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


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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.

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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."

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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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.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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 (log)
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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.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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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

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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 (log)
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"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!

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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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I hope runwestierun and daves are right: that this is the beginning of something new. Maybe in 20 years we'll all be shaking our heads at how we used to use dozens of different "measuring cups" to measure ingredients. Why not just have one scale?! You mean people used to be scared to use xantham gum? Wow. Wait, they didn't measure the humidity in their ovens? How did they ever cook anything right?!

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I realized just now that my friend who objected to the use of new kitchen technology sees sous vide and such as a kind of cheating that destroys the romance of cooking.

The notion that good tools and techniques take away from the art, craft and existential goodness of cooking baffles me. What part of love and art is missing when someone cares enough to try to find a better way, or the best way to cook and works hard at making a deeply sensual experience even better? Cooking well is no less than love and art. I don't use a gram scale to cheat. I use it to make better food.

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Agreed: I'm looking for food that tastes good, and is even potentially intellectually and emotionally engaging. I enjoy cooking whether it is the romantic "a pinch of this and a pinch of that" or whether it's the Modernist "cook at 72.3°C for 18.4 seconds": it's more important to me (and to my guests!) that the end product be great every time, and it's Modernist techniques that make that possible, and accessible to the home cook. Sure, the cook at the high-end steakhouse can cook a perfect steak every time: now we can too.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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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.

Chris Hennes, thanks for bringing this to my attention: yes I did mean On Food and Cooking. Apologies to McGee.

I've also heard the 'cheating' term. I don't think bakers cheat when they actually measure things accurately for their craft. And I don't think I'm cheating when I use a PID-controller to help with my low'n'slow bbq, my espresso machine and my soon-to-own sous vide setup :cool:.

My father-in-law, an old school griller who tended to overcook everything, laughed when I grilled him a ribeye steak and I pulled out my thermopen to check progress. Laughter turned into need (as in he needed a thermopen) once he was served the steak. He got one the following Christmas and now uses the technology. (rant: I now need to keep telling him doneness temps since his USDA references are way too high!).

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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.

Precisely.

I always tell my customers when they ask about the preparation of a dish (after they inevitably do the sarcastic "But then you'd have to kill me lol") that I don't believe in secret ingredients. I wouldn't know anything about cooking if people weren't generous enough to share techniques with me. I think it's simply doing my part to disseminate information and further my craft. According to the theory of memetics somewhere down the line I'll have played a part in the creation of something awesome - prepared by someone I've never met.

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Secrets are interesting: they tend to remain secret because of some sort of obfuscation. In food cases, I don't think there's a whole bunch of real secrecy, except for not sharing recipes. I mean, the product that you want to 'copy' is right in front of you, available to all of your senses. Science and knowledge will shine a pretty brigh light into those dark boxes, revealing how to reverse-engineer: you start with the results and you can derive ingredients and process to get your there.

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the genie is out of the bottle: science innovation in cooking is underway and nobody, including Alton and Waters, can hold it back. But I also have reservations about how deeply it'll really go past the enthusiasts. After all, when was the last time you heard or read that "searing the meat will lock in the juices"? I hear it way too often...

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Together with Modernist Cuisine Amazon.co.uk offers The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. Does anyone have this book? Do you recommend it?

PedroG

I have found "The Flavour Thesauras" to be a good book with some interesting combinations and it also gives ideas for using the flavour combinations. I would recommend "ideas in food" first though?

I find Khymos.org TGWT site very good also and foodpairing.be

My copy of Modernist Cuisine arrived last Monday 7th March :-)

Edited by umami5 (log)
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Sure, the cook at the high-end steakhouse can cook a perfect steak every time: now we can too.

But...let's not discount the fact that one person's perfect steak is another person's raw hunk of meat. Whether it's cooked under a searing hot salamander or in a gentle water bath.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I notice that the traditionalists are out in force. Hi guys, we meet again.

Tonight I cooked a piece of ocean trout sous vide for an avid foodie who had not tried this preparation method before. Her response was that this is now her benchmark for eating this fish.

For those of you who won't try any form of modernist cuisine 'on principle,' I feel sorrow that you will not try something simply because it is new.

I still poach my eggs the traditional way because that's how I prefer them. But I've tried other ways of preparing them and was very open that there may be better ways of cooking them: my preference was for the traditional in this instance.

I certainly hope my tombstone says "searching for perfection" rather than "keeper of the faith."

Edited by nickrey (log)

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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Cooking secrets, in my opinion, always seem to be designed to elevate the importance of the secret holder. Whether true or not, how many of us have heard about someone genuinely liking a dish at a restaurant then asking for a recipe and getting one with certain ingredients or facts missing? Confident restaurant or home chefs will gladly share all the information knowing their skill and experience of doing the dish over and over will have the appreciative audience always coming back for more. As Daves said, one can always reverse-engineer a recipe which may be almost as much fun.

What has been so gratifying about cooking sous vide has been the ability to replicate results consistently. Yes, there are variables in this and any process, but now I know what the inside temperature of my meat will be. It doesn't mean I don't riff the time and temps to suite my own preferences. Modernist Cuisine, as one of the goals I believe is trying to be achieved, is aiming us toward being able to repeat our results, not based upon 'instinct', but rather upon repeatable facts. It is nice to get the best out of my equipment and myself.

"A cloud o' dust! Could be most anything. Even a whirling dervish.

That, gentlemen, is the whirlingest dervish of them all." - The Professionals by Richard Brooks

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