RA Crossroads: What To Read After Modernist Cuisine

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book‚Ķwithout pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, hi-tech cooking leads me down a winding path.


Myhrvold, Nathan & others. Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. The Cooking Lab. 2011. 2400p. photogs. ISBN 9780982761007. $625. COOKING
Winner of the 2012 James Beard Cookbook of the Year award, this oversized, massive six-volume set is dedicated to a philosophical, aesthetic, and technological turn in the culinary world‚ scientific gastronomy. Relying on chemicals and using specially engineered serving vessels and an array of machines, modernist chefs redefine the texture and taste of food, creating such offerings as seafood paper, curry-impregnated apples, crab and ginger marbles, and soy sauce clouds. The six volumes cover history, philosophy, techniques, equipment, ingredients, preparations (gels, foams, emulsions, thickeners), and both component and full dish recipes. Little of it can be made in a typical home kitchen, but some of it can be (or can be used by home cooks), and the parts of the book covering those areas are a treasure trove. The work’s appeal derives from a combination of text, photos, and tone that together create a sensibility similar to a TED talk. The photos are lavish and draw on the best ideas of Alton Brown (cut-aways) and high-end food magazines (extreme composite close-ups). The influence of the Apple design aesthetic comes across in the clear acrylic box that houses the set and the decision to print the recipes housed in Volume 6 on plastic so they can withstand the rigors of a kitchen. All and all, readers will feel as if they’re encountering a compelling, lavish, geeky-cool perplexing cross among a cookbook, reference book, and textbook. It will enthrall curious and inventive home cooks, not to mention keep professional chefs poring over its pages. As stunning as the book is, it is not without its controversies: coauthor Myhrvold is a lightning rod in Silicon Valley, the price tag will make many libraries balk, and much of the food is as far away from unprocessed as one could get.


Blumenthal, Heston. The Fat Duck Cookbook. Bloomsbury. 2009. 532p. ISBN 9781608190201. $55. COOKING
Blumenthal is one of the iconic practitioners of modernist cuisine. His UK restaurant, The Fat Duck, is legendary for its inventiveness and vision; noted for similar reasons is this eponymous cookbook. The work is divided into three parts: history (of the movement and of Blumenthal’s journey), recipes (rich in techniques, descriptions, processes, and development), and science (what is used, what each chemical does, and how it works). It shares with Modernist Cuisine the same ornateness in illustration (a modern-collage blend of drawing and photos) and strong attention to design and concept. It also bears the same philosophy and approach to cooking. Recipes include candied beetroot and grapefruit lolly in an edible wrapper and nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse. The language is detailed, evocative, and explanatory (and thus is a treat for those who like to read cookbooks). Blumenthal loves to cook the way he cooks, and that feeling permeates the book. The tone is less clinical and more ebullient than that of Modernist Cuisine.

Achatz, Grant. Alinea. Ten Speed Pr: Crown Pub. Group. 2008. 400p. ISBN 9781580089289. $60. COOKING
In the United States, Achatz is regarded as an undisputed master of modernist cuisine. His Chicago restaurant, Alinea, is a center for inventive, extraordinary food and has been named to a who’s who of best and top lists. In his restaurant cookbook, Achatz features over 100 composite recipes, most including at least three subrecipes, as well as cooking, assembly, and service instructions. In total, there are over 600 recipes, divided by seasons. The book is framed by a series of intriguing and well-crafted contributed essays by Michael Ruhlman, Jeffrey Steingarten, Mark McClusky, and Michael Nagrant and a lengthy introduction by Achatz exploring in detail his creative process. After these segments, the book becomes very much like Modernist Cuisine. The recipes are illustrated in the same high-concept style. The philosophical base is similar, and Achatz expands upon his in inventive and reflective ways. The tone is instructive and clinically brisk. Achatz has also written a memoir with his business partner, Nick Kokonas, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat. It makes for good parallel reading for all who become fascinated with Achatz’s creations.


Abend. Lisa. The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adri√†’s elBulli. Free Pr: S. & S. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781451626629. pap. $16. COOKING
Dishes topped with vinegar dew, rhubarb transformed into sea cucumber shapes, inside-out rabbit dishes, much foam, and drinks that mist when they touch the throat‚ this is the culinary wizardry of Ferran Adri√†, a pioneer in modernist cooking, what he calls deconstruction. So exalted is he that a meal at his restaurant, elBulli, located on the Costa Brava in Spain, is one of the most coveted experiences in the food world and getting in is akin to winning the lottery. So what it is like to work there? Drudgery mixed with tension mixed with moments of amazement. Each season Adri√† accepts 30-odd cooks to apprentice with him. They get no pay, no sleep, and no promise that they will ever work the stations where his wizardry occurs. Each year hundreds vie for the honor. This is the story of one season of such apprentices, and it is a leisurely and intimate biography of the restaurant, its chef, and the apprentices. It is also a biography of the food, which Abend describes in detail, along with some of the processes behind it. By turns rapturous, funny, and eye-opening, this immersion in an epicurean wonderland makes for fascinating reading. As parallel reading, suggest Adri√†’s The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adri√†, his most accessible and affordable cookbook.

Brown, Alton. I’m Just Here for the Food. Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 2006. 328p. ISBN 9781584795599. $35. COOKING
If your patrons are not willing to buy isomalt, high-acyl gellan gum, or agar agar but still want to understand, and perhaps explore, the chemistry of cooking, then point them toward Brown, who has been teaching how liquids turn into solids and why eggs curdle using Barbie dolls, sock puppets, and balloons for years on the TV show Good Eats. He is the everyman of food science, without all the odd ingredients. In his first cookbook, he offers the blend of solid instruction, explanation, illustration, and fancy that makes his show such fun. Witty, personable, and smart, Brown is a great guide to the practical aspects of culinary science. In I’m Just Here for More Food, he takes on the science of baking. If you own them, be sure to suggest DVDs of Good Eats as well. Also suggest Shirley Corriher’s CookWise and BakeWise. She offers great clarity when it comes to cooking and chemistry (and Brown fans will know her from her cameo appearances explaining food science on his show).

Potter, Jeff. Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food. O’Reilly Media. 2010. 432p. ISBN 9780596805883. pap. $34.99. COOKING
One step further than Brown is Potter’s DIY cooking gadgets manual‚ cum‚ solid gastronomic chemistry guide. It is science meets the dinner table by way of shop class and the chemistry lab. Filled with easily understood examples, experiments, essays, and recipes, it is the book to turn to when your patrons want to play with their food. A bit more than half of the book is devoted to the basics (along the same lines as Brown), but in the latter half, Potter takes the super-fun mad-scientist path of cooking and teaches readers to make fruit foam and infused chocolate bars in a homemade sous vide machine. He also explicates ingredients such as maltodextrin. Consider it a useful prerequisite to Modernist Cuisine.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner. 2004. 896p. ISBN 9780684800011. $40. COOKING
Knowing how to cook and how to experiment with cooking rests on knowing how ingredients work with one another and react to various cooking methods and materials. In other words, knowing the science behind why cakes rise and how eggs can be boiled until hard. McGee’s book explains nearly everything relating to the how, what, and why part of cooking in concise, precise, and often charming, detail. His book, first published in 1984 and fully updated for this edition, is a cross between an encyclopedia and a food treatise, infused with wit and achieved through fine, clear writing. McGee covers a vast range of ingredients as well as chapters on cooking methods; the types of materials used in making cooking equipment (and their reactionary characters); the characteristics of water, lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins; and a chemistry primer. It is a big, rich, dense and classic source that should provide patrons with a strong foundation in food science.


America‘s Test Kitchen publications and shows
As accessible as Alton Brown but without the props, the various publications of America’s Test Kitchen (Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, a host of cookbooks, two TV series, and DVDs) demonstrate to home cooks how recipes fail and what needs to be done to ensure they work. It is the science of cooking disguised as method.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net