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"Modernist Cuisine" by Myhrvold, Young & Bilet (Part 2)

Cookbook Modernist Reference

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#61 JBailey

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 02:45 PM

What did Alice say? Curiouser and curiouser?

I also wonder if Ruhlman and Brown may indeed fear a backlash from followers who don't have the interest, means or desire to follow what this book may present? Mr. Browm I personally dismiss as an entertainer more than a food leader. Mr. Ruhlman, though, has been a user and advocate for the companies which sell the Sous Vide Professional and Sous Vide Supreme machines. His authorship of Under Pressure puts him squarely in the chamber vacuum/circulator/Pacojet discussion as either an expert or one who could convey in words the concepts of sous vide and advanced cooking.

Regardless of what Michael Ruhlman wrote in the NYTimes, a fact may have been undiscussed. No public company or privately held firm is at risk for publishing Modernist Cuisine. The invested dollars to date and for getting the book published and into buyer's hands has all been Nathan's risk. While he may indeed account to his family, it was his dollars he ventured not knowing whether even one of us would really buy his book, let alone a hoped for 6,000 orders.

I would be interested to learn when Michael Ruhlman was first contacted about The French Laundry Cookbook or even Under Pressure whether he wrote it 'on the come', as the phrase goes, or if he had a contract that laid out payments, terms and conditions? If they failed would he have lost his base payments? Risk and courage of your beliefs are marvelous qualities Nathan...not to mention being responsible for the paychecks of your collegues who worked with you on Modernist Cuisine.
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#62 JBailey

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 02:51 PM

By the way Nathan, what time did Ruhlman call or email to thank you for answering his questions over the last several weeks and to discuss your reaction to his review?
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#63 daves

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 03:11 PM

The thing that amazes me is the passion that people have on the topic of "modern cuisine". They (usually) haven't read the book, but they already know what's in it. Plus, even though the book clearly describes many of the real experiments that were used to confirm a fact, they continue to "just not believe it". Some of the comments here, and many of the comments on Ruhlman's blog, are of this dismissive-yet-not-informed type.

But clearly this has struck a nerve -- just look at the number of readers of this thread. Has there ever been such a thread on eGullet?

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#64 weinoo

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 03:19 PM

I am sure there are other interpretations. The tenor of the rest of the piece makes me think my interpretation is correct.

But hey, maybe I am wrong.


I actually think it's sour grapes on the part of both Alton Brown and Michael Ruhlman.

They didn't write the book, which would surely have solidified them as the masters of their chosen fields. Nor were they asked in any way to contribute to the book, although as you mentioned above, Ruhlman did write and ask questions for his review.

Alton Brown was being disingenuous about his ability to purchase the book and Ruhlman was being disingenuous about his feigned ignorance. In neither case does it garner any respect.
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#65 gfweb

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 03:21 PM

As far as I've read, Ruhlman has no CIA degree and has never been employed running a restaurant kitchen. Calling himself "chef" is inflating his resume.

Having said that, he has made a living writing and blogging about food, which is not nothing. In this sense at least his credentials are similar to Julia Childs's.

I agree with Nathan, he seems to want it both ways. He's probably succeeded too. His star is rising temporarily on the back of Nathan and his team's work. He might even get on the Today Show to grouse about the book. But long after the review is forgotten...eg next week, MC will be honored and useful.

#66 cbread

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 04:13 PM

The response to Modernist Cuisine has been "interesting". It and modern kitchen techniques in general seem to function as something of a litmus test for people's gut responses to modernism writ large. One friend of mine was almost hostile to the concept of souse vide cooking and said that the control SV offers takes away all the the art and craft. The concept of having process control rather than the magic of a chef's intuitive / experiential knowledge of when to take something off the grill bothered him greatly. I was greatly surprised since he's in the computer industry.

I suspect that in other eras I would be reading the same negative responses about thermostatically controlled ovens, electric cook-tops, crock pot slow cookers etc.

Every advance in control in one area allows the chef to attend to some other area in greater depth. The whole meal improves. Not having to fight with a piece of meat may let me make a better veggie.

#67 cbread

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 04:21 PM

... A good analogy might be hand painted art vs photo shopped pictures ...

I'll take a well done photo-shopped image over a poorly done painted picture, and a well painted painting over a sloppily photo-shopped photograph. It's the quality that matters. I'm an artist. A painter to be exact. But what I care about isn't the medium, it's whether the image works.

In food, I care first and most about whether it's a good meal. Whether it's SVed and rotovapped - or - baked over a wood fire is only a descriptive and irrelevant story if the flavor doesn't work.

#68 Chris Amirault

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 05:46 PM

Pretty odd exchange about this topic on Ruhlman's blog today. When someone pointed his attention to this discussion, Ruhlman wrote, "those knuckleheads have had it in for me for a long time. i haven’t been to the site in years." Not sure what to make of that non-response, for a variety of reasons.

As someone who devoted scores of favorable posts to using his Charcuterie book, I find the name-calling and paranoia counter-productive at best. Surely Mr. Ruhlman, a Society member from way back, would join us for a discussion here about the relative merits and drawbacks of the book and of his review of same?
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#69 gfweb

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 05:55 PM

I just scanned the link to Ruhlman's blog. Most of his comments are essentially favorable toward MC.

I still see a publicity grab here.

Am I a knucklehead? I suppose I am. I don't take offense at this. :laugh:

#70 Chris Amirault

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 06:07 PM

If appreciating this book makes us true believers and knuckleheads, I say "One of us!"

Back in a minute. I have to go check the blackstrap ham I'm curing in the basement.
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#71 JBailey

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 06:33 PM

I am a proud knucklehead!
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That, gentlemen, is the whirlingest dervish of them all." - The Professionals by Richard Brooks

#72 OliverB

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 06:45 PM

What an interesting turn of events here!

I thought Ruhlman's article was one of low quality, it did not seem to me that he read much of the books. Granted, if he has to put out a "timely" article, it's impossible to read it all unless he had access to the online version or otherwise got his hands on it. (or is he sour about not getting a free copy?)

But recently I'm wondering where he's heading, I follow him on Facebook and get a bit too much of advertisement for kitchen gadgets at times. And that's just something - IMO - a critical food writer should not be doing. It tastes too much of a George Forman grill or a "set it and forget it" late night infomercial. Just my opinion of course.

And as far as I know he is not nor has he ever been a chef, does he really use that title? That would be very disappointing.

And I remember him being here, why is he so sour about this site? I have not seen one single post in the areas I frequent that would have "had it in" for him in any which way, that's just silly. Why so insecure? Odd.

I'll have to read what Alton had to say, but I agree with a post above, Alton is an entertainer. And he's quite good at what he does. But who knows what he actually knows, the show is scripted and written by a team and it lives though his quirkiness and odd camera angles (through the oven/fridge) and gimmicks like hands coming out of nowhere to deliver the next piece of equipment. He's in the end just the talking head. Very funny show, I enjoy watching it and learned interesting things, but his books are a layout nightmare and completely useless to me. Unless I want to show around a good example on how not to produce an easy to use book. Quite unfortunate actually, I was looking forward to them, but colored fonts in 5 sizes on colored pages are fine in pulp fiction, but out of place here. Well, to me.

But then, in the end, I don't care what anybody thinks about the books except me, I'm hoping it's not all "order $5000 worth of new kitchen equipment" first, I hope - and believe - that I can use it just fine with my pretty well equipped kitchen. And I expect to learn a lot of interesting facts, and see some of the best food photography ever. Actually, if they'd put out a book with just the photos, I'd buy that too. All I've seen so far are stunning, setting new benchmarks for food photography.
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#73 emannths

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 07:12 PM

Update! We're no longer knuckleheads:

egullet has been prickly to me for a long time. i haven’t been to the site in years.


Edited by emannths, 09 March 2011 - 07:14 PM.


#74 angevin

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 07:36 PM

“The concept of having process control rather than the magic of a chef's intuitive / experiential knowledge of when to take something off the grill bothered him greatly…”

I think that’s part of my problem too. I read the tip on how using more oil results in a crispier, less oily fried whatever, and thought – yeah, I found that out through years of experience, through trial and error. I got the frying thing down perfectly, and the feeling of accomplishment that follows is exhilarating.

And what this book does is to show that anyone with enough money to buy the book and the with right expensive gadgets, with a scientific mind, an analytical bent and a bit of practice can be an accomplished cook, no matter the skill level or years of experience. And logically, one might say, so? That’s a good thing – kind of evens the playing field. And maybe even leaves more room for the creative process now that the basics are nailed down.

But I feel like it takes all the nostalgia and romance out of the process. We may have had a grandmother who just knew how to make food taste soooo good. It was intuitive; and we could “taste the love”. And just as some of the most beautiful women are those who aren’t perfect, some of the most satisfying dishes are those that have the mark of individuality. Perfection is boring, uninspiring.

Take that now-famous hamburger, all of the components made with such precision. So perfect, so... processed.

Where’s the soul in modernist cuisine?

Edited by angevin, 09 March 2011 - 07:38 PM.


#75 Chris Amirault

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 07:46 PM

Five minutes with the barbecue section will disabuse most readers of any sense that the book lacks soul, whatever that is. But taking this argument on its face, I must ask: where's the soul in any cookbook that claims a recipe produces excellent food? Cook's Illustrated, Cookwise, Bittman's Best Recipes books... don't most cookbooks claim that they're sharing solid information?

If someone can find me a reference to Shirley Corriher, Christopher Kimball, or Mark Bittman exorcising the soul from cooking because they wrote a book describing how to do it well, I'd be shocked. But, thanks to some expensive equipment that seems unfailingly to distract those who haven't seen the book, these sorts of comments can be applied to Modernist Cuisine.
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#76 angevin

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 07:57 PM

Point taken. Yeah, I guess I'm forgetting that it's just a cookbook, not a way of life!

#77 Jose Nieves

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:03 PM

Pretty odd exchange about this topic on Ruhlman's blog today. When someone pointed his attention to this discussion, Ruhlman wrote, "those knuckleheads have had it in for me for a long time. i haven’t been to the site in years." Not sure what to make of that non-response, for a variety of reasons.

As someone who devoted scores of favorable posts to using his Charcuterie book, I find the name-calling and paranoia counter-productive at best. Surely Mr. Ruhlman, a Society member from way back, would join us for a discussion here about the relative merits and drawbacks of the book and of his review of same?


Why would he come talk to the "knuckleheads" here when he can keep hanging out with the "You're so brilliant, I hear angels sing when I read your work" crowd? I gave ruhlman's review the benefit of the doubt in regards to whether or not he was being lazy or condecending but his inane, insipid comments on his blog reminded me of why I've only bought one book with his name on it.

#78 Chris Amirault

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:06 PM

Got to thinking tonight and grabbed the book. In volume 1, there's a section called "The Rough Start for Impressionist Art." An excerpt:

As widely esteemed as Impressionist painting is today, it was misunderstood, ridiculed, and even reviled by critics and the public when it first emerged. ... They saw the works' sketchy, unfinished qualities as evidence that the artists lacked "skill and knowledge." ... [C]ritics derided the artists for what they saw as haphazard critique and "vulgar" or "discordant" representations....

Slowly, however, some parts of the press warmed to the style. As one writer put it, the vitriolic criticism aimed at the Impressionists was perhaps "the clumsy, somewhat primitive expression of a profound bewilderment."


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#79 jsmeeker

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:22 PM

I've just finished Michael Ruhlman's review of MC. Of course, it's a review of a book I have not even seen. But I've seen and read a lot of talk about it here in the eGullet forums.

I think Michaels review isn't so harsh. There is positive. There is negative. Isn't that what one normally sees in a review? Really, a lot of what he said is similar to comments many of us have had. It's all a little (or a lot) overwhelming. Many of us, including myself, question all of the chemicals that read like a label from something on the grocery store shelf. It's not like Ruhlman doesn't know what he's talking about. He has a lot of exposure to food and cooking. Lots of chefs doing some of this modernist cuisine.





Beer can chicken. Roasted at 175 F? Really? I dunno if I can even get my oven to maintain a temp that low. Gotta look into that some more.

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#80 David Ross

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:32 PM

Got to thinking tonight and grabbed the book. In volume 1, there's a section called "The Rough Start for Impressionist Art." An excerpt:

As widely esteemed as Impressionist painting is today, it was misunderstood, ridiculed, and even reviled by critics and the public when it first emerged. ... They saw the works' sketchy, unfinished qualities as evidence that the artists lacked "skill and knowledge." ... [C]ritics derided the artists for what they saw as haphazard critique and "vulgar" or "discordant" representations....

Slowly, however, some parts of the press warmed to the style. As one writer put it, the vitriolic criticism aimed at the Impressionists was perhaps "the clumsy, somewhat primitive expression of a profound bewilderment."

So true, and the association between modern cuisine and art is also comparable to American "Modernist" painters like Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock whose works were initially written-off by formal critics in a manner similar to the criticism that the French Impressionists received a generation earlier.

#81 gfweb

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:37 PM


Pretty odd exchange about this topic on Ruhlman's blog today. ?


Why would he come talk to the "knuckleheads" here when he can keep hanging out with the "You're so brilliant, I hear angels sing when I read your work" crowd? I gave ruhlman's review the benefit of the doubt in regards to whether or not he was being lazy or condecending but his inane, insipid comments on his blog reminded me of why I've only bought one book with his name on it.


I have had the same impression of his blog and some of his work. There is a certain lack of depth accompanied by a high self-regard. You are right about the comments on his blog, where never is heard a discouraging word.

But maybe I'm just a bit prickly. :smile:

#82 angevin

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:39 PM

I totally disagree regarding the analogy to Impressionism and modern art - with those the end result is different from earlier art forms, but the methods and materials used were still traditional.

Going back to my earlier post, I think the better analogy is graphic design, creating art using computer imaging and photoshopping. Or with music, creating it with the use of the synthsizer rather than orchestral instruments.

#83 AaronM

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 08:48 PM

First post:

I have not had the chance to read the book. Should be here soon from Amazon. However, grant that I have the ability to make some basic assumptions on it.

I found the review by Ruhlman to be positive. The comment about not being able to SV a pie crust was clearly meant as a little joke. He's always had a bit of punk rock to him and the review reflects that. He was obviously shell-shocked by the scope of the set and maintained that something that exhaustive (with a scientific bent no less!) is inherently impenetrable to a degree. I agree with this. The book is not for everyone. Will the average home cook use most of the book? Probably not. Is there information in there that would prove useful to them? Surely. But their money might be better spent on something like The Joy of Cooking, as their interest doesn't extend to the breadth of this tome. Asking nearly anyone to read a 2000+ page book is borderline lunacy in the society we live in. Let alone spending $430 on something they won't use a large portion of.

The same criticism extends to Mr Myhrvold: You can't have it both ways. Is the book meant for everyone, or is it meant for people truly devoted to the topic at hand? The NYT writes a review for the lowest common denominator, and by doing just that, the criticisms of the book are very fair.

Edited by AaronM, 09 March 2011 - 08:55 PM.


#84 jsmeeker

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 09:13 PM

First post:

I have not had the chance to read the book. Should be here soon from Amazon. However, grant that I have the ability to make some basic assumptions on it.



HI Aaron.

Welcome to the eGullet Society. Thanks for jumping right into one of the hottest topics we have ever seen here.

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#85 nathanm

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 09:17 PM

The same criticism extends to Mr Myhrvold: You can't have it both ways. Is the book meant for everyone, or is it meant for people truly devoted the the topic at hand? The NYT writes a review for the lowest common denominator

Just to be clear, this book is NOT for everyone. It is very different from traditional cookbooks, and I have never suggested otherwise. Trying to please everybody usually winds up pleasing nobody.

MC is for people who really love food and are curious about it.

eGullet is actually a very good example of who the book is for. There are plenty of professional chefs who read and post here, but there are even more amateurs. Everybody on eGullet loves food, although not necessarily in the same way.

I don't mean to presume that everybody on eGullet will love the book. They may not, but the people here do share a passion for cooking and will to experiment. So even eGulleters who don't like or want my book are an example of the profile of person I am hoping will enjoy the book. I won't get all of them, but that's OK.

This isn't an accident. The book was born directly out of my eGullet posts, especially in the sous vide thread. The people on that thread were not (and are not) all high professionals. There were college students cooking sous vide in their dorm rooms that were learning about sous vide at the same time as chefs in famous restaurants. I figured that people with that spirit would want a book like this.

By the way, I doubt that the editors of the NYT think that they are writing for the "lowest common demoninator" - they consider themselves to be quite highbrow. They serve a different market than the NY Post, for example.

But this whole debate isn't about whether the book is high end or not - it obviously is high end (at least for a book.) The NYT Dining Section reviews restaurants where dinner for two costs more than my book, so the price shouldn't be a barrier. The NYT is not an esoteric chef's publication, but NYT does write about sous vide (indeed Amanda Hesser's article in NYT Magazine was a landmark for the technique in the US.) Another article on the cover of NYT magazine introduced Ferran Adria to the US. The dining section is also home to a column by Harold McGee, who has been bringing insights from science into the kitchen for many years. The Science Section of the paper discusses food science - and in fact they were the first section in the paper to cover my book.
Nathan

#86 AaronM

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 09:18 PM

Thanks?

edit: That was not meant at Mr Myhrvold. It was originally the entirety of the post. It was meant as a response to jsmeeker.

It's fair that the NYT writes to a somewhat higher brow than other publications, but they're still writing for a majority, and as you said, the book is more of a niche product. The book has been fortunate enough to garner quite a bit of a media profile as of late, so they chose to write a review of it. That said, my interpretation of the review was that it was such a massive and exhaustive treatise on the subject, that the layman may not be spending their money wisely by purchasing it. As a professional chef, I couldn't be more excited by the review.

Again, I have not had the chance to read the book yet, but anything I've said about it seems to be the consensus by the people I've seen on here talk about it.

As a musician, I can sympathize with someone criticizing your "baby." Sometimes the criticism is unfair, and sometimes it's spot on. This is the danger of releasing any creative work into the world.

Thanks so much for taking on this project BTW. We chefs have very little in the way of "professional books," and by all accounts this is a huge addition to that small library.

Edited by AaronM, 09 March 2011 - 09:30 PM.


#87 daves

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 10:14 PM

"the clumsy, somewhat primitive expression of a profound bewilderment." -- I think you're onto something here.

Judging by the noted reactions, I'm now wondering if we're in the early stages of a disruptive innovation in cooking. There are enough signs that this might be a significant example that’s been brewing for a few years, really starting with On Food and Science and expanding greatly a few days ago.

After spending a few days pouring over the volumes (yes I have a copy, so I think I can legitimately form a proto-opinion :blink:), I think Nathan and his team have written a combined Theoretical and Practical Application Guide to Cooking, with a subtitle of “Everything We Know So Far” to borrow a line from Porsche. There have been others but nothing of this depth and scope. MC makes accessible the theory of “why” food reacts as it does, and then shows how to apply it with recipes or even by shattering some cooking myths and making some uncomfortable.

The disruptive innovation here is a knowledge-based approach to cooking rather than one of mythology and nostalgia. Angevin says that this type of cooking "takes all the nostalgia and romance out of the process". I actually tend to agree, but I'd characterize it in a more positive way: by understanding the actual science behind the reactions that food undergoes during prep/cooking/etc, then we can better execute our intentions with that food, and we can have better and more predictable results. Variation can be interesting, but faults have no place in the results I want to achieve. By understanding the science, we can come up with those interesting variations while excising the faults away.

One sign of disruptive innovations is that they tend to polarize the participants. I’m personally surprised about the magnitude of polarization so far from the likes of Alton, Alice Waters, the CIA, Keller, eGullet members, etc. MC is generating talk about not just the books themselves, but about the whole idea of science in cooking. If innovation is proportional to the polarization, then MC will have a huge impact.

Another sign is that Nathan is in a fairly unique position here that enables a disruptive approach. He is not a celebrity chef with a restaurant/cookbook/tv empire. He does not get paid through the industry. He is effectively an outsider, especially compared to his biggest critics. He does not have an innovator’s dilemma and so he’s free to disrupt. I get a chuckle when there’s a question of how could MC really be innovative when it isn’t coming from an established ‘expert’ in the industry. Ha! That’s exactly why it can be disruptively innovative.

I’m hoping this is a disruptive force. Those using knowledge tend to drive improvements, while those ignoring or fighting knowledge tend to come up short.

And Chris, that quote brings to mind something similar from Arthur C. Clarke (with a little addition of my own): Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and scares the bejesus out of the natives!

#88 Chris Hennes

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 10:28 PM

Been reading Kuhn?

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#89 daves

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 10:35 PM

Been reading Kuhn?


once upon a time :biggrin: Time for a new paradigm in cooking...

#90 runwestierun

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Posted 09 March 2011 - 10:48 PM

I was thinking about my grandmother. She would always make caramels and give them for Christmas, but then about 50 years ago she quit because my auntie Annie made better caramels and grandma was embarrassed of hers. Auntie Annie had a secret recipe.

I don't like secret recipes. I don't like an unwillingness to share knowledge. Think about the state of BBQ in the USA, competetive and secretive with a few really notable exceptions. If it took someone years of trial and error to find something out, why wish that journey on anyone else? Why not share that knowledge and be happy when it becomes common knowledge and no one else has to suffer through that journey? Then they can begin where you left off, not where you began. I don't like the argument that this book takes the mystery out of cooking. I read: secrecy.

I have been thinking of this book as the be-all and end-all but that's not true. Imagine the ideas that will be born out of it.





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