Wednesday, June 18, 2014

419 Word Revelation: Modernist Cuisine

What has Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine done for food?
It’s easy to play the part of the skeptic. But it’s even easier to pretend your pushing the boundaries of food when in fact you are sitting in a laboratory trying to make strawberries taste like tomatoes in a marinara sauce. When in fact, tomatoes worked just fine, thank you.

Polenta topped with a marinara sauce made of strawberries, whose flavor profile mimics that of tomatoes, was one of 50 courses Nathan Myhrvold served at a meal to Feran Adria and New York Times reporter Dwight Garner recently at his food lab in Seattle. Myhrvold, who started Microsoft’s research division, has climbed out of his Microsoft  Office Window(s) (that’s a double pun, by the way) and into the world of molecular gastronomy, or “Modernist Cuisine,” as he has titled his multiple books on the subject. Surrounded with millions of dollars and a sous-vide vacuum sealer or two, he’s trying to push the boundaries of food by pushing food out of the kitchen and into the laboratory.

The results are sometimes stunning, though seemingly neither satisfying nor desirable. Like, a milkshake is made of goat milk, sugar, xantham gum and whey protein.


What strikes me again and again about this style of cooking is that it fetishizes food. It begs to be playful but indulges in such pettiness, excess and waste that the food itself is lost. Myhrvold gives potatoes an “ultrasonic bath” before serving them in steak frites, which creates cavities in the potatoes for a crispier fry. Is this any different than the laboratories of McDonald’s seeking to make a more addictive fry through science? If you were served pink slime at the Myhrvold household, would you eat it?

Perhaps Modernist Cuisine will stay within the sphere of Silicon Valley, like a foodie version of Segway polo, and in a few high-end restaurants scattered throughout the world. But most movements that combine creativity, art and passion seek a higher good. Frankly, I’m perplexed and fearful for what that higher good might be.

Modernist Cuisine does not answer to the things that draw us to food in the first place: satisfaction, engagement, community, pleasure.  Nor does it seem to answer any of the questions we truly struggle with about the food world: it does not engage in a conversation about health or agriculture or accessibility or hunger.

Instead, it draws laser-engraved images of Ferran Adria’s face on a tortilla.

Tortillas without his face on them were just fine, thank you.


  1. This reminds me of reading about how they are not trying to grow meat in a petri dish. I am all for creativity in the kitchen but also wonder about changing the inherent qualities in an ingredient so dramatically that it ceases to be what it was originally intended to be. Does this say something more about culture and society at large than just food (all food writing does, right?) I think the question you pose that is the pinnacle of your argument, for me, is "Is this any different than the laboratories of McDonald’s seeking to make a more addictive fry through science?" Then again, I can understand that insatiable desire to perfect the French Fry and to tweak methods to get closer to the best final result. Interesting conversation starter, Will.

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