman. Chris and Max agreed months ago to present at the daylong symposium of the Experimental Cuisine Collective in May. So I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been pretty familiar with the project, without being intimate with it. I was expecting words to flow on the page once I read through all five volumes and kitchen manual in an online viewing site and through a hard copy of volume 2 (Techniques and Equipment), such was my excitement at finally getting to see it all. But it was almost too much to process at once (and by once I mean several weeks).

There isn’t really is a beginning and an end to Modernist Cuisine, although everyone should start with volume 1, which provides the fundamentals necessary to understand the material in the other volumes. It is easy enough to consult the index when looking for a specific information, or to let oneself be carried by the beautiful, clear writing a few randomly opened pages at a time. I had first favored that latter approach, when trying to grasp the breadth and depth of the full book, then decided to methodically make my way through each volume, skimming some pages, reading others attentively. I was fascinated with the history section of volume 1, which thoroughly (starting with the invention of fire) contextualizes Modernist cooking. Having read many food history works and being knowledgeable of the specific history of this new cuisine, I was nonetheless impressed by the material covered and the superb summary that chapter provided, only regretting that I couldn’t copy it for the students of my experimental cuisine class at NYU. Knowing the context in which this genre emerged is essential to its application in the kitchen, I believe, or even to its critique. Too much of what I read online or in print about experimental/science-based/Modernist cooking is overly simplified and shows no sense of history. Reading those 100 or so pages should be mandatory for anyone who writes as much as a blog post using a term like “molecular gastronomy.”

So why so hard? I think it’s because I felt a personal responsibility to do this book justice. Some reviews, even when written by renowned authors in prestigious publications, didn’t seem to “get it.” Others did, beautifully so, raising the bar for anyone writing on the topic, even if not even close to coming to the same category of publication. I adore this book and find it to be a bargain (at $625, or $462 on Amazon) when all the information it contains is taken into consideration. It’s a work of art visually. It makes science and technology accessible. It provides recipes to use the technologies that have emerged for kitchen use (rather than just lab use) in recent years. It challenges its readers to be better—better cooks, better thinkers, better food people. But just saying this is equivalent to gushing, so I had to do more. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but I know that I can’t wait for my copy to arrive so that I can continue to think about and explore Modernist cuisine in all that it has to offer, thanks to the amazing gift Nathan, Chris, Max, and their large team have given us.

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