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Q&A with the Modernist Cuisine Team

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Q&A with the Modernist Cuisine Team

The Society for Culinary Arts and Letters is thrilled to be able to offer this Q&A with the team behind Modernist Cuisine: The Art & Science of Cooking. This ground-breaking multivolume work has spawned two discussion topics, one focusing on the book and one devoted to cooking with the book.

In this topic, we will have the unprecedented opportunity to explore the book's development, design, and production with the team that made it happen. The book authors -- Nathan Myhrvold (Society member nathanm), Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet -- worked with editor-in-chief Wayt Gibbs to answer several questions we posed. The team also shares for the first time a multipage arc of content that traverses several volumes across a crucial content area: how understanding the weirdness of water can benefit your understanding of cooking. (Please click on the thumbnails of each page below to see a larger image.)

What follows provides an opportunity to get to know Modernist Cuisine that much better, a book that many are hailing as one of the most important publications in the history of cooking. In addition to the excerpts and initial Q&As, Wayt Gibbs will respond on behalf of the MC team to your questions.

We hope that you enjoy this opportunity to take a glimpse at this remarkable book.

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eG: General reaction to the book often starts with the question: why isn’t this an e-book? Help us understand why a centuries-old technology was necessary to communicate your 21st century vision.

MC: Ink on paper is a far superior medium to pixels on a screen for so many aspects of what we hope to accomplish with Modernist Cuisine. We use large, sharp, brilliant photographs to draw readers into a topic and sustain their interest in ways that text alone simply can’t.

Color e-readers like the iPad didn’t exist in 2007 when we had to select a platform for our design. But even if they had, a large-format print book using Chroma Centric inks and stochastic screening would have been the right choice. Consider, for example, the way we use a cross sectional view of a baking turkey to explain all that goes on in this famously tricky holiday dish. The annotations that explain the crucial importance of the wet-bulb temperature (more on this later), the formation of a desiccation zone, and the several different ways heat moves through the bird could seem intimidating if they stood as text alone. On a small 10-inch-diagonal screen, the cutaway image would be far less stunning, and we would have much less space around it to place annotations than we do in the 24-inch-diagonal space of a two-page spread.

With our high-quality paper and printing, the text is a pleasure to read—an important feature in a 2,438-page book of more a million words—and the dynamic range of the photographs is fantastic, with blacks as deep as the abyss and detail that pushes the limits of the acuity of human vision. The technology to reproduce this experience on a screen does not yet exist.

Books have the additional important advantage of being portable and power-free. Trying to actually cook from one of our 100 illustrated step-by-step technique guides or one of our 1,500+ recipes would be a hassle if you had to haul a monitor around your kitchen. Our kitchen manual is completely water resistant; an iPad, not so much.

Finally, we settled on print because, thanks in large part to all the advances in digital technology, it’s never been easier to make a paper book. All of our text, photography, layout, prepress, and even printing-plate creation was handled digitally—it was all bits up to the point where lasers actually carved into metal. It’s also never been easier to sell a paper book. Because of the unusual physical heft of Modernist Cuisine, the vast majority of copies preordered so far were sold online, and we fully expect that trend to continue. A great deal of the explosion in awareness about the book is due directly to the power of online social media, such as eGullet.

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eG: We’re interested on what’s sliding around the cutting room floor. What did you leave out? Why?

MC: The outline for Modernist Cuisine started out far less ambitious than what we ended up producing, but eventually grew to include even more topics that we were able to fit into the book. Early on, we decided to focus on savory cooking and not to attempt to cover pastries and desserts as well. At one point in the development of the outline, however, we had penciled in sections on the physiology and cognitive science of taste and smell, such as the mechanics of eating, how we learn to like flavor, the importance of cultural context in defining what a meal ought to be, and the roles of sight, sound, and muscular feedback in the emergent sensory experience we call flavor.

Some of the elements planned for this section did make it into the book, including sidebars on the fallacy of the notion that the tongue is divided into areas specialized for distinct tastes, why some people don’t like the smell of truffles, how foie gras and dog food perform surprisingly similarly in blind taste tests, and how to properly conduct a taste comparison trial. But many of the elements planned for that section were eventually cut from the outline. Similarly, we ended up not including a chapter we had tentatively planned on kinetics and reactions rates, which would have covered many of the nitty-gritty details of chemistry in the kitchen. The authors decided instead to discuss the most relevant of those concepts as they came up in other chapters.

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eG: Checking in at ~2,400 pages, the structure of the book could easily be overwhelming and unwieldy, but we’ve found that it is just the opposite. What organizing principles did you use to keep this thing wieldy?

MC: The first principle is that structure matters. We spent a full year building and refining the outline for the book. Once we sketched out all the pieces the authors wanted to include, we tried to find the optimal solution for that jigsaw puzzle that would introduce concepts in a logical order while minimizing overlap and outright redundancy among the chapters.

There is of course no perfect solution to this puzzle; some phenomena, like the movement of heat and the evaporation of water, are so common and crucial to virtually all cooking that they inevitably pop up throughout the book. So a second principle we relied on was to make liberal use of cross references. We took care to explain fundamentals like these thoroughly in the early chapters of the book, and added pointers to those pages whenever we briefly recapitulated the salient points in later sections.

A third principle was to avoid long jumps that would break up the continuity of the main narrative. We weren’t always able to achieve our goal of limiting a jump to no more than four pages, but we always looked for design solutions that keep interruptions to the body text short enough that readers don’t get disoriented. In some chapters, particularly in volume 4, this results in the chapters falling naturally into an organizational pattern that puts the main narrative first, followed by groups of parametric recipes and the example recipes that illustrate them.

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eG: Readers familiar with information design will detect a bit of Harry Beck, a bit of Edward Tufte, and a bit of Dorling Kindersley, with the voice of Charles Joseph Minard echoing in the background. Talk about how you chose to design the information that this enterprise delivers and the antecedents that were most important to you.

MC: From the outset of the project in 2006, Nathan had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish with the annotated cutaway illustrations. We worked with several designers, who drew on their experiences developing illustrations for National Geographic, Scientific American, The New York Times, and other publications as they explored the design space for those signature layouts. The desire to let the central photos sing led us to a fairly sparse design for the cutaways, and that set a style we carried through into the other kinds of illustrations. Wayt (the editor in chief) and Mark (the art director and lead designer) had previously worked together for many years at Scientific American on features that often used intricate infographics to explain sophisticated science or technology. They drew on that experience and some of the illustrators they had worked with at the magazine in guiding the information design of the art in Modernist Cuisine.

The eight pages here, excerpted from various chapters in volumes 1, 2, 3, and 5, were selected to illustrate the way in which the authors of Modernist Cuisine not only explain a fundamental principle or phenomena at work in the kitchen, but also provide concrete examples of its relevance in a variety of cooking situations; they then go on to demonstrate how to turn it to your advantage and to apply that knowledge in a fully developed recipe. The pages in this example are a few of the many in the book that touch on the crucial role that the evaporation of water plays in cooking, on how a cook can exert some control over evaporation (in this case by using a pressure cooker), and how that technique can be used to make an excellent, modern version of a classic dish (pigeon en salmis).

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Sidebar on “The Physics of Why We Blow on Hot Food,” page 1·288 in chapter 5 on Heat and Energy

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eG: In the midst of the extensive, detailed section about heat, you return to a deceptively simple moment that everyone’s familiar with: blowing on soup in a spoon. (Nice mince on the mirepoix, btw.) Throughout chapter 6 on "The Physics of Food and Water," there’s much discussion about why water is so “weird.” But here in chapter 5, water makes an early appearance. Why the rush?

MC: The answer is in the title: most of us think of this common act as blowing on hot food—not blowing on wet food. It’s only natural for people to think, as many do, that this works because you are somehow blowing the heat off the food. But as the first paragraph in the sidebar suggests, that mechanism doesn’t really make sense if you stop and think about it. This is a common misconception about heat transfer. So we placed it near the end of the heat chapter, two pages before we formally introduce the concept of the latent heat of vaporization, which is the tremendous amount of energy that water consumes (and thus removes from cooling food) when it transforms from liquid to vapor.

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eG: The ethos of science threads through the book like a guiding principle. One example appears on page 1·288, in a seemingly throwaway introductory clause: “So the question is really:” It appears that part of the mission of the book is to ask the reader to consider precisely which question they “really” are asking. Indeed, many of the breakout sections start with a question, as if finding just the right question—a precision critical to experimental science—is something you want to teach. Why was this question asking so important to the mission of the book?

MC: Modernist Cuisine is designed in part to teach cooks the science that is most relevant to creative cooking, and to show them how to apply it in the kitchen. Just giving readers the facts doesn’t accomplish this; scientific thinking is much more than mere factual knowledge. It is driven by curiosity, a healthy skepticism of folklore, a willingness to experiment, and the ability to reason through the implications of how multiple phenomena at work will interact in the situation at hand. So wherever possible, we invite readers to follow us through the though process of reasoning out what is going on in situations where normal intuition fails. That makes for less didactic writing that is more fun to read, and at the same time shows by example how you can figure things out for yourself.

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eG: We've talked a lot about the three italicized words in this excerpt: “So the question is really: why does blowing on a hot liquid make it evaporate faster? The answer is the wispy layer of ‘steam’ (fog, actually) that covers the top of the cup.” For someone who points to fog and says, “there’s steam,” that phrase is a very friendly way to say “Nope.” The book is full of such gentle pushes off a cliff. Can you talk about this Firesign-friendly, if disorienting, “Everything You Know Is Wrong” instructional strategy?

MC: There’s a difference between ideas that are technically wrong but mostly harmless, and those that are dangerously wrong. As long as you don’t stick your hand in the invisible steam between the spout of a tea kettle and the fog a few inches away from it (thinking that the air there is cool), confusing fog for steam is mostly harmless, albeit amazingly common. In contrast, the equally common notion that you can make ground beef safe to eat by cooking it to a particular temperature irrespective of how long you hold it there is a dangerously wrong idea, and our chapters on Microbiology and Food Safety Rules give it all the emphasis it deserves.

Because cooking is a complex and ubiquitous activity, it is full of folklore. In many cases the observation in the lore is true, but few cooks understand why it is true. And in many cases the lore is simply untrue. Throughout Modernist Cuisine, the authors tackle conventional wisdom of this sort wherever science can help explain what is really going on.

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“It’s Not the Heat; It’s the Humidity,” page 2·102 in chapter 7 on Traditional Cooking

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eG: “It’s Not the Heat; It’s the Humidity,” seems to be Modernist Cuisine’s equivalent of “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” the one phrase that structures vast swaths of the book, one of the most important concepts in the campaign. Which begs the question: what, exactly, is the campaign here? What does MC want us to do or know about cooking that we’re not doing or understanding? When we “finish” MC—whatever that could possibly mean—what would you want us to walk away with?

MC: As the second paragraph on this page hammers home, the effects of evaporation and water vapor are the main cause of erratic results in baking—and that is true as well for many kinds of cooking, for the simple reason that, despite their solid appearance, most fresh foods consist mainly of water. After reading the chapters on "Heat and Energy," "The Physics of Food and Water," and "Traditional Cooking," cooks will walk away with a much more reliable set of intuitions about what is going on inside their pots, pans, and ovens. If they then read the chapters on "Cooking Sous Vide," "Modern Ovens," and "The Modernist Kitchen," they will have a large repertoire of new techniques for better controlling the profound effects that water, with all its weird properties, has on cooking, resting, storing, and freezing food.

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eG: Give us a wet-bulb primer for beginners who haven’t read the book. How do you measure it? Why is it so much more important than dry-bulb/oven temperature? And, given that importance, why doesn’t my oven even think it exists?

MC: Dry-bulb temperature is what a thermometer measures when the sensing part of the gadget—the bulb—is dry. It is also what you control when you set your oven thermostat to a baking temperature. But because most food is quite wet, it doesn’t actually experience the dry-bulb temperature until it dries out. For most of the cooking period, the food instead “feels” a temperature much closer to what a thermometer would read at that spot if you kept its sensor wet: the so-called wet-bulb temperature (see photo). The difference between dry- and wet-bulb temperatures is often surprisingly large, and a major cause of cooking errors.

Unfortunately, conventional ovens have no reliable way to control the humidity. Our experiments with modern ovens such as combi ovens and water-vapor (Cvap) ovens, which do offer humidity controls, found that even they don’t perform as well as you’d like, especially at lower temperatures. (We present the detailed results in chapter 8 on "Modern Ovens.") There is an unmet need for humidity sensor technology that has sufficient accuracy, precision, and heat tolerance to reliably regulate wet-bulb temperatures. In the meantime, pressure cooking and cooking sous vide are probably the most reliable ways to control the true cooking temperature.

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“Wet Food, Dry Food,” page 2·141 in chapter 7 on Traditional Cooking

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eG: We all know that Nathan is a ‘cue expert/addict, and the amount of attention given to meat, smoking, sauces, sides, and more exceeds most similar sections (save, perhaps, coffee—insert Seattle joke here). Most folks outside the barbecue belt think that barbecue is BBQ is grilling is... you get the idea. So, setting aside Nathan’s jones, why is ‘cue so important to the project for the average reader?

MC: The book devotes 18 pages in this chapter and 12 pages in chapter 11 on "Meat and Seafood" to smoking. Part of those sections cover the rich American art of barbecue, which has spawned a plethora of myths and lore, a fascinating range of equipment, and innovations such as sous vide barbecue—all of which are covered. But these sections also explore the much wider use of smoked foods in other culinary traditions as well. Smoking is tricky to do well and consistently, so even more than most techniques it pays to understand the chemistry at work and the ways in which you can control humidity and its effects. The authors also delve into cold-smoking and the advantages and disadvantages of liquid smoke. Smoking is a subtle and challenging process, but when done well it can produce spectacular results that no other technique can achieve. Barbecue, as we use the term, is a slow-cooking technique, and it need not involve a grill at all. In the BBQ recipes in Modernist Cuisine, the authors recommend cooking the meat sous vide if possible.

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“Extracted Under Pressure,” page 2·291 in chapter 10 on The Modernist Kitchen

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eG: Why the Fick does the typical cook need to know about diffusivity?

MC: Adolf Fick noticed way back in 1855 that matter (such as molecules from a drop of perfume) spreads through a porous medium (such as air) in much the same way that heat spreads through a pan: it diffuses from regions of high concentration to regions of low concentration. That’s Fick’s first law of diffusivity, and one implication of it is that the classical approach to making stocks from large chunks of meat and vegetables is a bad one. The photo shows a much better approach that saves time and money while boosting the flavor of the stock: chop the pieces finely. But, as the section on this page explains, there is more to it than that. To accelerate all the flavor-creating chemical reactions that normally take hours to complete, you need to add pressure.

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eG: What exactly does it mean for something to boil, and what does that have to do with pressure? How can a cook use that information to cook more effectively and prepare better food?

MC: Boiling is more interesting and complex than you might think, and we cover it in detail in both chapter 6 on "The Physics of Food and Water" and chapter 7 on "Traditional Cooking." Did you know that there are several different kinds of boiling? Most cooks understand that water boils in mile-high Denver at a lower temperature than it does in seaside Los Angeles. Conversely, if you use a pressure cooker to increase the air pressure above the water, the boiling point increases, and the higher cooking temperature accelerates the rate at which flavor molecules diffuse and flavor-changing reactions occur.

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Parametric Recipe for Risottos, page 3·304-5 in chapter 12 on Plant Foods

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eG: Talk about the design of the parametric recipe tables, which are a powerful feature that appears throughout the book. What are you trying to accomplish with those? Why use the concept of baker’s percentages and scalable recipes in them—aren’t those daunting to the typical cook?

MC: Unlike most cookbooks, Modernist Cuisine does not present one chef’s vision of how various dishes should be made. Instead, its overall aims are to document a culinary revolution in progress and to support the advance of that art by outfitting creative, innovative chefs with the know-how they need to make their ideas work. Nathan developed the idea of a parametric recipe—a table in which each row is a separate variation of a master recipe—as a way to illuminate the space available for chefs to explore.

The power of this format is that it enables us to give many more examples than cookbooks previously have in their master recipes with variations—enough that patterns become visible. By studying a parametric recipe you gain insight into how time, temperature, and other cooking variables shift from one formulation to another. That intuition makes it much easier to figure out your own recipes when you try something new—say, making a risotto from some grain we didn’t think to list in this table (or didn’t have space to include). Rather than making wild guesses about proportions and cooking parameters, you can extrapolate from similar ingredients and the patterns you perceive in the table.

With the exception of some parametric recipes, all the recipes in Modernist Cuisine include ingredient weights as well as scaling percentages. In such recipes, you should feel free to ignore the scaling percentages if you don’t find them useful. They can be an invaluable time-saver, however, when you need to adjust the yield of a recipe, as often occurs in restaurants and when entertaining guests. For more on how to use scaling percentages, see page 93 in “About the Book,” which is available for download free at ModernistCuisine.com.

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eG: During the spirited debate we’ve had about risotto, many have concluded that par-cooked risotto was an inferior product, unnecessary unless you were in a busy restaurant kitchen like Thomas Keller, Gualtiero Marchesi, and others who use this technique. The parametric recipe for risotto covers only the par-cooked version: why is that? Did you test the two approaches side by side? What happened?

MC: Every recipe included in the book was tested in our research kitchen. The research cooks did indeed compare risottos made with and without a parcooking step. They found that parcooking does not degrade the quality of the final product and does offer a convenient way to reduce the finishing time for the risotto. But as the marginal note at the bottom of the page suggests, the recipes also work without a cooling step, and to illustrate this approach we include an example recipe on page 308 for pressure-cooked vegetable risotto that does not involve parcooking.

Note that many of the recipes in the table include cross-references to other pages in the book. Wherever space permitted, we used this approach to help readers connect the relatively simple recipes that appear in parametric tables with the more sophisticated example recipes and plate-ups elsewhere in the book. The ragout of grains that forms the second course of the Pigeon en Salmis plated dish, for example, includes pressure-cooked pearl barley, quinoa, and sprouted brown rice.

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Ragout of Grains from Pigeon en Salmis recipe, pages 5·5125 and 5·129 in chapter 21 on Poultry

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eG: The plated-dish recipes seem to do four things: culminate the concepts and techniques in volumes 1–4; reference important culinary/historical touchstones (American barbecue, goulash, curry); introduce new techniques that didn’t find a place earlier in the volumes; and declare the team’s definitive culinary position on Big Questions like omakase, burgers, and shrimp cocktail. Were there other goals? What were they? Why those?

MC: Yes, we also tried to come up with dishes that were mind-blowingly awesome. As we’ve been serving some of these to friends, food writers, and chefs we really respect, the response so far suggests that, in quite a few cases, we succeeded. (See, e.g., here and here.) We’d hope to sit down at one of our favorite restaurants in the not-too-distant future and see one of these dishes, or something clearly inspired by our work, on the menu.

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We've now posted the full series of previously prepared Q&A exchanges between the Society and the Modernist Cuisine team, and it's time for your input! Please post your questions here, and editor-and-chief Wayt Gibbs will field them for the team.

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ModernistCuisine2-291-thumb.jpg

MC: [...] The photo shows a much better approach that saves time and money while boosting the flavor of the stock: chop the pieces finely. [...]

A couple questions about this: first, does it hold true in the limit? That is, what if I drop all the stock ingredients in the blender? Also, do you have any problems clarifying a stock made this way due to what I presume will be an increased amount of little bits sloughed off from your dice?


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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The first sentence there seems to indicate the blender wouldn't work since pulverizing would release unwanted juices.

My main question about this was how to handle bones in the stock. Are they suggesting not to include bones, or taking all the meat off the bones, etc? I don't think I've ever made a meat-based stock without including the bones.

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Do the stock recipes call for reducing the bones to fragments roughly equivalent in size to that of the mirepoix? If not, how do you balance the (presumably) different rates at which flavors are extracted?


 

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A couple of questions regarding the design of the book. 1. What is the typeface. 2. How did you handle references (to scientific research or earlier books) without clogging up the text.

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I am so looking forward to this book, I have been giddy with excitement waiting for my order. Seeing these pages makes me worry, though. I cannot read these low intensity/low contrast colors of type, especially yellow. My vision is just not good enough. I saw Nathan's blog entry about receiving the first airmailed books. He held up the side of the book so you could see the page edges were colored for corresponding chapters. Is the yellow type confined to just one chapter? I see the green is quite light. Are other colors similarly light? Does the regular body of text remain dark throughout the book? I want so much to be able to read it.

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A couple of questions regarding the design of the book. 1. What is the typeface. 2. How did you handle references (to scientific research or earlier books) without clogging up the text.

I'm also intrigued by the technical aspects of the book production.

There seems to be a lot of black backgrounds such as the Parametric Recipe for Risottos. Why did you make this choice? Does this account for much of the heavy amount of ink used? It does look nice and stark for some of the photos but for the recipes it seems unnecessary.

About the color gamut of the inks, are the inks able to produce a total amount of colors greater than the 16.7 million colors available on a typical 24-bit computer screen? Though I see that purples are not so great. This is the first I've heard about this ink and printing technology; is it only beginning to be taken up by the publishing industry?

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A couple questions about this: first, does it hold true in the limit? That is, what if I drop all the stock ingredients in the blender? Also, do you have any problems clarifying a stock made this way due to what I presume will be an increased amount of little bits sloughed off from your dice?

The limit is set by your clarification technique (typically a strainer). As long as you can strain the pieces of mirepoix out at the end, the resulting stock can be as rich and clear as any you have ever made, but it can also be ready in a fraction of the typical time.

Do the stock recipes call for reducing the bones to fragments roughly equivalent in size to that of the mirepoix? If not, how do you balance the (presumably) different rates at which flavors are extracted?

Our recipes typically call for chopping bones or sawing them into 5 cm / 2 in pieces, if possible. The interior of bone is quite porous, so bone fragments have a high ratio of surface area to volume, and flavors thus diffuse from them a rate similar to that of much smaller pieces of less porous food (such as meat).


Wayt Gibbs

Editor in chief, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and Modernist Cuisine at Home

The Cooking Lab, LLC

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      I have to say designing the Alinea kitchen has been one of the most exciting experiences thus far in the opening of this restaurant. I have been fortunate to have been “raised” in some of the best kitchens in the country. When I arrived at the French Laundry in August 1996 the “new kitchen” had just been completed. Often times you would hear the man talk about the good old days of cooking on a residential range with only one refrigerator and warped out sauté pans with wiggly handles. When I started about 50% of the custom stainless steel was in place. The walls smooth with tile and carpet on the floors. I recall the feeling of anxiety when working for fear that I would dirty up the kitchen, not a common concern for most cooks in commercial kitchens.
      The French Laundry kitchen didn’t stop, it continued to evolve over the four years I was there. I vividly remember the addition of the custom fish/canapé stainless unit. Allowing the poissonier to keep his mise en place in beautiful 1/9 pan rails instead of the ice cube filled fish lugs. Each advancement in technology and ergonomics made the kitchen a more efficient and exacting machine.
      When I returned to the Laundry this past July for the 10th anniversary I was shocked that it had metomorphisized once again. The butcher room was now a sea of custom stainless steel low boys, the pot sink area was expanded, the walk-in moved, and an office added to the corner of the kitchen. The kitchen as I left it in June of 2001 was beautiful and extremely functional, of course it is even more so now. It is the relentless pursuit of detail and concise thought that allows the French Laundry kitchen to be one of the best for cooks to execute their craft…..16 hours a day.
      This was good motivation.
      When it came time to design my kitchen I drew on experiences at Trio, TFL and other kitchens I was familiar with to define the positives and negatives of those designs. We were faced with a 21x 44' rectangle. This space would not allow for my original kitchen design idea of four islands postioned throughout the kitchen, but ultimately gave way for the current design which I think is actually better than the original. But most the important aspect in shaping the final design was the cuisine. Due to the nature of food that we produce a typical layout with common equipment standards and dimensions do not work. Here is where the team drew on our experiences from Trio. By looking at the techniques we utilized we came to several conclusions.
      1. A conventional range was not our main heat source. We do need the flat tops and some open burners for applications such as braising and limited stock work. But our overall use of this piece of equipment is somewhat low. Given that we wanted four open burners and two flat tops with two ovens I began to source out a reliable unit. We settled on the Molteni G230.

      2. Upon analyzing our other heat source needs we decided to place a large focus on induction. By utilizing portable induction burners we are allowed the flexibility to give as much power as needed to a specific station in the kitchen. Obviously induction’s radiant heat is very low, and this allows us to keep the temperature in the kitchen reasonable, yet the power is quite high. 31,000 BTU's of highly controlable heat. But the main reason for choosing this flexible source of heat is the fact that each chef typically employed at least four different cooking applications on a given night. This huge flux in technique and the realization that the menu would change entirely in 8 weeks time meant that we had to design a kitchen that could evolve on a nightly basis. And last, we are very specific with temperatures; induction makes it easier for us to hold a liquid at a predetermined temperature for long periods of time without fluctuation. They operate between 85 and 500 degrees farenheit. We did a great deal of research on the different producers of induction and favored Cooktek. The fact that they are the only U.S manufacturer of commercial induction cooking equipment and located in Chicago made the decision easier. Their innovative approach to induction may prove to be even more exciting as we are already talking about new product development in the future.

      3. a. The complexity of the presentations and a la minute plate-ups of the food require a great deal of surface area devoted to plating. This was one of the most critical factors in determining the basic shape of the kitchen. The size of some of today's popular plates, the amount detail in each composition, coupled with the fact that producing tasting menus vs. ala carte means sometimes large waves of same dish pick ups made it necessary for us to have over 44' of linear plating surface.
      b. Virtually nothing goes vertical above the 36” counter top in the space. All food, plates, equipment, and dry good storage are contained by under counter units. There are a few exceptions such as the infrared salamanders, the three-door refrigerator, and the hood. This allows all the cooks a clear line of communication between each other and the front staff. It allows me an easy sight line to survey the entire kitchen’s progress with a quick glance.
      Given these two points it seemed obvious that we needed to combine the two and create custom pieces that would fulfill both needs. Large spans of plating surfaces with all food and equipment storage below. As you can see we ended up with two 22’ long units. Each function as a pass and under counter storage.
      The building is 21’ wide wall to wall. This allowed us just enough space to create two lines on each exterior wall with their passes forming a 60” corridor for the pick up of plates and finishing of dishes.
      4. We decided to add a station to the kitchen. At Trio we had five including:
      a. pastry
      b. cold garde manger
      c. hot garde manger
      d. fish
      e. meat
      Now that we had more space, and the ability to give each station multiple heat
      sources regardless of their location in the kitchen, we could spread the workload even further. We also realized it doesn’t make much sense to identify each station by classic French Bragade terms. A saucier did not solely cook meat with classic techniques and prepare various traditional stocks and sauces…in fact quite the opposite. This holds true with most of the stations, with the exception of pastry, but even they will have very unconventional techniques, menu placement and involvement in the kitchen systems. We will add a station that will be responsible for a large majority of the one-bite courses both sweet and savory.
      5.Given the size constraints of the building we realized a walk-in would not be possible in the kitchen. If we were to have one it would be in the basement. Having experienced this at Trio we decided to design the kitchen without a walk-in, making up for the space in various lowboy locations and a three-door reach-in. I experienced the walk-in less environment when I worked at Charlie Trotter’s. It is certainly different, but as with most things if done properly it provides a very efficient environment. It works best in situations where fresh products are brought in daily for that days use. And prevents ordering in large quantities. It also provides us with very specific units to house different items. We will utilize the 3-door refrigerator to store the majority of the vegetables and herbs along with some staple mise en place, and items that cannot be made in very small quantities like stocks. Raw meat will have it’s own lowboys as well as fish, dairy, and all frozen products.
      6. At Trio we found ourselves using the salamander a great deal. It is very useful for melting sugar, bringing on transparent qualities in things like fat and cheese, cooking items intensely on only one side, and it is a highly controllable non-direct heat source. Due to the air gap between the foodstuff and the heat elements the cook can control the degree of heat applied to the dish based on the technique he is using. It becomes a very versatile tool in the modern kitchen, so much so that we will install three Sodir infrared salamanders.

      Again, this is to insure that all the cooks have access to all of the techniques in the kitchen. As I said before it is important for our cooks to be able to sauté, simmer, poach, fry, grill, salamander, and freeze at the same time and sometimes for the same dish.
      We have a few unusual pieces of equipment in the kitchen; the most is probably a centrifuge. A few months ago Nick and I were driving home from a design meeting and ended up talking about signature dishes and menu repetition. Of course the black truffle explosion came up and he asked if I would have it on the menu at Alinea. I replied a firm no, but shortly thereafter said I would enjoy updating it. We threw around some tongue and cheek ideas like White Truffle Implosion, and Truffle Explosion 2005….I said it was a goal of mine to make a frozen ball with a liquid center….but then dismissed it as nearly impossible. Within a few minutes he said …”I got it…we need a centrifuge” His explanation was simple, place the desired liquid in a spherical mold and place on the centrifuge…place the whole thing in the freezer. Within days he had one in the test kitchen. I guess this is better suited for the kitchen lab topic that we will be starting in a few weeks…
      We are working on a upload of the kitchen blueprints. When those post I plan on going into more detail about certian aspects of the design. Doing so now would be pointless as the viewer does not have a reference point.
    • By ronnie_suburban
      It’s the first day of cooking in Alinea's Food Lab and the mood is relaxed. We’re in a residential kitchen but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Chef Grant, along with sous chefs John Peters and Curtis Duffy are setting up. The sight of the 3 steady pros, each in their chef’s whites, working away, does not match this domestic space. Nor does the intimidating display of industrial tools lined up on the counters. While the traditional elements are here in this suburban kitchen: oven, cooktop, sink, so too are the tools of modern restaurant cookery: pacojet, cryovac machine, paint stripping heat gun…wait, a paint stripping heat gun?
      In the physical realm, the Food Lab is a tangible space where the conventional and the unconventional are melded together in the quest for new culinary territory. With Alinea’s construction under way, the team must be resourceful. This meant that renting a space large enough to house both the office and the kitchen aspects of the food lab was out of the question.
      The decision was made to take over a large office space for the research and administrative aspects of Alinea and transform a residential kitchen into the Lab. Achatz and the team would work three days per week at the office researching all aspects of gastronomy and brainstorming new dishes, while managing the project as a whole. The remaining time would be spent in the kitchen executing the ideas formulated at the office. “At first I thought separating the two would be problematic,” says Grant “but in the end we are finding it very productive. It allows us to really focus on the tasks at hand, and also immerse ourselves in the environment conducive to each discipline.” The menus for opening night—containing as many as 50 never-before-served dishes--must be conceived, designed, tested and perfected. The Alinea team does not want to fly without a net on opening night.
      On a more abstract level, the Food Lab is simply the series of processes that continually loop in the minds of Chef Grant and his team. While there is no single conduit by which prospective menus--and the dishes which comprise them--arrive at Alinea, virtually all of them start in Chef Grant's imagination and eventually take form after brainstorming sessions between the Chef and his team. Menus are charted, based on the seasonality of their respective components, and the details of each dish are then laid out on paper, computer or both and brought to the kitchen for development. In this regard, the Food Lab provides something very special to the Chef and his team. “We consider the food lab a luxury,” says Grant. Once Alinea is open and the restaurant’s daily operations are consuming up to 16 hours of each day, time for such creative planning (aka play) will be scarce. Building a library of concepts, ideas and plans for future menus now will be extraordinarily valuable in the future. Otherwise, such planning sessions will have to take place in the 17th and 18th hours of future workdays, as they did when the Chef and his team were at Trio.
      Today, several projects are planned and the Chefs dig into their preparations as soon as their equipment setup is complete…
      Poached Broccoli Stem with wild Coho roe, crispy bread, grapefruit
      Stem cooked sous vide (butter, salt, granulated cane juice)
      Machine-sliced thin bread
      Dairyless grapefruit “pudding”
      Dried Crème Brulee
      Caramel orb shell made with bubble maker and heat gun
      Powdered interior made with dried butterfat, egg yolks, powdered sugar & vanilla
      PB&J
      Peeled grapes on the stem
      Peanut butter coating
      Wrap in brioche
      Broil
      Micro-grated, roasted peanuts
      Instant Tropical Pudding
      Freeze Dried Powders of coconut, pineapple, banana
      Young coconut water spiked with rum
      Muscovado Sugar
      Cilantro
      Candied Chili
      Jamaican Peppercorn
      Vanilla Bean
      The steps required to comprise each dish are, as one might imagine, intricate and numerous. For the Poached Broccoli Stem, Chef Grant begins by separating the broccoli stems from the florets. The stems are stripped of their fibrous exteriors and pared down until they are uniform in size. Grant comments on the use of the second hand part of the vegetable: “This dish started with the roe. Every year we receive the most amazing Brook Trout Roe from Steve Stallard, my friend and owner of Blis. Typically, we serve the eggs with an element of sweetness. I find it goes very well with the ultra fresh salinity of the week-old roe. This time around we wanted to take a savory approach so I began looking into complimenting flavors in the vegetal category. About the same time, our group had a discussion about secondary parts of vegetables and the stem of broccoli came up. I had a past experience with the stem and found it to be very reminiscent of cabbage. Knowing that cabbage and caviar are essentially a classic pairing, I felt confident that we could work the dish out. Now I'm struggling to decide if this is a broccoli dish or in fact a roe dish, I think they really battle for the top position and that helps makes the dish very complex."

      Chef Grant processing the broccoli

      The stems are placed in a polyethylene bag, along with butter, salt and granulated cane juice. The bag is sealed with a cryovac machine

      The sealed stems are placed in a 170 degree F water to cook, sous vide, until extremely tender; about three hours

      Broccoli stems after cooking
      The crisp bread element is fabricated via the use of an industrial deli slicer. Chef Grant then brushes the sectioned pieces of poached broccoli stem with eggwash, affixes them to the thin planks of brioche and places them in a fry pan with butter.

      Grant's mise...not your ordinary cutting board

      Poached Broccoli Stem and Crisp Bread cooking

      Ready for plating

      A bright green broccoli puree is made with a vita-prep blender. Here, Chef Grant "mohawks" it onto china given to him by Thomas Keller

      Smoked Coho roe has arrived via Fed-Ex, courtesy of Steve Stallard

      Chef Grant devises a plating scheme for the Poached Broccoli Stem while Curtis looks on

      Chef Grant ponders one potential plating of the dish. He called this incarnation 'predictable' and started over.

      Another plating idea. This version is garnished with broccoli petals and ultra-thin slices of connected grapefruit pulp cells. The yellow petals are stand-ins for what will ultimately be broccoli blossoms
      Grant is still displeased at the dish's appearance. "The dish tastes as I envisioned it....texturally complex, with the crispness of the bread, the soft elements of the floret puree and stem, and the pop of the eggs. The buttery richness from the bread gives the stem the flavor of the melted cabbage I loved at the [French] Laundry. And the hot and cold contrasts from the roe and broccoli …I like it…..I just don’t like the way it looks.” Another attempt and the group agrees, it is better but not “the one.” The use of the thinly sliced cross sections of peeled grapefruit energizes the group. In the next rendition, they make small packets with the ultra thinly-sliced grapefruit containing the roe...

      A third plating configuration for Poached Broccoli Stems; this one featuring the packets of roe wrapped in ultra thin sheets of grapefruit pulp cells
      At this point the team decides to move on and come back to it next week. After some conversation they decide that in the final dish, broccoli will appear in at least 5 forms: poached stems, floret puree, some raw form of the stem, the tiny individual sprouts of broccoli florets, and the blooms. Grant feels that Poached Broccoli Stem could be ready for service, although he still envisions some changes for the dish that will make it even more emblematic of his personal style. “Our dishes continue to evolve after they hit the menu. It is important for us to get to know them better before we can clearly see their weaknesses.”
      The thought for the dried crème brulee originated over a year ago when a regular customer jokingly asked for a crème brulee for dessert. “He said it as joke, I took it as a challenge,” says Grant. "Of course, we never intended to give him a regular crème brulee.” The team tried various techniques to create the powder-filled caramel bubble while at Trio to no avail. An acceptable filling for the Dried Crème Brulee has been developed by the Chef and his team but several different methods, attempted today, to create the orb from caramelized sugar have been less than 100% successful.

      Caramel blob awaiting formation. Chef Curtis kept this pliable by leaving it in a low oven throughout the day

      Chef Grant’s initial idea to use a metal bubble ring and heat gun (normally used for stripping paint) to form the bubbles does not work as hoped. Attempts to fashion them by hand also come up short.
      Says Grant, “At Trio we tried a hair-dryer. When Martin told me about these heat guns which get up to 900 degrees F, I thought we had it for sure. If it was easy everyone would do it I guess.” Eventually, Alinea partner Nick Kokonas garners the task’s best result by positioning a small, warm blob of sugar onto the end of a drinking straw and blowing into the other end. The results are promising. Curtis suggests using a sugar pump to inflate the orbs. That adjustment will be attempted on another day.
      “We intentionally position whimsical bite in the amuse slot, it tends to break the ice and make people laugh. It is a deliberate attempt to craft the experience by positioning the courses in a very pre-meditated order. A great deal of thought goes into the order of the courses, a misalignment may really take away from the meal as a whole.” For PB&J, the grapes are peeled while still on the vine and then dipped into unsweetened peanut butter. They are allowed to set–up, and then they are wrapped with a thin sheet of bread and lightly toasted. When the peeled grapes warm, they become so soft they mimic jelly. The composition is strangely unfamiliar in appearance but instantly reminiscent on the palate. PB&J is, according to Grant, virtually ready for service. There are a couple of aesthetic elements, which need minor tweaks but the Chef feels very good about today’s prototype.

      Chef John peels grapes while still on their stems

      Peeled grapes on their stems with peanut butter coating

      Chef Grant studies the completed PB&J in the Crucial Detail designed piece

      PB&J
      Often, creative impulses come by way of Alinea’s special purveyors. “Terra Spice’s support over the past couple of years has been unprecedented, and it has accelerated with the start of the food lab,” says Grant. “It is great to have relationships with people that think like we do, it can make the creative process so much easier. Often Phil, our contact at Terra, would come into the kitchen at Trio and encourage us to try and stump him on obscure ingredients. We always lost, but not from lack of trying. He even brought in two live chufa plants into the kitchen one day.” The relationship has developed and Terra team has really made an effort to not only search out products that the chefs ask for but also keep an eye out for new ingredients and innovations. In August, Phil brought by some samples of products that he thought the Alinea team might be interested in trying.

      Phil of Terra Spice showing the team some samples

      Coconut powder and other samples
      Grant recalls “the most surprising item to me was the dried coconut powder. When I put a spoonful in my mouth I could not believe the intense flavor and instant creamy texture, it was awesome.” That was the inspiration for what is now Instant Tropical Pudding. The guest is presented with a glass filled with dried ingredients. A member of the service team pours a measured amount of coconut water into the glass and instructs the guest to stir the pudding until a creamy consistency is formed.

      The rum-spiked coconut water being added to the powders
      At the end of the day, the Chefs assess their overall effort as having gone “fairly well.” It’s a mixed bag of results. Clearly, the fact that things have not gone perfectly on Day 1 has not dampened anyone’s spirits. The team has purposely attempted dishes of varying degrees of difficultly in order to maximize their productivity. Says Grant, “Making a bubble of caramel filled with powder…I have devoted the better part of fifteen years to this craft, I have trained with the best chefs alive. I have a good grasp of known technique. The lab's purpose is to create technique based on our vision. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but trying is what make us who we are." The team's measured evaluations of their day’s work reflect that philosophy.
      According to Chef Grant, “The purpose of the lab is to create the un-creatable. I know the level at which we can cook. I know the level of technique we already possess. What I am interested in is what we don't know...making a daydream reality.” With little more than 100 days on the calendar between now and Alinea’s opening, the Chef and his team will have their work cut out for them.
      =R=
      A special thanks to eGullet member yellow truffle, who contributed greatly to this piece
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