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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Modernist Cuisine-The Art and Science of Cooking

AN EXACT MEASURE OF INGREDIENTS?
"I don't like food that's too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I'd buy a painting." Andy Rooney











Julia Child (with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck) gave America the gift of French cuisine at a time when homemakers were preparing "fast food" from their freezers. For those brave home "chefs", preparing family dinners from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, TV dinners were replaced with Boeuf Bourguignon - a three-page, authentic recipe from the book, requiring multiple steps and multiple procedures. Ms. Child, while demystifying the recipes, refused to simplify instructions which were handed down from master chefs to generations of students. While her book raised the level of food consciousness in America, it was originally rejected by Houghton Mifflin Publishing. The publishing house felt that the recipes would intimidate American housewives and as a result, the book would not sell well. Since publication (Knopf,1961), the book, which has never been out of print, has sold more than one million copies. Of course, with the release of both the book and film, Julie and Julia, sales have increased dramatically.

Soon, another culinary-world-changing book, Modernist Cuisine - The Art and Science of Cooking, will arrive on bookstore shelves (and in online shops). It should rest, comfortably, near Ms. Child's first book. The brainchild of Nathan Myhrvold, (former Chief Strategist and Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Corporation, currently founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures), Modernist Cuisine evolved out of Dr. Myhrvold's interest in sous vide cuisine. Sous vide, developed by George Pralus in the 1970s, translates to "under vacuum." It is a method of slow cooking at low temperatures in vacuum sealed bags, placed in warm water. Foods cooked via this method, tend to retain more of its shape and flavor than do foods cooked in slow-cookers due to the absence of oxygen and low cooking temperatures.
Trained as a chef, Dr. Myhrvold, along with Chris Young (a biochemist) and Maxime Bilet, both Fat Duck alumni, spent approximately three years developing and producing the five volumes which are included in the book.
The volumes are titled, as follows:
1. History and Fundamentals
2. Techniques and Equipment
3. Animals and Plants
4. Ingredients and Preparations
5. Plated Dish Recipes
No single style of cooking is represented. Modernist techniques, for example, are used to prepare "the ultimate cheeseburger, sunny-side up egg and Indian curries." However, highly technical discussions of processes, "such as constructed creams..." are also presented. Much like a richly photographed textbook, Modernist Cuisine, elevates the reader's knowledge  - as accomplished by Ms. Child's first book, so many years ago.
 
However, one must wonder if home chefs will find the technical aspects of the book too complicated. And would they purchase the necessary small appliances to accomplish sous vide, etc.? Perhaps, proof this may not be a problem, was found in the December 2nd issue of the Los Angeles Times, in an article titled, "Sous-Vide Comes Home", by Betty Hallock, (Food Section). In brief, Ms. Hallock informs readers as to the availability of various cutting-edge equipment, such as hand-held smokers, Vitamix  high powered blenders, whipping siphons, and sous vide cookers; validation that interest in modernist cuisine is present and growing. Perhaps, even, validation that Modernist Cuisine could be a best seller, as well.


Wondering which recipes might be found in the cookbook, the press room furnishes us with the following information:
"We have full-on Modernist dishes that would not be out of place at leading Modernist restaurants. But we also have dishes that are far more informal, like barbecue from the American South, a pork belly picnic and even the perfect omelet. For us, a plated recipe doesn't have to be fancy, as long as it's made with the quality and care of more elaborate preparations. Our hamburger is the best one we know how to make, and we believe that you should put every bit as much effort into making a great hamburger as you would if you were making dishes with loftier ambitions."
In an article written by Bruce Feiler (edited by Julie Coe) for Departures Magazine (December 2010), Dr. Myhrvold states, 
"One of the things that marks this genre of cooking is a real desire to be art. Something that is deeply intellectual and, yes, where the artist takes narrative control. But when you eat it (Caesar Dorito or freeze-dried lettuce, for example) certain ideas occur to you that will impact how you consume food forever."


The photography, research and overall development of the book required years of work; all within the kitchen laboratory developed by Dr. Myrhvold in Bellevue, Washington. While the volumes contained within this book deal with savory foods, future volumes will include desserts, pastries and baked goods.
In the new book, As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the following question was asked of Julia Child, "What makes a great cookbook." Her response was, "You might as well ask what makes a good restaurant. It's an eclectic mix of voice, recipes, design, attitude, prose, originality - only occasionally do all of the pieces come together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."
Will Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, come together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?
Time will tell.


Modernist Cuisine website
Modernist Cuisine blog
Modernist Cuisine at Amazon
Intellectual Ventures
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Knopf Doubleday
Ryan Matthew Smith Photography


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