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!