Modernist Cuisine: A Cooking Scientist’s Dilemma

Any article about science and cooking, much less one about a lab devoted to discovery and innovation within cooking, is bound to fascinate me, yet the idea of “modernist cuisine” leaves me feeling cold.

The gist of the article is that the former CTO of Microsoft started a lab devoted to inventions and cutting-edge technology. Somewhere down the line, he decided to figure out the science behind sous-vide cooking, because nobody had bothered to do so. Eventually, this led to devoting much of his lab work to the discovery of the properties of food; how heat travels through meat, the temperature & egg:liquid ratio required for certain consistencies of custard, and using vacuum chambers to get a novel consistency in a food.

On the one hand, I appreciate the hell out of this work. I love that we have the tools to look at a recipe and say “Okay, this is what is happening on a molecular level”. Through the science of cooking, one can understand the forces at work in a recipe, and therefore control what is happening and what will happen at its most basic level. This opens a world of possibilities for knowing one’s kitchen beyond following a recipe verbatim.

In our culture that prides individualism, I think that de-mystifying cooking is an important step toward getting people in the kitchen. When you don’t know what you’re doing, cooking is intimidating; it’s a field with its own language and a presupposition that one knows when a dish is “done”, not to mention the intimidating task of cleaning a pile of dishes afterwards. And because we’re increasingly isolated, we don’t have much of a food-based culture (at least beyond eating fast & cheap). For many people, “cooking” consists of Rice-a-Roni and baked chicken tenders, and convenience dictates that we eat out several times a week.

Once food is treated as an burdensome time-suck, recipes are no longer passed from one generation to the next, and people don’t get the hands-on training that was once necessary to maintain a homestead. Therefore, cooking (especially from scratch) is seen as an impenetrable, intimidating art. This means that we’re less likely to attempt to cook, which means we don’t teach their kids to cook ad nauseum. I fully support anything that makes cooking comprehensible, and I think something brutally objective clears the cloudy language of cooking (“Cook until mostly softened; how do I know what mostly looks like!?”).

But on the other hand, I don’t know how I feel about the fancy-pants preparation endorsed by this “modernist” cuisine. From the book’s description:

“The authors and their 20-person team at The Cooking Lab have achieved astounding new flavors and textures by using tools such as water baths, homogenizers, centrifuges, and ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is all fascinating; I’m intrigued by the possibilities of food. I love that someone is able to use a centrifuge and vacuum chamber to create bizarre space food. But I also think that puts another wall between the common American and cooking. For example, once we have a notion of the “perfect” French fry, anything less could seem like a disappointment. Why should we bother cooking “good enough” when we can motor to the local McDonald’s and drop $1.39 on some pretty great fries that don’t take 2 hours of our time?

Also, I think it’s kind of silly to spend all this time and energy on new, expensive cooking techniques. I guess that rich guys will always do rich guy stuff to food, and rich guy technology has increased exponentially with time. Still, I think that rich guy stuff misses the point of cooking. To me, I love cooking for the sake of using my knowledge and abilities to feed my friends & family and to bring people together. I enjoy the challenge of a new recipe or technique, so maybe it’s only natural that a rich guy would stretch that envelope as far as he can.

But still, I think that objectifies the food itself, as in we find our pleasure in the end product rather than the non-quantifiable process it takes to get there. I think that’s a push for perfection or novelty, which is inherently unsustainable. Food shouldn’t be perfect; it’s most satisfying when it takes some guesswork, the help of your friends, and the inimitable je ne sais quoi of simply knowing a recipe (or the smug satisfaction one gets from stumbling into a well-prepared dish on the first try).

So, that’s why I’m torn. I love the discovery of food, and I would not turn down a chance to attend the 30-course feast at Intellectual Ventures. But chasing novelty or the perfect dish is unsustainable and kind of silly. I realize I’m making a Luddite-ish argument that borders on saying “this is unnatural, therefore bad”, which is inherently a slippery slope; as Nate Myhrvold (kind of arrogantly) points out, bread, wine, and cheese are all highly-processed foods, which is no different than what he’s doing. I guess I have to draw the line somewhere, and I choose to draw it at million dollar equipment.

I think the moral is that people will always try to do more with food, and that’s okay. But I think it says that the point of cooking is the food itself, which misses the point of friends, community, and the other unpurchasable imperfections that motivate me.


About zachatollah

I have ideas to extrovert, mostly about science, history, explosions, cooking, and the intersection of said topics.
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