Viewers tune in to entire TV networks dedicated to the consumption and creation of food. Cooks at carnivals are always finding new treats to deep-fry, and novelty themed restaurants are popping up in big cities weekly.
All the evidence points to one fact: human beings are always seeking exciting new ways to stimulate our palates and fill our bellies. Cue Nathan Myhrvold and his team at Intellectual Ventures, a prototyping/research laboratory featured heavily in “Superfreakonomics.” These engineers, inventors, chefs, and artists recently completed a three-year project: a six-volume cookbook entitled “Modernist Cuisine.”
But it is so much more than a cookbook, and Myhrvold is so much more than a gourmet chef. Rather, he is a former physicist, computer scientist, and Microsoft CTO who wanted to find the conditions for creating the perfect French fry. This fascination with the molecular process of cooking sparked this 2400-page tome that is part laboratory guide, part photo album, part science textbook, and — of course — part cookbook. Flip to a random page, and you see scientific jargon like “scaling” written alongside numbered procedures that direct you to use apparatus like nebulizers and centrifuges. Each step is supplemented with pristine, succulent photos, and the book is sprinkled with facts about the chemistry and microbiology behind food creation.
Modernist Cuisine may be the magnum opus of the molecular gastronomy movement: a discipline of food science that uses scientific innovation to study and play with the physical and chemical aspects of cooking. Alice Waters, owner of the chain of restaurants Chez Panisse who helped found the Yale Sustainable Food project, shakes her head at this movement, saying on Freakonomics radio, “It’s that I am so hungry for the taste of the real… It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together.” But for a second, let’s suspend the chatter about food sustainability, organic produce, and locally-grown — what Myhrvold is doing is extremely cool. As important as I believe Waters’s movement is, I do not believe that the trend towards local produce and the trend towards molecular gastronomy are in conflict. In the same way that knowing where and how your produce is grown can make you feel closer to what you eat, understanding the basic chemistry and physics behind cooking can also make you better understand your food. I say, let the scientists and cooks play. Yes, “Modernist Cuisin”e contains some more-than-novel features (edible film and gels, anyone?), but I do believe that Myhrvold’s intention was not to spread this method of cooking to kitchens everywhere. After all, few people have a hydraulic press sitting next to the blender in his kitchen. Rather, Myhrvold wanted to explore the scientific possibilities behind one of humankind’s greatest needs, while also seeing if he can address inefficiencies or weakness in modern cooking practices.
Which brings up back to Myhrvold’s initial quest. So what goes in Myhrvold’s perfect French fry? If you’re hesitant to lay down the $625 cookbook collection, I’ll leave you with one hint: it involves vacuum-sealing, a vacuum chamber, and an ultrasonic bath.
Watch Modernist Cuisine video demonstrations here.
Corrections: Feb. 25
An earlier version of this post misstated the length of the Modernist Cuisine project. It took three years, not 30. Also, the perfect fry uses an ultrasonic bath, not an ultrasound machine.