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Does 'Molecular and Modernist' Cuisine Still Matter?

Does 'Molecular and Modernist' Cuisine Still Matter?

Recently, The Daily Meal's editorial director, Colman Andrews, took critic John Mariani to task for maintaining that "molecular" and modernist cooking ("M&M," as Mariani calls them) have had "next to zero" lasting influence on the way people eat in America today. Mariani has offered this reply.

When I wrote that Adrià's "modernist razzle-dazzlements are few and far between in American restaurants" except for foams that Adrià has himself disowned, I estimated that "99 percent of America’s acknowledged best chefs — from Eric Ripert to Michael White, from Dean Fearing to Donald Link — use next to zero M&M [molecular and modernist] techniques. Ripert, for one, has distanced himself from them entirely. Heston Blumenthal says he hates the untutored would-be Ferran Adriàs. Spanish chefs shake their heads at what Adrià has wrought. Many speak to me both on and off the record how they think that M&M is at best a publicity stunt and at worst a way for uneducated cooks to avoid learning to cook. And meanwhile just about every steakhouse in New York City will each serve 500 guests a night what they want to eat.

Colman, let’s get real: twenty years ago if served five hearts of palm stuffed with foie and peanut butter on little white pedestals, you would have walked. You would have been appalled spending $500 to eat at Grace a dish I had that was a literal Br’er Rabbit thicket of twigs hiding mostly sweet morsels of lemon jelly; a gougère with puréed fava beans and sweetened lemon; a dehydrated tapioca chip (one) with lardo and scallion purée; a Medjool date with ultra-sweet hibiscus syrup; and a green strawberry with red strawberry tart. And you would have shaken your head at an empty bowl that just smelled like fish once served at elBulli.

Last, when you flippantly says things like, "Salt is the same thing as any other chemical. Doesn’t yeast change the substance and taste of wheat flour? Doesn’t distillation make good whiskey?" I answer that if you say all cooking methods and all ingredients are the same thing, then there is nothing really new about M&M cuisine. They are simply using more chemicals, like on the ingredients labels of the kind of processed food the Food Media loves, rightly, to deplore. They’re no different from Tom Carvel, who inkjets children’s faces on birthday cakes (which Homaro Cantu believes he invented). Or General Mills creating Count Chocula and Lucky Charms. Those are gimmicky items that don’t taste real good unless you’re 9 years old. And let’s give a little respect to those people (not chefs) who over the last, oh, 100,000 years found fire and food work well together, that salt is so good — and essential to health — it’s worth an empire, that drying fish and meat is a way of getting through the winter, and that aging cheese is a way of preserving it. Those things are not quite in the same category as Dr. Myhrvold’s billion-dollar chem lab.

By definition, the M&M cooks intensely try to change and manipulate an ingredient. That is their modus operandi. Can you imagine their horror at a silly woman like Alice Waters (and you can throw in Escoffier, Paul Bocuse, Paul Bartolotta, Eric Ripert and thousands of other chefs) who believe the less you do to an ingredient the better? What fools! How could they ever hope to make a name for themselves doing so little to change their ingredients?

I guess I've never really understood why Ferran made olives into a slurpy ball on a spoon when I could just eat an olive.

Molecular Gastronomy: Edible Chemistry

. apparently a lot. I now know for a fact that the term "food science" is indeed accurate, because science implies experimentation as well as failure. Yesterday I decided to make some macaroni and cheese, couldn't be simpler, right? Well, when you're using Molecular Gastronomy, every ingredient counts. I went to my favorite books, Modernist Cuisine, and found the recipe for mac and cheese. (Also found on their website here). I found a variation using sharp Cheddar and Swiss mixed for a tangier cheese sauce, and decided to go for it. As I looked over the recipe I saw Sodium Citrate listed as one of the ingredients. Hmmm. I don't have any of that. What does it even do? Naturally, the next step was to ask Google what purpose Sodium Citrate serves in cooking. Turns out, Sodium Citrate is the Sodium salt derived from Citric acid, and is a pH buffer, as well as an emulsifying agent for the cheese proteins. But I thought to myself, "Oh come on, it's just melting some cheese, how much could it matter?" And that thought became a very valuable lesson for me that I hope to share with you.

So I followed the recipe, put some milk in a pot, cut up the sharp Cheddar and the Swiss cheeses, and readied my hand blender, which is used to disperse the cheese quickly into the liquid. But I had a few problems from the start.

Cheddar, and Swiss, and Hand Blenders, Oh My!
1. I was using a pot that was too big, so the blade on my hand blender was too far above the liquid to be able to do anything.
2. I had the heat on too high for using milk, mostly due to my impatience with cheese melting.
3. I had no emulsifier whatsoever.

So, naturally, after about five minutes and very few pieces of cheese later, I had a mess of curdled milk, oily cheese, and lumps of lactate proteins sticking to the pan. Unfortunately, my disgust overruled my better judgement, so I do not have a picture of this wonderful mistake to share. I promptly dumped my slop into the drain and determined to start over.

I made a few changes. I started with a much smaller pan so that I could actually blend the cheese in. Second, I added some Soy Lecithin, because I figured that the wrong emulsifier was better than none at all. And third I started with a base of water rather than milk, so my impatience would not affect my dish. Of course, this did not fix all of the problems. As a matter of fact, I gained a plethora of new ones.

The hand blender was doing its job quite well, but spattering hot cheese all over the stovetop--and me. A few seconds later, after turning my back for but a moment, I had about six inches of cheese foam forming on top of my sauce. Did I forget to mention that Soy Lecithin is also a very powerful foaming agent? A quick stir fixed the problem, but it was still a bit of a surprise I was not expecting. Finally, I had added all of the cheese and it had incorporated nicely. but the "cheese sauce" had the consistency of water. And watery mac and cheese does not appeal to anyone. So what did I do? Exactly what any good Molecular Gastronomist would do, I just started adding Xanthan gum until it thickened! A few grams later, the sauce had thickened nicely and smelled great. Whew. I poured it over the elbow macaroni that I had cooked (without incident) and added some diced green chile just for flavor.

The purpose of this story is to show how cooking is an improvisational art. True cooking is not following a recipe and getting what you expect, it's deciding what you want to eat and making it happen. This is why understanding ingredients and how they interact, not only chemically, but how flavors fit together and add or detract to a dish. Molecular Gastronomy exemplifies this by showing how even when you do not have the exact right ingredient, you can still be successful if you understand what each piece is meant to do. And sometimes, we get what we want despite those mistakes. And can sometimes be more delicious for doing so!

Theoretical foundations

A program was proposed for molecular gastronomy that took into account the fundamentally important artistic and social components of cooking as well as the technical element. A distinction was also made between the parts of recipes: “culinary definitions”—descriptions of the objective of recipes—and “culinary precisions”—the technical details of a recipe. Thus, a program for molecular gastronomy emerged: first, to model recipes, or culinary definitions second, to collect and test culinary precisions third, to scientifically explore the artistic component of cooking and, finally, to scientifically explore the social aspects of cooking.

In giving a name to the new study, Kurti and This looked to the definition of gastronomy given by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of Physiologie du goût (1825 The Physiology of Taste): “the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment.” The adjective molecular was added to further define that branch of science, which includes elements of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Beginning in 1988, research teams were established in the field of molecular gastronomy at universities in several countries—including France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Spain, and the United States—and the number of such nations continued to increase, reaching more than 30 in the early 21st century. New research laboratories were being created often for scientific research or for university education. Educational initiatives were also introduced within the main framework of physical chemistry education, such as the Experimental Cuisine Collective, launched in 2007 at New York University. Molecular gastronomy was shown to be an excellent educational tool, allowing students in chemistry, physics, and biology to observe and understand the practical use of the theories that they learned. In fall 2010 Harvard University debuted a new course on science and cooking taught in part by Catalan chef Ferran Adrià.

Among many other results, in 2002 a formalism now called “disperse systems formalism” (DSF) was introduced in order to describe the organization and material of food in particular but also of all formulated products (including drugs, cosmetics, and paintings), and new analytic methods were introduced for the study of the transformation of foods either in isolation or in aqueous solutions such as broths and stocks.

The Epicurious Blog

Last month I got a chance to see inside the geeked-out laboratory of Nathan Myhrvold. Myhrvold is a technologist working on a massive set of volumes on new cooking techniques called Modernist Cuisine, with any luck, available early next spring. His lab is filled with unusual ingredients and high-tech equipment. A team of chefs demonstrated recipes and explained the science behind them. I tried about eight dishes altogether. But the experience left me cold.

The truth is, I haven&apost eaten at the temples of the avant-garde - Alinea, El Bulli, The Fat Duck or wd-50 - so you could say I&aposm judging it all too prematurely. But I have heard quite a number of leading chefs and experts lecture on the topic and I am always left feeling somewhat depressed. For the record, I have heard not only Nathan Myhrvold, but Herve This, Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, Ben Roche Jose Andres and Harold McGee speak about techniques commonly associated with molecular gastronomy. I&aposve also tried dishes made by just about all of them. I don&apost have a problem with the use of alginates, circulators, homongenizers, liquid nitrogen and rotary evaporators if it makes food taste better. The problem is, in my experience, it doesn&apost. I&aposve had some good sous vide dishes, but truly tasty foam? Gels? Powders? Bubble-like spheres of liquid? Not really.

I want food to be absolutely delicious, and if I&aposm lucky, a window into another culture and a way to connect with people I care about, across the table. Molecular gastronomy has yet to accomplish this for me. It&aposs innovative leaders try too hard to make food into art or theater or in the words of Nathan Myhrrvold, "cool culinary effects." I&aposm not opposed to food that entertains me or makes me think, my meals at the French Laundry certainly did that, but more importantly they provided a wonderful dining experience and stunningly delicious food. Food, like design, serves a real function. It is not art for art&aposs sake. Perhaps "hate" is too strong a word, but when it comes to food, taste trumps everything and in my experience, molecular gastronomy fails to deliver.

Good Things are on the Rise for Modernist Bread

A title, publication date, plus more. Discover what we’ve been up to over the last year.

Over four years ago, the Modernist Cuisine team began to sleep, eat, and breathe bread—with an emphasis on the eating part. Of course we love all food, but one could say that we’ve become enthusiastic carbivores. We still have much to learn about bread, but we have reached a significant mile marker of our journey: an official book title and a tentative publication date. And we’re excited to share those with you—we anticipate that you will be able to find Modernist Bread: The Art and Science on bookshelves in March 2017.

Our passion for bread goes beyond appreciation for a really good loaf. Since this project began, we have fully immersed ourselves in the world of bread, both baking and researching it, all in the pursuit of understanding everything we possibly can about the science of bread and baking. As we’ve learned more about bread, our team has come across a rather interesting phenomenon: every new answer that we discover leads to a new question. The ingredient list can be simple, but baking bread is deceptively complex. There are still many puzzles to solve for the scientific community that studies it. Our team has performed over 1,500 experiments to date, and we’re still experimenting.

Countless loaves later, we’ve amassed (and are still generating) an incredible amount of content, so much so that it will fill five volumes, just like our first passion project, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. The culinary team has developed more than 1,200 recipes from around the world that are both traditional and avant-garde. At over a million words so far, Modernist Bread will total over 2,000 pages and feature more than 3,000 new photos.

What is Modernist Bread?

Bread has been around for a long time, and it’s one of the most technologically sophisticated foods you can make. Yet, throughout the last century, the general perception of bread has changed. It has become a good that is purchased and not made at home. For many people without access to wonderful local bakeries, bread is an afterthought at the store, and at restaurants, it’s typically served merely as an accompaniment to satiate diners as they wait for their meal to arrive. Unfortunately, it has also suffered another fate far worse—avoidance. Bread has become public enemy number one, deemed unhealthy for one reason or another, usually thanks to an abundance of bad information and poorly made bread.

Nevertheless, a new movement is taking form in bakeries and kitchens across the globe. The next generation of bakers and chefs are positioning bread and grain back at the center of the table, infusing a 6,000-year-old tradition with a renewed spirit of creativity and innovation. As they begin to experiment, there’s a new thirst for knowledge about bread. It’s flowing out of the professional environment and into homes where people want to know how to bake bread again and how to bake it well. In many ways, Modernist Bread is a celebration of this shifting paradigm and the exciting conversations that people are having about bread.

A new home

There have been other big developments for our team, specifically over the last year. Namely, Modernist Cuisine has a new home.

Our old kitchen was housed in a building that was a Harley-Davidson showroom during its previous incarnation. That space took shape organically as we worked on Modernist Cuisine. The long rectangular layout evolved as the scope of the book expanded and necessitated new equipment, the placement of which was dictated by where we could find available outlets instead of kitchen ergonomics. Our photo studio was located away from the kitchen in a different part of the building, which made some shoots challenging. Large dishes and projects, such as our Gaudí Gingerbread House, needed to be slowly (and tediously) wheeled through a maze of narrow corridors.

Our old kitchen will always be special to us because it was our first home, but our new space is already home. It’s larger and more functional. Our photo studio and kitchen are side by side, a change that has enhanced the collaboration between the culinary and photography teams. The square kitchen now makes it much easier to navigate and reduces the number of steps the culinary team takes throughout the day. It makes tasks like lifting heavy tubs of dough and carrying 50-pound sacks of flour that much easier. Baking bread all day is an incredibly labor-intensive craft.

Moving a culinary wonderland took about a year of planning and a month to relocate. All of our equipment is here, including the centrifuge, roto-stator homogenizer, and CVap, for which we’ve found new applications in baking. There are also a few new additions to the space. Being in a bigger space has allowed us to use new research tools, expanding what we’re able to do in-house.

We use a 3D scanner to create three-dimensional models of our test loaves in order to compare their volumes and densities. To better understand how different flours and doughs behave during mixing and baking, we use a Chopin Mixolab. This machine measures the resistance to mixing, and the integrated software converts the data into six qualitative indices that describe important properties of dough.

Another new tool is the Calibre C-Cell, used in the commercial baking industry, which allows us to test the quality of flour, assess gas cell structure of the crumb and quality surface features, and measure the height and width of different types of breads.

We’re now able to take all of our microscopy photos in-house. A scanning electron microscope helps us to look at ingredients at the molecular level. We’re able to see an incredible new view of bread, from the gluten structure to mold and yeast. We’ve discovered that the science of baking also happens to be fantastically beautiful—it’s just one of the many discoveries we’re thrilled to share in Modernist Bread.

What’s to come

From time-tested traditions to brand-new discoveries, Modernist Bread will capture the science, history, and techniques that will transform foodies into bread experts. Whether you are a strict traditionalist, avid modernist, home baker, restaurant chef, or an artisanal baker, we hope that this book will open your eyes to possibilities of invention and different ways of thinking.

Project developments are never-ending. Join our mailing list, check our blog, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and announcements.

Cooking with Syllables: Carrageenan

From eggnog and soy milk to infant formulas and toothpaste, carrageenan is found everywhere. The word carrageenan may sound foreign and vaguely exotic, but it’s simply a generic term for a type of sugar extracted from various species of red seaweed. In Modernist cooking, it’s classified as an emulsifier, stabilizer, hydrocolloid (hydrophilic colloid), or gum, all of which function in some way to thicken or clarify ingredients, or to bind moisture. The term carrageenan has been around since at least 1889 and is derived from carrageen, circa 1829, which is a purplish, cartilaginous seaweed colloquially known as “Irish moss,” found off the coasts of North America and Europe. In fact, the seaweed gets its moniker from a small Irish fishing village, Carragheen, where it’s plentiful. Traditionally, the seaweed was boiled in sweetened milk to create a pudding. Simmering the seaweed unlocks the ingredient’s gelling properties. Its use, however, can be traced back even further to at least 400 CE, where it was used as a gelling agent and as an ingredient in homemade cold-and-flu remedies. Industrially, carrageenan is extracted chiefly from the red algae Chondrus crispus (class Rhodophyceae), but it can also be extracted from various species of Gigartina and Eucheuma.

Inherently vegetarian with no nutritional value, seaweed-based thickeners like carrageenan have new, modern applications. Most commonly, carrageenan can adjust the viscosity of dairy products like cheese, or it can serve as an emulsion stabilizer in salad dressings by keeping your oil and vinegar mixed. In more advanced applications, it will glue meat together, allowing for the creation of hot aspics and other seemingly contradictory foundations. Chemically, carrageenan is classified as a polysaccharide, a type of sugar. Its properties are varied and complex, but its basic function is to thicken and stabilize. It does this by forming large yet flexible matrices that curl around and immobilize molecules. Because of its inherent flexibility, carrageenans can form a variety of gels under a wide range of temperatures, but each type of carrageenan only becomes fully hydrated at a characteristic temperature. Some carrageenans can be hydrated without adding heat, while others must be brought to 85°C / 185°F or higher before saturation occurs, and a few have a hydration temperature that depends on the presence of other ions, the most common of which is calcium. Carrageenan actually comes in five varieties, classified by how much sulfate (SO4) it contains and its solubility in potassium chloride. Named after Greek letters, they are ι (iota), κ (kappa), λ (lambda), ε (epsilon), and μ (mu), however, only the forms iota, kappa, and lambda are used in Modernist cooking. All forms contain roughly 20–40% sulphate, which dictates how firmly (and whether) a gel will set, how the gel freezes and thaws, and how syneresis (the separation of water from its gel, also known as weeping) is affected. As the amount of sulfate increases, the strength of a gel decreases.

Recently, there has been some speculation over the safety of carrageenan. Carrageenan has been a focus for many mammal studies because of its potential to cause inflammation, ulceration, colitis, polyps, and colorectal tumors. Although such maladies are reported in animal studies, at the time of writing this connection has not been validated in humans because carrageenan’s molecular size and accompanying bonds prevent it from being digested naturally. To understand why carrageenan does not cause morbidity in humans, it’s important to differentiate between carrageenan and its degraded form, poligeenan. Poligeenan is the digested form of carrageenan and consists of molecular fragments small enough to pass from the digestive tract to the circulatory system. It is poligeenan that causes the many illnesses researchers describe in mammals, but current research has shown that the human digestive tract is limited in its ability to break down carrageenan into poligeenan. The primary pathway of human digestion, the alimentary canal, is, despite its placement, considered to be outside the body a compound is not considered to be in the body until it moves from the digestive tract to the circulatory system. And, in order for any compound to affect human organs, such as the brain, liver, or heart, it must be small enough to cross the intestinal walls. Carrageenan is too large to do so, but poligeenan’s small size can. Not surprisingly, it has been postulated that carrageenan can be fragmented by natural digestive processes, but, to date, this has yet to be demonstrated in humans. In addition to carrageenan’s large size, its inherent bonds pose another challenge to the human digestive tract. Carrageenan is held together by β-glycosidic bonds, which are ubiquitous in the plant world, but most mammals, including humans, lack the proper enzymes to break them.

Recipes and Sourcing

Because of its utility, carrageenan is an ingredient that we use frequently, appearing in many recipes throughout Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home. Carrageenan is used to create the creamy texture of our Pistachio Gelato and to stabilize our American Cheese Slices. Although you may not be able to find carrageenan on the shelves of neighborhood grocery stores, it’s easy to source online. If you’re ready to start testing this ingredient, try out our Pistachio Gelato recipe or Raspberry Panna Cotta in Modernist Cuisine at Home.

Cocktails in ice spheres. Caviar made of olive oil. Disappearing transparent raviolis. Sound cool? Well these are all examples of Molecular Gastronomy. Molecular Gastronomy blends physics and chemistry to transform the tastes and textures of food. The result? New and innovative dining experiences. The term Molecular Gastronomy is commonly used to describe a style of cuisine in which chefs explore culinary possibilities by borrowing tools from the science lab and ingredients from the food industry. Formally, the term molecular gastronomy refers to the scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking. Molecular gastronomy seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena.

Many modern chefs do not accept the term molecular gastronomy to describe their style of cooking and prefer other terms like "modern cuisine", "modernist cuisine", "experimental cuisine" or "avant-garde cuisine". Heston Blumenthal says molecular gastronomy makes cuisine sound elitist and inaccessible, as though you need a degree in rocket science to enjoy it. In the end, molecular gastronomy or molecular cuisine - or whatever you want to call this cooking style - refers to experimental restaurant cooking driven by the desire of modern cooks to explore the world's wide variety of ingredients, tools and techniques. Molecular gastronomy research starts in the kitchen where chefs study how food tastes and behaves under different temperatures, pressures and other scientific conditions.


Molecular gastronomy experiments have resulted in new innovative dishes like hot gelatins, airs, faux caviar, spherical ravioli, crab ice cream and olive oil spiral. Ferran Adria from El Bulli restaurant used alginates to create his system of spherification which gelled spheres that literally burst in your mouth. Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck restaurant discovered the ability of fat to hold flavor and created a dish that had three flavors -basil, olive and onion - with each taste being perceived in sequence. The potential of molecular gastronomy is enormous. It is revolutionizing traditional cooking and transforming dining into a surprising emotional and sensory experience. Watch the video below to get an idea of the endless possibilities!


When people hear the words molecular gastronomy or molecular cuisine for the first time they often mistakenly view it as unhealthy, synthetic, chemical, dehumanizing and unnatural. This is not surprising given that molecular gastronomy often relies on fuming flasks of liquid nitrogen, led-blinking water baths, syringes, tabletop distilleries, PH meters and shelves of food chemicals with names like carrageenan, maltodextrin and xanthan. My wife's first reaction when I surprised her with a liquid pea spherical raviolo was to say "Can I eat this? Is this safe? Why don't YOU try it first?". The truth is that the "chemicals" used in molecular gastronomy are all of biological origin. Even though they have been purified and some of them processed, the raw material origin is usually marine, plant, animal or microbial. These additives have been approved by EU standards and are used in very, very small amounts. The science lab equipment used just helps modern gastronomy cooks to do simple things like maintaining the temperature of the cooking water constant (water bath) , cooling food at extremely low temperatures fast (liquid nitrogen) or extract flavor from food (evaporator). There is still some debate out there about the healthiness of molecular gastronomy but I personally believe there are far bigger health issues in the everyday food we consume. In the end, you are not going to be eating liquid pea spheres every day anyway.


Are you passionate about cooking? Do you have a creative mind? Are you analytical and logical? Then molecular gastronomy could likely become your passion. Molecular gastronomy cooking requires a good balance of left and right brain thinking. Most of the molecular cuisine recipes need to be followed precisely. Steps need to be followed in a very specific sequence or the whole dish may be a disaster. Quantities are measured in fractions of a gram or fractions of a percentage. Slight variations in food acidity levels could be disastrous for some dishes. I learned that the hard way when making caviar for the first time as I replaced melon with pomegranate. At the same time, molecular gastronomy is about experimenting, being curious, using intuition, playing with emotions and creating a multi-sensory dinning experience with artistic dish presentations, textures, aromas, flavors and even sounds. The plate is your canvas! Then again, do you even need a plate? How about serving soup in a tea cup or a sphere in a bended spoon or a salad in a parmesan basket or a bruschetta on a titanium mesh? Ok, maybe the titanium mesh is too much. We’ll leave that for the expensive molecular gastronomy restaurants.


If you are not a professional chef with a fully equipped kitchen you can still enjoy molecular gastronomy at home without spending too much money. Many molecular cuisine recipes don't require special equipment or "chemicals". With as little as $50 you can get some basic molecular gastronomy substances to start making spheres, airs and gels. Want to cook with liquid nitrogen? That gets a bit more expensive but is a lot of fun. You'll have to spend about $500 and carefully follow some safety procedures.


Want to try some molecular gastronomy? The major challenge is finding good molecular cuisine recipes with complete detailed explanations and good photos that show how finished dishes are supposed to look. Once you learn the basic principles behind each recipe and technique you can be creative and come up with your own dishes.

Another great way to add dimension to a dish is to carbonate it and the iSi Whip is the perfect tool for the job. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s practically foolproof. Use it to carbonate fruits, veggies, cocktails and spheres. You just need to use an iSi CO2 charger instead of N2O. You can also use an iSi Soda Siphon for this purpose. Just follow these recipes and you’re guaranteed to have a nicely carbonated fruit, liquid or gel.

How To: The Photography Behind the Modernist Cuisine

Great food photography whets appetites, sells magazines, and inspires people to cook. But the imagery of the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks does more: It teaches, with plenty of aesthetic impact, too. Now find out how they do it.

Nathan Myhrvold had a problem. In 2011, this true renaissance man and his co-workers at The Cooking Lab in Bellevue, WA, were preparing to publish their groundbreaking 2,400-page, six-volume, $600 Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. The book’s futuristic recipes included revolutionary cooking techniques such as spherification and sous-vide—not what you would find in Fannie Farmer. In fact, both the recipes and their preparations can be downright daunting.

His problem? How to draw the casual reader into the books and not scare them off. To solve this, he created a new kind of food photography that piques curiosity at first glance, and then educates at the second. “If you represent a subject so that people can’t quite place it,” he explains, “that automatically draws them into the photo, and, we hope, will hook them into wanting to learn more about the science of food and new cooking techniques.”

Before Modernist Cuisine, the primary purpose of food photography was to make food look mouth-watering or otherwise inviting to eat: a steaming, perfectly browned and seasoned turkey on a Thanksgiving table, or a classic cherry pie on a checkered-cloth picnic table, with the sun-dappled cherry orchard beyond. These images, Myhrvold says, are more about nostalgia and romance than cooking.

So what distinguishes Modernist Cuisine photography from conventional food and cooking imagery? For starters, very few of the images showcase cooked food or finished dishes. The focus is always on cooking technique and ingredients, with backgrounds either pure white or black and totally context-free.

You don’t need a cookbook to tell you that food can be delicious, Myhrvold maintains. That’s a given we know that. The Modernist approach to cooking and food photography is strictly about how to cook, not why.

This new, admittedly clinical style of food photography has been exhibited in museums from France to Hong Kong to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. It has drawn enough admirers that The Cooking Lab has published a new book specifically about its imagery: The Photography of Modernist Cuisine. Due in stores as you read this, it’s billed as the first coffee-table-scaled art book about food and cooking. Myhrvold is its chief photographer and author.

The 13-pound, $120 tome has two purposes: To inspire with unique and unusual fine-art food photography, and to explain to interested readers how the images were made. The explanations appear in the form of studio set-up shots and detailed captions found in the back of the book.

Myhrvold and his crew refuse to focus on the obvious, conventional, or clichéd. The book’s cover, for example, is a tight close-up of a tomato that explores with a sharply focused eye the red fruit’s skin and the graphically intriguing design of its stem and calyx. A more unsettling example: A photo in a section on the cooking of pork doesn’t show a beautiful browned and sweating pork chop. Instead, we see colorful, but squirmy photomicrographs of the parasitic worm that causes trichinosis. That’s what Myhrvold means by the “science of cooking” and what distinguishes his aesthetic from that of Martha Stewart or Ina Garten.

“After poring over hundreds of examples, we discovered something funny about food books,” says Myhrvold. “The cookbooks with beautiful images never reveal how their images were made, and the how-to photography books explain ways of shooting food, but their pictures are rarely beautiful or inspiring.”

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine tries to fix this with a satisfying mix of compelling food images and informative how-to. And it succeeds. It’s by far the most edifying and inspiring how-to book on food photography we’ve seen.

Just as the Modernist cooking techniques are cutting edge, so are the photo techniques employed by Myhrvold and his co-photographers. Modernist Cuisine photographers, for example, shoot food at drastically different scales than do typical cookbooks. They shoot the usual studio photographs, with standard lenses and lighting, but they go deeper, too, using macro, super-macro, and even microscopic views. Their super close-ups are presented usually with absolute sharpness thanks to focus stacking during postproduction—again, not something you will find in most food books.

Other advanced photographic techniques include stitched panoramics of food. Their high-speed photography is made possible by both high-frame-rate video cameras such as Visual Research’s Phantom, as well as short-flash-duration studio strobes. Such layered foods as sandwiches are carefully photographed to simulate exploded diagrams, with each ingredient its own layer, shot from slightly different angles.

Nathan Myhrvold is the conceptual force and financial backer for both The Cooking Lab and Modernist Cuisine. Interested in both photography and cooking from his young teens, he was sidetracked professionally but never let go of his culinary passion in the intervening years: He was Microsoft’s chief technology officer and founder of Microsoft Research—a 14-year relationship—from which he took an extended sabbatical in order to acquire a cooking diploma from the well-known French culinary institute in Paris, La Varenne. Asked for suggestions he might offer novice food photographers, Myhrvold says: “Start by finding available-light situations that speak to you. Several pictures in the book, in fact, were taken at open-air farmers’ markets with very simple equipment. Shoot in open shade or filtered light, perhaps using a simple reflector or slight application of flash to open up shadows.”

What about gear? “A serious 1:1 macro lens is nice, but not essential,” he continues. “The most-used lens for this book was the Canon 24­–105mm f/4L [which magnifies only to 1:4.3], because 1:1-type magnification can be too much. It puts your camera close enough to the subject that you’re often blocking your lights.”

As for skills, “develop the ability to compose and light ingredients so you accurately capture their shape, color, and texture,” he advises. Next, move on to small, off-camera shoe-mount flashes and then graduate to studio strobes. “The most important thing to learn about lighting food is not to shine your lights directly at your subjects. Instead, place your lighting so it reflects obliquely off the food’s surfaces.”

Best part of food photography? When you’re finished shooting, you can eat your subjects.

Shooting on Black: One of the studio setups shown in myhrvold’s book, this one is for subjects on black backgrounds. Photo: Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine LLC

A. Background
“A yard or two of black velvet from a fabric store makes a fantastic black background that reflects almost no light,” says Myhrvold. “Just make sure you keep your light sources’ output from spilling onto it.”

B. Tabletop
For sexy reflections on a black foreground, use a sheet of black Plexiglas as shown here. For more mirror-like effects, Myhrvold recommends a sheet of glass whose reverse side you’ve spray-painted black.

C. Lights
“When shooting translucent food like this grapefruit, it’s fun to light it from behind,” says Myhrvold. “In microscopy, they call this ‘dark field shooting,’ and for translucent subjects, the light should be hard [no softbox or diffuser] and typically come from the back and at an angle. This technique is frequently used for glass subjects.”

D. Computer station
Myhrvold recommends shooting tethered to a nearby computer. “We love the immediacy of it. You can tweak your lighting in real time, and know when you’ve got the shot. The way you look through a viewfinder is fundamentally different than the way you see with a computer screen.” And in the end, there will be far fewer unpleasant surprises.

As It Cooks

For this cutaway of steaming broccoli, Nathan Myhrvold and his team cut the pot, steamer, and lid each in half using an abrasive waterjet. He held the florets together with toothpicks, and later, in software, added multiple side-on shots of boiling water below.
Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine LLC

Focus Stacking

This super-macro image of a rambutan, a tropical fruit approximately two inches in diameter, is a digital composite of about 30 images that were focus-stacked to assure sharpness from front to back. Focus stacking is one of several advanced photographic techniques Myhrvold employed for Modernist Cuisine, and one rarely, if ever, used in conventional cookbooks. Each of the 30 frames captured a different “slice” of the fruit in sharp focus. They were then combined in software, which automatically eliminated the out-of-focus areas of each slice. One of the book’s stacks comprised 1,700 slices.
Photo: Nathan Myhrvold/Modernist Cuisine LLC

Thrown Food

This cutaway of stir-fried pad thai illustrates the technique of dynamically varying cooking time and temperature by controlling the height at which ingredients are tossed or stirred. For stop-action food, Myhrvold and crew typically use high shutter speeds, short flash-duration strobes, and sometimes even shoe-mount flashes. The composite of multiple tosses above included one toss that resulted in a kitchen fire caused by oil spilling out of the cutaway wok.
Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine LLC

Levitating Food

Taking his inspiration from exploded diagrams typically seen in mechanical drawings, Myhrvold and crew produced a number of levitating food shots for the cookbooks. The challenge in producing composites like this grilled cheese sandwich comes in having to shoot each layer from a slightly different angle, with only the central image (here the melting cheese) shot straight on. The image was the cover art for Modernist Cuisine at Home.
Photo: Melissa Lehuta/Modernist Cuisine LLC

Enzyme Peel

To photograph the tender flesh of a grapefruit slice, Myhrvold and his crew had to remove the tough outer membrane that encapsulates each grapefruit section without disturbing the succulent inner sacs of grapefruit juice. To do it, they soaked the segments in a mixture of commercially available natural enzymes and then gently peeled away the outer membrane. As you learn in the book, “it sloughs away like old skin off a snake.”
Photo: Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine LLC

Kosher Kitchen Meets Modernist Cuisine

For even the most adventurous home cook, modernist cuisine, also known as molecular gastronomy—yes, that of emulsifiers, hydrocolloids and sous vide—can come across as pretty intimidating. So “a rabbi and a lawyer started a modernist kosher supper club” must be the beginning of a joke, right?

About six years ago, Maryland locals Yehuda Malka, a rabbi, mohel and yeshiva high school teacher, and Dan Rabinowitz, an attorney, bonded over food.

The two hot trends at the time were blogs documenting cooking one’s way through a cookbook, like Julie and Julia, and modernist cuisine, the product of food scientists and chefs meeting at conferences in Europe in the mid-1990s to improve cooking through the application of scientific techniques.

Tuna with smoke and spice oil, avocado, ginger and makrut lime

Rabinowitz introduced Malka to Alinea, the cookbook showcasing recipes from the acclaimed Chicago restaurant of the same name. Coincidentally, in Takoma Park, Maryland, a blogger was cooking her way through the book, and while she was not Jewish, she noted in a post that she had found beef fat, for rendering, at Max’s Kosher Market.

Light bulbs went off for Malka and Rabinowitz: Could modernist meet kosher?

When Malka finally cracked open Alinea himself and made steak with a deconstructed A1 sauce, he was hooked.

From there, “we would find a new technique or flavor and dive into it to understand the vast food culture that exists outside of our world,” he shares.

Over Labor Day 2010, Malka and Rabinowitz, who was looking to auction off some reserved bottles from his impressive wine collection, hosted 10 to 12 people for a multicourse modernist kosher dinner with wine pairings at Rabinowitz’s house.

After that, Malka says, “Things just snowballed.” While both Malka and Rabinowitz had full-time jobs and family commitments and no professional training in cooking, they had clearly found a sweet spot: modernist cuisine was exploding—the five-volume Modernist Cuisine encyclopedia had been released, Alton Brown and Michael Ruhlman were everywhere, explaining cooking ratios and why recipes work, and there was even a podcast, “Cooking Issues” by Dave Arnold—yet the kosher food world was stuck with steakhouses as its most sophisticated offering.

Duck with Thai aromatics, kabocha and delicata squash, banana and curried pumpkin seeds

They established Modernist Kosher, a once-in-a-while supper club, hosting several dinners at a home in Baltimore and other small events in the community and sharing modernist cooking adventures on their blog,

But how does a cuisine of gels and all different animal products gel with kashrut? “At first, it was a challenge, but then it became all about reframing expectations.” For example, French cuisine uses a lot of butter, especially with meat, to create richness. Malka found that by substituting chicken fat for the butter, he could create the same rich texture on the palate, yet with even bolder chicken flavor.

“There’s really not so much you can’t do [to keep it kosher],” he says. Mac and cheese can get a smoky touch sans bacon bits. One favorite is vegan (and pareve) pistachio gelato. Instead of steeping pistachios in cream, straining it and then churning it, Malka makes a custard of pistachio butter and pistachio oil, stabilized with tapioca starch and xanthan gum instead of eggs. Still, he’d like to see more variety in kosher meats, such as venison and squab.

In the past year, the Modernist Kosher supper club has been put a bit on the back burner (no pun intended). About four months ago, after working as a teacher and then in commercial real estate, Malka made food his focus, launching Satori Kitchen, which, in addition to owning, managing and expanding Wrap2Go, is creating additional high-quality kosher offerings in the DC area, including Shabbat and travel meals. In the upcoming year, he hopes to bring back Modernist Kosher pop-ups through the new business.

On exploring modernist cuisine at home, Malka says, “People feel that this is intimidating, but what’s nice is that you’re looking for a way to [prepare something] that’s foolproof. The technique that modernist cuisine gives you is often the one that’s been tested, the simplest one, so why waste your time with something that’s untested?”

By the way, it doesn’t even require fancy equipment like an immersion circulator, he says, noting that the best tool in his kitchen is his pressure cooker, which intensifies the flavor of so many ingredients.

Still not convinced? “What’s the worst that can happen?” Malka says, “You burn something and try again.”

Top photo: Modernist Kosher’s 48-hour short rib bite with pickled mustard seeds, red cabbage and caraway. All photos courtesy of Modernist Kosher.

Watch the video: Cooking a Pizza in the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen with Head Chef Francisco Migoya (October 2021).