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


nathanm
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I don't believe that taking a human being and having them act as a thermostat is in any way a process of soulfulness, or skill or creativity. A lot of traditional cooking does exactly that - turns the cook into a thermostat.

The truly old school way you don't even use a thermometer. It is possible to judge the heat with your hands, or pressing a metal skewer to your lips. With lots of effort you can judge temperatures without a themometer, but why do this? The results will be uneven because even the best human themometer is no match for even a cheap digital themometer. And that is when it works - learning how to judge temperature takes lots of time. To what end? Why invest lots of time (and ruined food) trying to learn how be a bad version of a $10 digital themometer? It's a task you will never master as well as the thermometer.

Most chefs (both home and professional) would agree that it is silly, so they use themometers.

So the next step is to say OK, once you use a thermometer, the human chef is still acting as the control loop - still trying to be a human thermostat, by turning the heat up or down, or knowing exactly when to take the steak off the grill.

So why not use a digitally controlled device to regulated the tempertaure - a PID controller in a water bath, combi oven or CVAP oven. This kind of temperature control works better if you cook with low thermal gradients - i.e. with low temperature in a water bath or steam oven. That's the essence of sous vide cooking.

Once you realize this, you also tend to cook in two steps rather than one. Grilling a steak means you must carefully balance the timing and intensity so that you get the right level of browning on the outside, but then get the right doneness in the center, and not have too much overcooked meat in between. You are trying to find a happy compromise between two factors that are fundamentally in opposition. Why not cook the steak one method (at low temperature) so that the interior is perfect, then use very high temperature to get the ideal crust?

This is actually a very traditional approach for some kinds of cooking. Most recipes for braising call for a searing step at high heat prior to the braise. Or you pan sear then finish in an oven. Sous vide cooking uses this same two-step approach. It is a theme that runs througout my book - rather than making one cooking process try to compromise between two different methods, you use two steps, each one of which is better at achieving a goal.

Usually that means cooking at low temperature (via sous vide or a steam oven, but not always) then doing the searing step separately. This is a much better way to achieve many common cooking goals than trying to do it in one step.

It is quite suprising to me that people view this as taking the "soul" out of cooking. By using lower temperatures and a digital thermostat you get more accurate and reliable temperature control. So you ruin less food. You put less effort into being the human thermostat. By cooking in two steps you get a better and more reliable result.

I don't doubt the passion and sincerity with which people will say that these simple steps "takes the soul out of cooking", but I am really mystified.

I could ask why use a steel knife - why not chip one out of flint? Or forge the knife yourself? I have done both of these things - flintknapping is fun, and so is using a forge to make a knife. But the reality is that a decent chef's knife is a great tool and it does not take the soul of what you cook if you buy one rather than make it yourself. The same goes for pots and pans, and ranges or ovens... and sous vide equipment...

I think that much of the reason for this "soulfulness" debate is that people don't understand that the steps are as simple extensions of what they already do.

Nathan

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What we seem to be saying is that the process of cooking is as important as the result. Perhaps true for the cook. But the eater only cares about results.

I'm somewhere in between. I love meat in a hot pan and sous vide is a PITA. Two days to cook meat?! I want it for dinner now. But if I can bring myself to plan a bit, its well worth it.

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The process of cooking is definitely important to the cook. But I don't see why the process of these new techniques is intrisically unsatisfying to the cook.

The diner values the end result, and frankly most cooks do too because they want to create a great result. I don't know many cooks who say "well, it makes a mediocre result, but I still love to do it that way". Of course if you do love a process regardless of the results then go for it!

(i.e. abandon that steel knife and flintknap your own)

I think it is a mistake to mix the love of process with convenience. Love of a traditional process is one issue. Convenience is quite different.

Sous vide can be slow, and if you want immediate gratification then it may not be a good technique. But if all you want is speed then a microwave oven is hard to beat.

The comment about "two days for meat" versus "I want it for dinner now" is a bit disengenous. You are not making a fair comparison.

The recipes where you cook meat for 48 hours are typically for slowly cooking tough (and cheap) cuts of meat that you want to make tender. The traditional approach to these cuts of meat is also slow - you braise them for 6 to 8 hours. That is faster than sous vide, but it is hardly a case of "I want it for dinner now".

If you want to cook meat now then you are cooking a more expensive, tender cut of meat, which would never be cooked for 48 hours. In that case you are talking about cooking it sous vide for say 1 hour (and maybe as little as 20 minutes if it is thin) versus say 10 minutes on a grill or pan. It is still longer but not the tradeoff you are suggesting.

Nathan

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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."

I don’t see much of a “force” of traditionalists here. In fact this will probably be my final post because I’m afraid I’m not doing a very good job of representing the traditionalists. And I’m not here to convince anyone what’s right and wrong, just trying to present another perspective.

My point wasn’t all about secrecy and hoarding knowledge. It was about the precision, the perfection of “processed” foods. This is something we work to achieve in the food industry and invest in methods and equipment to get there. But part of the joy, for me, in cooking at home, is the thrill of discovery. I feel a personal satisfaction when I create something outstanding with a simple chef’s knife, a cast iron skillet and good old intuition. Cooking something to 72.3°C for 18.4 seconds and having the equipment available to measure that with such precision…well, that’s just not fun. For me.

I’m also not a professional chef or even a rocket scientist, just a lowly food technologist who dabbles in cooking at home (to get away from the precision and chemicals at work!). And I’m not very detail-oriented, even at work. I approach things with a big-picture mentality and leave the details to those who enjoy them. Of course at home I still use thermometers and ovens set to a certain temperature; I totally get the logic in the author’s defense. But it’s about what’s fun and what isn’t. Many find the joy of discovery in the analytical process of scientific detail – others enjoy going about it a bit differently.

Again, this is not a criticism of MC, but just a comment to point out the reasons why I'm having a tough time embracing it.

And then again, maybe sour grapes on my part because I’ll now be a step behind without the book and equipment. :)

Edited by angevin (log)
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The process of cooking is definitely important to the cook. But I don't see why the process of these new techniques is intrisically unsatisfying to the cook.

I'm actually with you on this, but just to play the devil's advocate, I think it could be said that learning to cook with the God given senses is an act of self improvement - and the results are a direct reflection of your talents. It's the difference between inner aspirations of excellence, versus coldly calculated methods to eliminate mistakes.

A statue of David could be created with a computer controlled 5 axis milling machine, but could such a process create a Michelangelo?

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The process of cooking is definitely important to the cook. But I don't see why the process of these new techniques is intrisically unsatisfying to the cook.

I think it's because if you don't understand the variable that go into the technique, it's hard to go beyond the recipes in a cookbook. So for experienced home cooks that are used to flipping through cookbooks to get ideas and are comfortable subbing ingredients, adapting recipes, and creating their own recipes, MC feels like a 'cooking by numbers' exercise. Their only exposure to many of the techniques and ingredients is through the book, so they feel they can't really interact with the material in the book. Additionally, the precision with which MC details recipes makes one unfamiliar with it think that MC is dictating THIS IS THE ONLY WAY THIS CAN BE DONE. For a cook used to interacting with with recipes, this appears as yet another factor inhibiting expanding beyond what's printed in the book. Finally, the "stick it in the sous vide bag and don't open it till it's done" nature of some of the recipes makes it feel like there's no interaction with the food along the way--there's no change to taste, adjust, season, etc.

I think what people probably don't realize is that you can probably use MC just like any other cookbook. There's no reason you can't mix and match sauces and proteins. Want your lamb medium instead of rare? Nathan will tell you how. Want to try a risotto with something other than arborio rice? You don't have to guess at how long it will take--Nathan will tell you. Interested in making a cheese sauce for creamed onions? I bet that mac&cheese emulsion would blow the pants off of Aunt Susanne's rendition next Christmas.

I don't really see how this book is much different than giving someone focused on European cuisine a Thai cookbook, for instance. The ingredients will be foreign and hard to find. There will be methods you'd never seen, tools you've never used, etc. Some things will look downright ridiculous (ant egg omelet!??!). And for a while, you'll have to cook by the book. But eventually, you'll learn how coconut milk can be used, what Thai basil tastes like, wtf galangal is, etc, and you'll be able to concoct your own curry pastes, your own soups, and make some sort of crazy fois gras fish cake thing that no one's ever tasted. MC is the same--learn the ingredients and the techniques, practice for a while, and then start to branch out. It'll happen.

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A statue of David could be created with a computer controlled 5 axis milling machine, but could such a process create a Michelangelo?

Absolutely not, and I think this is one of the points: a computer-controlled 5-axis milling machine does not make a Michelangelo, but what could a Michelangelo with a computer-controlled 5-axis milling machine accomplish? Tools don't limit creativity; they blow the limits off of it.

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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Angevin

I personally hope you stay and contribute to this and other threads. While we may not agree on points, I do enjoy reading your perspective which gives me thought when measured against mine.

I love analogies. Today we can type on a computer and share our thoughts electronically. The ability does not make picking up a pen and writing on a piece of paper then going to the post office to mail the note obsolete, merely different. So many things are transitional. Stoves in the home have evolved from gas and electric coil burners to now offer halogen and induction burners. Maybe in the future there will be more residential choices that bring combi-ovens and CVAP ovens to a more affordable price point. Didn't someone (it may have been Chef Keller?) suggest that sous vide setups may be the next big addition to kitchens? Not so many years ago, every office wanted to have a fax machine. Then fax machines transited to homes. Today, how many faxes do you think you will send? I would much rather buy a knife than forge my own, for any number of reasons. All is in motion.

"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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Prickly? Only my legs 'cause I need to shave. :wink:

Seriously, I've never read a "prickly" comment about Mr. Ruhlman here.

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But part of the joy, for me, in cooking at home, is the thrill of discovery. I feel a personal satisfaction when I create something outstanding with a simple chef’s knife, a cast iron skillet and good old intuition. Cooking something to 72.3°C for 18.4 seconds and having the equipment available to measure that with such precision…well, that’s just not fun. For me.

No one else can determine what is fun for you, but consider this: What happens if you change that to 59.8°C for 2 hours? I understand the love of process, I really do: For example, I still use a view camera for photography, purely for the love of the process. But discovery? I think discovery is opened up by the MC techniques. SV has enabled cooking methods that are essentially impossible with traditional methods. So discovery is more alive then ever. But I will give you that the discovery is not as hands-on; it is a step or two removed. If you love to cook for the touch, feel, smell and interaction with your food, SV and much (or some at least) of MC will be left wanting I think.

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I think if one is talking online about food, recipes, restaurants and cooking, one has already broken from tradition pretty emphatically.

I also think it's helpful to understand Modernist Cuisine as a philanthropic project -- a gift to gastronomy. Without a willing and able benefactor (is there another such person on the planet?) the project could never have happened. Even if you spend $500 on the book, you are getting the benefit of several thousand additional dollars worth of subsidy. It reminds me of dining at the old Lespinasse when Gray Kunz was the chef. Sure, a meal there was expensive, but the restaurant was losing a couple of million dollars a year. In effect, the St. Regis hotel was paying me to eat at Lespinasse.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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A statue of David could be created with a computer controlled 5 axis milling machine, but could such a process create a Michelangelo?

Absolutely not, and I think this is one of the points: a computer-controlled 5-axis milling machine does not make a Michelangelo, but what could a Michelangelo with a computer-controlled 5-axis milling machine accomplish? Tools don't limit creativity; they blow the limits off of it.

I love this quote and it's something I try to convey to people I know who can cook extremely well when they question the techniques. They are offended that someone can press a few buttons and produce a piece of meat that matches or exceeds what they have trained to do for many years. The point I try to make that you captured there is that imagine what they could do to further enhance the overall dish with this extra knowledge.

I'm a computer programmer by trade. Imagine how silly and damaging to my future career it would be to ignore new advances in technology. Forget visual studio, I'm going to stick with my Fortan. Internet? Just a passing fad, I'll ship you my program on some 5" disks. Do programmers feel threatened when new technology arrives? Well yeah, some do but the good ones embrace it realizing that yes, it will lower the learning curve and make things easier for beginners allowing them to duplicate things I spent days on with just a few lines of code but wow, imagine what I will be able to do now.

It's an exciting time in cooking, I for one am glad that I stumbled on to sous vide cooking and egullet a year or so ago so that I can be part of this

rg

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A statue of David could be created with a computer controlled 5 axis milling machine, but could such a process create a Michelangelo?

Absolutely not, and I think this is one of the points: a computer-controlled 5-axis milling machine does not make a Michelangelo, but what could a Michelangelo with a computer-controlled 5-axis milling machine accomplish? Tools don't limit creativity; they blow the limits off of it.

I love this quote and it's something I try to convey to people I know who can cook extremely well when they question the techniques. They are offended that someone can press a few buttons and produce a piece of meat that matches or exceeds what they have trained to do for many years. The point I try to make that you captured there is that imagine what they could do to further enhance the overall dish with this extra knowledge.

I'm a computer programmer by trade. Imagine how silly and damaging to my future career it would be to ignore new advances in technology. Forget visual studio, I'm going to stick with my Fortan. Internet? Just a passing fad, I'll ship you my program on some 5" disks. Do programmers feel threatened when new technology arrives? Well yeah, some do but the good ones embrace it realizing that yes, it will lower the learning curve and make things easier for beginners allowing them to duplicate things I spent days on with just a few lines of code but wow, imagine what I will be able to do now.

It's an exciting time in cooking, I for one am glad that I stumbled on to sous vide cooking and egullet a year or so ago so that I can be part of this

rg

But computer programming is inherently a product of technology. The issue here is the comfort level of removing the line that separates technology and creative expression. It's about personal preference.

I perfer to listen to a piece of music by a symphony orchestra with real acoustic instruments, than a synthesized version, even if they might sound identical to the ear. Or especially if the synthesized version is even more perfect than the authentic one. Others who have embraced synthesized music find classical intruments to be woefully limiting.

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I think it's because if you don't understand the variable that go into the technique, it's hard to go beyond the recipes in a cookbook. So for experienced home cooks that are used to flipping through cookbooks to get ideas and are comfortable subbing ingredients, adapting recipes, and creating their own recipes, MC feels like a 'cooking by numbers' exercise. Their only exposure to many of the techniques and ingredients is through the book, so they feel they can't really interact with the material in the book. Additionally, the precision with which MC details recipes makes one unfamiliar with it think that MC is dictating THIS IS THE ONLY WAY THIS CAN BE DONE.

I do not have the book yet but in reading a lot about it and seeing sneak -preview pages this seems way off-base. The book appears to be well set up to give one a solid grounding in the science behind how things in cooking work (or don't work). The numerous tables and scaled recipes are laid out in a way that the observant reader will see the relationships between ingredients, methods, times and temperatures so that he or she can develop their own combinations more successfully. I submit this book is a pinnacle tool for helping even home cooks maximize their creativity.

The Big Cheese

BlackMesaRanch.com

My Blog: "The Kitchen Chronicles"

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"The Flavor of the White Mountains"

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But computer programming is inherently a product of technology. The issue here is the comfort level of removing the line that separates technology and creative expression. It's about personal preference.

I perfer to listen to a piece of music by a symphony orchestra with real acoustic instruments, than a synthesized version, even if they might sound identical to the ear. Or especially if the synthesized version is even more perfect than the authentic one. Others who have embraced synthesized music find classical intruments to be woefully limiting.

Well, you could make the point that cooking is also a product of technology. Just about every piece of equipment and most dishes at one time were "modernist". This book doesn't try to tell people that everything they are doing should be replaced with some new approach, it just tells them that there are a bunch of new things they can decide to use to improve their dishes. Learning about them, trying them and deciding that there is or isn't a place for those techniques on an individual basis in your cooking is what's important. Having a chef blindly making blanket statements that it is soulless and they have no interest in it is terrible. Taking the time to try the techniques and deciding for themselves what to do with the new information, even if they decide at that point to not incorporate it, that is empowering.

I just can't see any reason to dismiss it especially if this is your passion and / or livelihood.

rg

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But I will give you that the discovery is not as hands-on; it is a step or two removed. If you love to cook for the touch, feel, smell and interaction with your food, SV and much (or some at least) of MC will be left wanting I think.

Yes, this. Technology seems to reduce the human element. Or at least transfers it from the senses to the brain, reducing the sensuality in the creative process. Although those who embrace MC find probably find something very sensual in the scientific rigor involved.

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But computer programming is inherently a product of technology. The issue here is the comfort level of removing the line that separates technology and creative expression. It's about personal preference.

There's a huge parallel between cooking and technology. The best programmers are hugely creative with a solid foundation in new technologies. I think the same is true of cooking, except that the technology aspect of cooking has been stalled in the mainstream for decades (if not more). MC represents a shock factor just because it exposes the state of the art in a few thousand pages :biggrin:

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I just can't see any reason to dismiss it especially if this is your passion and / or livelihood.

rg

Thank you. This post, more than any other here -well almost- sums up my issue with some comments made about MC. Individuals, from A Brown, Alice Waters to board members, who love food and cooking want to poke fun or dismiss this work (mostly without having even looked at it) for no logical reason. Other than the $$ factor, there really is no reason to dismiss it because it is "modern".

Edited by FoodMan (log)

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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I think it's because if you don't understand the variable that go into the technique, it's hard to go beyond the recipes in a cookbook. So for experienced home cooks that are used to flipping through cookbooks to get ideas and are comfortable subbing ingredients, adapting recipes, and creating their own recipes, MC feels like a 'cooking by numbers' exercise. Their only exposure to many of the techniques and ingredients is through the book, so they feel they can't really interact with the material in the book. Additionally, the precision with which MC details recipes makes one unfamiliar with it think that MC is dictating THIS IS THE ONLY WAY THIS CAN BE DONE.

I do not have the book yet but in reading a lot about it and seeing sneak -preview pages this seems way off-base. The book appears to be well set up to give one a solid grounding in the science behind how things in cooking work (or don't work)....

Oh I agree. I'm just positing that this may be is the basis for the reaction to an article or book review of MC that causes a "traditionalist" (whatever that is) to feel like MC takes the soul out of cooking.

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The whole notion of "soul" probably deserves some parsing. But one thing I can say for sure is that Nathan M. and his crew -- and this is the case in every modernist restaurant I've visited -- are emotionally engaged. To wit, they are having a ton of fun.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The whole notion of "soul" probably deserves some parsing.

I read that word to mean two things: First, it relates to a connection with the past, and I think Nathan has thoroughly addressed that, by explaining how modernist techniques are simply extensions of the way we do things now. Second, I think there's an element of "the thrill of success is greater when the risk of failure is real." In other words, which is more artful: a perfectly-cooked crème anglaise where the cook had to watch over it every minute to make sure it didn't curdle, or one that was vacuum bagged and thrown in the immersion circulator at 82 degrees for an hour? Or is there any difference between them at all?

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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The whole notion of "soul" probably deserves some parsing. But one thing I can say for sure is that Nathan M. and his crew -- and this is the case in every modernist restaurant I've visited -- are emotionally engaged. To wit, they are having a ton of fun.

"soul" might be related to the idea that "beauty", which we are all in pursuit of, is a composite of the aesthetic and the symbolic. MC is part of an un-unified culinary aestheticism movement. most all other branches of art have already been through aestheticism...

aesthetic values are emphasized over the symbolic. if you really explore the concepts, you find that symbolism often stands in the way of sustainability. other subversive things also become possible with knowledge of beauty's deconstruction.

of course you don't want to throw symbolic values away. aesthetics (raw sensory experience) can be over emphasized and you really compromise a lot of potential beauty. the symbolic side of beauty is really important to cultivating "taste" (converting dissonance to consonance) which is integral to sustainability. you just have to build symbolism back up in a practical way. what is crazy is that if you really analyze the patterns of success in restauranting, symbolism and exemplary behavior usually always trumps aesthetic value.

i have yet to receive my copy, but i have a feeling the book's intensely comprehensive look at the abstraction of food never investigates important topics in culinary theory like the order of operations to the multi sensory perception of flavor, creative linkage & "tension", or the patterns of pleasure that exist in what we eat and drink.

i am extremely excited about the book, i can't wait to apply all these techniques of abstraction to all my deeper theories of perception and pleasure. i might even give up bar tending to cook...

abstract expressionist beverage compounder

creator of acquired tastes

bostonapothecary.com

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I also think it's helpful to understand Modernist Cuisine as a philanthropic project -- a gift to gastronomy. Without a willing and able benefactor (is there another such person on the planet?) the project could never have happened.

This point needs underlining. It is probably why modernism has been so late in arriving in cuisine. (I fault academia for the lag: food scientists have had access to the technology and the research for a long time, but never put it together in a way useful to anyone outside of the big food companies.)

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