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Modernist Cuisine

Modernist Cuisine – the new bible?

With Modernist Cuisine: The Art of Science and Cooking released to much hype, good and bad, it’s hard not to get pulled in, to take stock of all that has gone on since chefs started hanging out with scientists.  When the dust settles, it can only be a good thing.  Needless to say, it is all on my mind again after having gotten more or less knocked off.

Michael Rulhman  gives an overview http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/dining/09modernist.html

John Mariani hates it http://www.esquire.com/blogs/food-for-men/john-mariani-grant-achatz-031811

Pro and Con from the Globe and Mail 



This revolutionary tome is said to document all the new techniques under the umbrella of what has hitherto been known as ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ in an encyclopaedic reference book format. Six volumes weighing 56lb and costing 600-700$, it is the first English compilation of the latest culinary techniques and breakthroughs.  Apparently, it includes a historical perspective with an overview of the science behind traditional methods too, so in effect potentially the most complete textbook for the present day.

I’m not sold on all facets of this ‘new’ cuisine, but I love that scientists and chefs are finally figuring things out - picking apart old myths, coming up with more efficient ways of doing things, developing new possibilities and taste sensations altogether.  Trends aside, it’s simply evolution, and many of the tricks are here to stay. 

The idea of 48 courses of unrecognizable food still irks me, but I can’t help but be excited by the new landscape and many developments because I remember the beginning.  It’s striking to see how things have changed in the past 10-20 years, or even since 2001-2 when I first tuned in, and again since I started this blog in 2005 (my science section is woefully outdated). 

In the early years, there was Harold McGee and his French counterpart, Hervé This explaining some of the science happening in the kitchen in common terms.  Ancient rules and recipes were being debunked and rethought, new possibilities were opening up with this knowledge.  Later there was Ferran Adria with his groundbreaking approach and talent, playing around with new techniques, ingredients and lab equipment.  There were new-fangled egg-less mousses, foams, liquid nitrogen, all kinds of ‘caviar’..  The Pacojet was a new bebelle that every chef wanted in order to make minute sorbets, glaces or the savoury equivalent without the sugar, egg whites or stabilizers required before. There were rumblings of innovative chefs making hot ice cream and shrimp noodles, serving flavoured air.. 

But there were no recipes, no accessible information, only basic theory and crazy ideas.

I recall being hungry and curious, experimenting up a storm on my own.  I was feeling empowered with a few lightbulbs of fresh understanding and a trace of fading scientific background, making egg white or egg-less mayos, attempting liquid stuffings, agar noodles, foie gras chantilly and derivative mousses, multiple foams, froths and gels. 

There were many successes and other labour intensive less-thans that made me question whether this was ultimately worthwhile.  Especially then, the customer was completely ignorant of these kitchen acrobatics, it was obvious that it had to be about good taste foremost.  Besides impressing the cooks, was this novel technique actually producing something absolutely delicious – was the customer going ‘Wow!!’?  Was it the tastiest, most respectful way to showcase our producers’ top-notch ingredients?

I went through my conundrums vis a vis ‘modernist cuisine’ long before it became what it is today, learning to pick and choose and not get too caught up by any trend.

Over the years, I stayed plugged in nonetheless just to feed my brain; but I remained aloof, more concerned with sourcing quality ingredients, fresh and seasonal, local and wild..  I already had enough tools to make delicious food, which is all I really cared about, not to mention a whole palette of incredible ingredients in the wild that I was just getting to know better.  With the wild stuff, I was on a steep learning curve too, adapting to a whole new way of working – with nature, not on a schedule of my own design.  Navigating this world was as foreign, surprising and stimulating as that of ‘Molecular Gastronomy’; yet it made me feel grounded in an incomparable way and was all consuming in a restaurant setting.  In any case, I needed to know the plants intimately before turning them into bubbles.

So I pretty much lost interest just when the field was starting to boom.  Shortly after, ElBulli had books and CD’s of notes out for sale; there were other chefs pursuing similar paths and talking about it, publishing snippets. 

Forever curious and fearful of turning into a dinosaur, I did take a trip to the French Culinary Institute in NYC to take a class on Hydrocolloids.. I continued to read the likes of Ideas in Food and Playing with Fire and Water, which kept me thinking outside the box.  I don’t want to cook like these kids, I thought, but I needed to keep exploring along with them..

I had a nagging feeling that it didn’t jive with what I was doing at la table – which is all about the ingredients and Quebec terroir.  There was excessive manipulation in this nouvelle cuisine which amounted to a denaturing of the product to me.  As I was opting out of the industrial food system, it didn’t make sense to be using the same additives as FritoLay or Kraft.

In my core, I prefer actual beets to beet caviar, briny shrimp to a day old shrimp sheet,  I don’t mind an irregular looking slice of meat.  I tend towards natural, taste before aesthetics. 

Of course, I do like soigné (pretty, carefully put together) food.  And I enjoy mental somersaults, creating, innovating, being in motion, fine-tuning.  There are many elements of this Modernist Cuisine that attracts me as repel me.

In principle, I am not against hydrocolloids; I understand that it is arbitrary that cornstarch is ok only because it is familiar.  That a chemical is a chemical is a chemical, whether it occurs naturally or is created in a lab, the lecithin in eggs or the malic acid in apples.  The popular hydrocolloids are typically extracted from seaweed or cellulose or produced by bacterial fermentation, probably as benign as gelatine.  I am acutely aware that natural is ambiguous and sometimes meaningless - nature can be as toxic as anything.  That the nitrite in ham and bacon make that taste we know and love and it makes no difference if it comes from pink salt or celery – still nitrite!  Likewise, MSG is not necessarily more evil than the natural glutamates in soy, cheese, tomato, anchovy, braised meats (that are body loves and requires). Yet I prefer the latter, I don't eat vitamins, only food.  Neither do I have no problem with edible menus, smoke and mirrors, or games.  All that said, it is just not my thing.  I can’t get psyched about the powders; being on the cutting edge with gimmicky creations is not what drives me most. 

At the end of the day, I would rather use eggs or gelatine than a powder to stabilize, gel or emulsify; I prefer lemons to citric acid, maple syrup to malic acid and glucose – whole ingredients as opposed to extracts.  I don’t need to turn a liquid fat into a powder with filler or serve molten amuse bouches on edible spoons.

That said, I have gradually incorporated some aspects into my kitchen.  I went from despising agar to finding certain good uses for it.  I say no to Methocell, Gellan and co; even from expert hands, I can taste it.  Maybe I could have it work for me, but I’m not inclined – too strange, too much manipulation.

Xanthan is neat as a stabilizer and emulsifier; I can’t help but want to use it often, but I don’t, rather keeping it to a minimum.  A properly adjusted ice cream recipe doesn’t need it if served fresh, and most of the time, it is ok to have a broken vinaigrette or thin sauce.

I say Maybe Yes to Activa – the nifty enzyme that disappears.  I won’t be making all my meat and fish into perfect squares, but there are some applications that have me itching to explore.

Definitely Yes to Sousvide – for specific applications. (see prior post:http://soupnancy.squarespace.com/blog-journalessays/2011/3/31/a-visit-with-ideas-in-food-sous-vide-and-activa.html).  Above all, this is just a smarter way to do certain things for optimal tenderness and flavour, if you have the time and tools.

As far as the tools go, I can live without liquid nitrogen canisters, antigriddles, smoking guns and etc..  I am not into gadgets. I wouldn’t sneeze on a combi-oven, induction plate, Thermomix or centrifuge, but can absolutely do without. I have a sousvide machine only due to the nature of our business, that we butcher whole carcasses, that we put up so much for the year in terms of wild stuff and local veg.  A circulator is on my wish list, along with less modern appliances such a proper dishwasher and ice machine...

With the advent of Modernist Cuisine the book, out front and center, as well as recent books on Ferran Adria, and Grant Achatz’s memoir, there is no doubt that their technologically driven work is making its mark on our culinary history. 

Nonetheless, in the big picture at this point, I still think that Thomas Keller has been the most influential chef in North America in the last two decades.  With his reverence for quality products, classic technique, creativity with a smart and playful touch, precision and attention to detail, his well written books, he is god to an army of chefs.  Think of all the butter poached lobster out there; many were coached by his sousvide.  His cooking and philosophy touches the soul of a chef in a more universal way than any of the new breed of star chefs.  In Montreal, there are as many other European influences, but Thomas Keller certainly had an impact.  Meanwhile here, the ‘molecular gastronomy’ trend never made waves.  Of course, many high end kitchens use some of the equipment and techniques but keep it low key, only to provide a better product, without announcing it; there are no ‘concept’ restaurants as there are in most cities.

Modernist Cuisine may very well be the next, most influential force in NA.  Young cooks will certainly be equipped like never before with information; who knows where they will take it. 

I certainly want my copy, 60lb and 600$ or not.  I want to move forward, all while beating to my own drum in the sticks, without having to change my old school ways or my kitchen too much.  Never dismissing what is most essential: good, real food that makes me and my customers happy.






Posted on Friday, April 1, 2011 at 01:21AM by Registered CommenterNancy Hinton in , , | CommentsPost a Comment

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