The Gastronomer on 'Modernist Cuisine': big, beautiful and worth the hype

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:55 AM

The future of food is here, and it weighs 50 pounds.

In more than 2,400 pages, it is the answer to everything you wanted to know about cooking, not to mention so many things you never thought about. It is the second most important book on food and the science of cooking (after Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking") and the most important book ever published on what the authors call modernist cooking. Nathan Myhrvold's eagerly awaited "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" lives up to the hype, and then some.

Simply put, it is the most useful cookbook you'll probably never cook from.

Myhrvold was the first chief technology officer at Microsoft. Since leaving the company in 1999 - a wealthy man, one can assume - he has spent a lot of time pursuing his passion for food. Myhrvold is an avid amateur cook with professional credentials (among them several World Championship of Barbecue first prizes and culinary training at the famous La Varenne cooking school), and for this work he has partnered with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, who have both worked at the Fat Duck, the experimental restaurant outside London headed by Heston Blumenthal. Among them they have degrees in physics, mathematics, biochemistry and creative writing, and together with a team of 20 cooks and researchers they have analyzed the known, investigated the new and invented what they found lacking.

The six volumes cover topics from traditional methods such as the discovery of fire and grilling to the fascination with such modern devices as sous-vide equipment and cream siphons. The authors share the latter infatuation, letting no machine stand unused in their quest for novelty and perfection.

The first thing that strikes you about "Modernist Cuisine" is that it is nearly impossible to compare with anything else in your bookshelf. Spending a couple of weeks with the books in an electronic reading room, as I did, allows enough time only to sample. The last empress of China supposedly had a meal of more than 600 dishes set before her to choose from every day. Now I know what that must have felt like.

At the center of "Modernist Cuisine" is the revolution in cooking that has taken place in the past couple of decades. Fine-dining restaurants, once the stage for predictable plays of comfort and confirmation, have become the place to go to experience the unexpected. Chefs use new techniques to discover new flavors and textures. They use the knowledge brought to the table by science - from academia, their own research and the food industry alike - to make food the world has never seen before: an olive that has been deconstructed and reassembled into a floating sphere that looks and tastes like an olive but feels like something you have never experienced (at El Bulli in Spain); a meringue "cooked" on a griddle that is not hot but super cold (at Alinea in Chicago); egg and bacon ice cream (at the Fat Duck). Cooking has moved from the age of fire to the space age.

The authors compare this revolution to the one in the art world a century ago. To them the nouvelle cuisine practitioners of the 1980s and '90s were the impressionists, and Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz are the great modernists. Just as modernist art broke the promise of truthful representation, modern cooking has broken the rule of the meal as sustenance - as food, even. "I do not intend to feed people," Ferran Adria has said. "That they can do the 364 other days of the year."

Detractors of such cooking scorn it for being artificial and somehow not really cooking. The new is not a value in itself, they say; tradition is.

"What we call traditional cooking is a convenient fiction. Culinary traditions have been changing constantly throughout history," Myhrvold writes. Lovers of Italian food seem to be the most ardent opponents of modern cooking, which is a paradox, since almost all of the ingredients used in "traditional" Italian cooking are foreign in origin, many of them relatively recent arrivals. Think of Italian cooking without espresso, buffalo mozzarella, potato gnocchi, eggplant, tomato sauce and risotto, and you are left with pasta, an Arab-Chinese import.

As with most new fields, there is a scramble to define the boundaries, to assert leadership and to purge or exclude those who are not seen as true revolutionaries. The history of modern cooking sounds quite different if you listen to a Frenchman such as "molecular gastronomist" Herve This, Americans such as McGee or Spanish modernists such as Adria. Is it the result of French gastronomy, of American empiricism? Is it a collective effort or the work of singular geniuses? Probably all of the above. The fire started with many sparks.

The infighting is not just about history but about content. A "French approach" to modern cooking, for instance, centers on renewal of the classics. I have written about Sauce Kientzheim, made by combining a hollandaise, a mayonnaise and beurre noisette (browned butter) into something entirely new, and about Chocolate "Chantilly," which is a simple and ingenious way of whipping chocolate into a mousse using only chocolate, water and a whisk. But Napoleon rightly said that "history is written by the winners," and Myhrvold clearly sides with the Anglo-Americans, who at this point seem like the winners. At the same time, he graciously allows other voices to be heard.

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