Thoughts on Modernist Cuisine

It’s taken me a year, but I finally got a chance to spend a little quality time with Modernist Cuisine, the magnum opus/cookbook/manifesto by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. To all those who’ve been asking and asking me to write something about it, all I can say is I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone who had the $500 to drop on a copy.

Considering the book is about 2,500 pages long, I really have very little to say about it. It’s gorgeous and intriguing, but I can’t say I found much in it that was especially inspiring. Oh sure there was a section or two on foams and emulsions, but nothing that’s going to be especially eye-opening for an experienced pastry maker. For the reality is that while looking at food through the lens of science and architecture may be novel for many cooks, pastry people have been doing that very thing for decades.

In the past I got in a lot of trouble for saying that the pastry maker is the natural enemy of the organo-nut (by which I meant the Alice Waters-type foodie). There was more than a little snark in that comment, but there was also an underlying truth. Specifically that the pastry arts are, and always has been, very closely tied to industry and technology. Just about every ingredient we touch is highly refined, processed or has a sizeable carbon footprint (flour, sugar, leavening, gelatin, chocolate). As for the gear it ranges from stainless steel forms and blow torches all the way up to mixers, proofers, microwave ovens and, in extremely cases, lasers.

Does the fact that we’ve always gravitated to the technical stuff mean we’re smarter or somehow more advanced than cooks? Absolutely. Not at all. The difference in the mindset, and I’m not the first to observe this, is that where cooks tend to be wildly creative improvisers, pastry people tend toward analysis and precision. There are crossovers to be sure. Modernist Cuisine itself is proof of that.

So while the book may not capture my imagination per se, it does encourage me. Clearly there are lots of cooks out there who want to think our thoughts and play with our toys. To them I can only say: welcome to the sandbox, gang!

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Modernist Cuisine”

  1. Interesting. I remember the similarities between “modernist cooking” and pastry are discussed in a fascinating New Yorker article on dessert last year ago.

    If you haven’t read it (and I’m sure you have) it’s behind a paywall here:

    but someone did the dubious favor of reposting the entirety of the article on his blog, so all may partake:

  2. I have the set. They didn’t address pastry so it isn’t surprising that there isn’t much in it for pastry people.

    I liked it. And I don’t (yet) do any sou vide. There is so much do as I do with no explanation why in cooking and so much nonsense when you press for the why that I like anytime someone actually explains what is happening. But I like McGee, Blumenthal etc…

    I do think that sometimes MC does things just to be different. And the recipes use many still esoteric ingredients and a lot require a sou vide device.

    The photography is incredible.

    Inexcusable how many typos are in the set. Considering the money alleged to have been spent producing it and the cost of buying it, they should have caught every single typo.

    1. Yes, no question the photography is stunning. Great design all around. It’s a real pleasure to browse through. As for typos, as a guy who commits a typographical error every other word, I have no right to judge.

      – Joe

  3. Actually I spoke loosely.

    MC doesn’t go into pastry per se but it does go into the science of baking discussing, for example, wet v dry bulb temperature, that baking is really about drying food out rather then heating it and that oven humidity is the most critical factor in baking and a function more of the food then the baker and, for the most part, out of control of the baker in a traditional oven.

    When understood it explains otherwise oddities such as bigger batches generally will bake faster than smaller batches (humidity increases the real oven temp — and most of the humidity in the traditional oven comes from the food). Therefore, cooking time will usually vary depending on batch size.

    MC, of course, prefers one of the new modern ovens that control both dry and wet bulb temperature. Maybe someday all ovens will.

    Any case, I do find it interesting reading with some practical applications.

    I went to a presentation in NYC from the author (Nathan and also another co-author) and the photographer and they gave out some MC Pistachio ice cream samples but I prefer “traditional.” Go figure.

  4. I once read a very interesting comparison between cooking/baking and music. It went like this: cooking is like jazz, it can take all sorts of improvisation. A little of this, let’s try some of that next time, etc. The good cook, like the good jazz musician, can make even the most unlikely combinations work. Baking, however, is more like classical music. It works within a certain defined structure, but rarely beyond it. Its classical form does not leave much room for improvisation. But it does not mean there’s no room for innovation; the baker must have complete knowledge of that structure in order to be able to innovate from within its confines.

    Sounded interesting. Not sure I’d ever want to pit Beethoven against Miles Davis. ;>

    1. An apt metaphor. And not to be pedantic, but the great soloists of the classical era did improvise their own cadenzas. You don’t see that much anymore, but perhaps it actually futures your point: improvisation within bounds can be a beautiful thing!

      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *