The much anticipated Modernist Cuisine, 6 Vols, 40 lbs, photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Tomorrow, I review Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking for The New York Times, the heavily hyped and praised 6 volume, 2400-page romp through the whole world of cooking, a manifesto pronouncing the arrival of a new cultural movement.  I’ll be happy to answer questions here tomorrow about the book or the review and I’ll look in on the Times food blog as well where I describe my first attempt at cooking from the book (photo below).

I confess this was an incredibly daunting assignment.  It’s an honor to be able to hold forth on what some are calling, accurately, the most important cookbook in years (seven, by my count, since McGee’s revised On Food and Cooking was published), in The Times, no less. A huge responsibility. I’d need as many degrees as its lead author, instigator and bankroller of the years-long project, Nathan Myhrvold, has (the guy worked with Stephen Hawking in quantum cosmology and has discovered more T. rex bones than anyone in history!; see Malcom Gladwell’s NYer story).

One of the reasons the review stoked so much anxiety in me is that there’s so much in this book, it will take years before we know how revolutionary, or not, this book is; years before the treasure trove of information that’s in here filters through the professional cooking world and then down into all kitchens generally and we can know what sticks and what doesn’t.

My first day with the books, glad I'd cleared off the dining room table.

I finished the review at my friends Ann and Richard’s apartment in Manhattan. Annie read an early draft and said, “What I wanna know is should I buy it?”

Richard, very much not a foodie, couldn’t stop thumbing through the volume I’d brought with me.  Check out the most excellent slide show at nytimes.com, examples of the forward thinking photography throughout this monster.

So, Annie. Is Modern Cuisine, $463 at Amazon, worth the price?  Who should buy it? I’m supposed to give my review copy back so I’m going to have to make the decision—and yes, sigh, I don’t see how I can not have it around, if only for those parametric recipes and sous vide tables.  (And please, those of you with pressure cookers, try their stock, recipe in The Times—it’s a miracle, I have some on the stove right now using the carcass of tonight’s roasted chicken).

Any chef with a positive cash flow: buy it for yourself and to educate your staff.  Parents of kids in culinary school who have the cash, your kids will bow down to you with gratitude.  Cooking geeks who don’t blink at the bill at any decent high end restaurant in NYC, you won’t be able to stop yourselves, no matter what I say.  Mom—I know you love to cook and are pretty good at it, but this one ain’t for you.

Chefs Chris Young, formerly of Fat Duck and culinary leader of the project, and Maxime Bilet oversaw the culinary workings. Congrats. You two and Nathan, and the others, you don’t think small, do you!

If you liked this post on Modernist Cuisine, check out these other posts:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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96 Wonderful responses to “Modernist Cuisine”

  • fg

    I’ve been waffling about getting this. I think I may have to. I assume you substituted the carcass for the wings in the adaptation you have on your stove. Sounds great.

  • Rhonda

    Ruhlman,

    Fuck! I love writers!

    I am reading the Capote biography right now (Clarke). Not a fan of his writing but of the method.

    How can you possibly write in Manhattan?

    • ruhlman

      the clarke bio of capote is superb. moving to manhattan is perhaps the worst thing a writer can do to himself or herself.

  • Julian

    Nice to see that you sometimes wear something other than a blue button down shirt. :-)

  • J Bailey

    True, it may not be for everyone, but I have eagerly have awaited the publication date. For a little over a year, I have been incorporating sous vide preparations into my cooking at home. As someone who has a multitude of cookbooks, there have been only a few that are game changers in my opinion. In seeking advice on sous vide and similar topics I was able to turn to the publication of Under Pressure (I think you may recognize that title), Alinea and The Fat Duck Cookbook and, of course, On Food and Cooking and the blog of Douglas Baldwin, all of which are enormous resources to the correct, safe and proper way to implement the techniques. Now Modernist Cuisine answers sous vide procedures along with so many other questions.

    As for price, I cannot tell you how many cookbooks I have purchased that sit forever closed on the self because of their lack of content or poor writing. It does not take many of those poor purchases to add up to the cost of Modernist Cuisine.

  • Rhonda

    Seriously, the fact that you are awaiting critique, from a Chef –any Chef, large or small, is laughable.

    You are a great writer.

  • Vivian

    What an incredible undertaking! I have been waiting for this to come out for quite some time now. Looking forward to your review of it in the NYT tomorrow.

  • Claudia

    it sounds fascinating and therefore i want to own it. because i like to own things such as this – a trait i am not necessarily proud of. but will i use it? probably sparingly – year after year after year.

    i think the price becomes more like $1000 after one buys an immersion circulator and a pressure cooker as accompanying pieces….

  • Warner aka ntsc

    Any ostensibly useful book in that price range is over blown hype, on the level with the professor requiring his $100 text for a course, knowing he will have a new edition out the next semester.

    I would sooner buy a coffee table book on coffee table books.

  • Chuck McLean

    Ruhlman – An even-handed review, I thought. I know I’ll never use most of the set, but I’ll have to start saving my quarters, ’cause I know I’ll end up buying it.

  • Chappy

    The one thing that your review made me wonder about is the potential for ‘unnecessary precision’ in modernist cooking. For example you note there is a way they measure gas grill tempurature. I, however, already know how to do this without any specific scientific device. I just use the ‘hold your hand and count’ method found in the excellent Francis Malman book (also recommended by Ruhlman). This ‘method’ vastly improved the quality of my grilling, but it is so simple I’m at a loss to imagine how the Myhrvold method could improve upon this.

      • Chappy

        I can believe it doesn’t slow cooking, but what I was saying is measuring the temperature. I can’t imagine that applies here. If so that means that time * temperature is irrelevant. (For example, would a steak take the same amount of time to cook to an internal temperature of 130 if I put it in an oven of 250 versus an oven of 375?! I was saying the Malman way is a way to ‘feel’ BTUs coming out of the grill (which can then be associated to his suggested times).

  • rockandroller

    I can’t believe you have to give your copy back. That just seems ridic.

    • Mantonat

      There are probably more people writing reviews than actually buying the book.

  • Paul

    First .. good job on the review. Very difficult assignment and handled with tact.

    Secondly … I have to agree with your comment about the contradiction in using industrial techniques at a time when we are railing against industrial food. I have no interest in this cuisine. It is all about consumptive excesses (I toyed with “excrescences”) which defines our current social predicament. I am in the total other camp … I want to do my best cooking with great ingredients, great classic and artisan techniques, and a minimum of equipment. Modernist Cuisine is food of and by the uber wealthy who would destroy anything that did not make them wealthy or recognize their great wealth … so many lark’s tongues.

    • SSC

      I would have to respectfully disagree with you regarding how this book is about consumptive excesses. The book may seem “excessive” but it does not promote needless wasting and destruction. In some sense, I believe it may have the opposite effect. Just look at Michael’s example of making stock using a pressure cooker. If it gets people to make stock using one left over chicken parts using a pressure cooker, instead of throwing it away or getting defeated by the idea of having to collect a larger amount of bones to make stock. Isn’t it great.

      Coincidentally, the first part of the book deals a lot with history of cooking and it’s misconceptions. The book argues historically how wealthy segments of society, kings + pharos etc, have been on the forefront of pushing the boundaries of cooking, because of your definition of consumptive excesses. They had the money, power and the desire to impress.

      But at the same time the book talks about common misconceptions about the myth of “traditional” or “great classic and artisan techniques.” At one time cooking with fire was revolutionary. What about an oven? Stove? Metal pots? The very knife that you hold to cut those great ingredients is a culmination of amazing amount of science and technology that they are still trying to improve.

      This book is not about trying to stop that. It’s trying to add to that.

      Some of the negative reaction towards this book has been puzzling to me. As if this book somehow invalidates what they believe or know. Can you imagine people getting upset because a new Biology, Chemistry, or Physics book comes out containing more info than the previous editions?

      Science in cooking happens regardless whether you believe it or not.

    • Erik

      Is there really any difference in using carrageenan, purified from seaweed, as opposed to corn starch? Are mashed potatoes made using sous vide something exclusively for the wealthy while seared fois gras is for the commoner? No one whines about thermostats on our refrigerators or ovens, yet you stick one on a stock pot to do sous vide and suddenly you’re a mad scientist. You glue pastry together with an egg wash, but using Activa, from animal blood, to glue meat, is heresy.

      IMO, people are welcome to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable ingredient or technique wherever they want. But don’t pretend like that line isn’t arbitrary.

      • ruhlman

        it’s all chemicals and non of it bothers me. your point comparing egg wash and activa is perfect

        • Erik

          So why not say this instead of “Are we to embrace the ingredients and techniques of modernist cuisine at the very moment industrially processed food is being blamed for many of our national health problems?” Are you not part of “we?”

  • Paul C

    Great post, and fantastic review @ times. I was expecting to see something mind blowing in the pressure cooker stock recipe, but it was actually very similar to how I often make small batches of stock. You can even egg-white or freezer clarify it to make a good clear consomme.

  • Sherry Bellamy

    I haven’t read your review yet, (will do later) but as for the pictures….they seem to have very little to do with actual food that you’d, you know…eat. (The grilled onion excepted.) Lovely images, but lots of “style over substance” in my opinion. Picture #10 actually make me giggle; “who dropped dish-suds on the crudo?”.

    I agree that the images are ‘forward thinking’, in terms of art, (I prefer Donna’s photos, which tend to look like food) but in terms of cooking, the images from these books make this cook want to take a step backwards.

  • MikeW

    Really an excellent and fair review of this. The true belivers on the EGullet site are ripping you and one of the fans there calling you “Lazy”

  • SSC

    I have a copy of this and Michael is spot on with his review.

    I preordered the book in August when it was to be released in time for Christmas. But was delayed until March 7. The first shipment of the book sold out, so there’s a delay and the conflicting release dates. The first shipment to amazon was only 500 copies. 6000 copies are the numbers for the total first printing and more than half are already spoken for.

    The quality of the photos and printing of the books is something I’ve never seen in print form before. The pictures are so lifelike that you almost want to reach into the pages and grab the food.

    Yes, the book is not for everyone. But anyone who bought a copy of Alinea, Keller books, or even the Fat Duck Cookbook would love this book. Speaking of the Fat Duck Cookbook, to get a feel for how big this book is, the Fat Duck Cookbook is the closest comparison in size. Modernist Cuisine book is as tall and deep as the Fat Duck Cookbook, but about 5 times wider.

    I have some of the equipment to carry out a tiny few recipes. But I didn’t buy this book for the primary purpose of cooking the recipes. Honestly, how many people really cooked from the Keller books or Alinea, or from any cook book? (Someone should really do a study on the average number of times people cook from cookbooks they buy) My purpose for the book was to gain knowledge that I couldn’t have got on my own.

    Just flipping through the book when I first got the book, like a kid with add, I stopped on a random page and learned how you can quickly marinate using a isi whipper canister.

    Pretty much, every page of this book has something I didn’t know. 2400 pages worth. $421 (the price I originally paid), I would gladly pay that many times over.

    • ruhlman

      thanks, and great comments. agree. few cookbooks have more than a recipe or two made from them.

  • Bren

    wonderful. some attention to pressure cookers… something that really needs to be brought back and talked about far more than it is. looking forward to the review, Michael.
    @Paul, I hope you have a pressure cooker! :)

    • Paul

      Yep. but so old that it no longer pressurizes. Investigated replacing it recently as an energy saving matter but eventually declined. I cook dried beans in a pot very well these days and that was my primary motivation.

  • James Wilber

    Since reading about this book on Wired I’ve been torn. Yes, I think there is a place for food research. I think researching how food reacts to certain forces and chemical changes is a noble pursuit.

    Calling this a cook book, or really anything to do with cuisine is where it destroys credibility. To believe that chefs or cooks will be able to preform extremely complicated, multi-stage applications, using expensive and in some cases experimental machinery, raises the ire of anyone with common sense.

    No, I haven’t read the book. It’s defenders say there’s more to it than that. Maybe there is, but every review I’ve read says it advocates an obsessive sensibility, unreproducible in almost any real kitchen.

    Where does art begin and craft leave off? That’s a hard question. I’ve always had a problem with people taking something we all must do, like eating, and making it something where all but the very elite can participate in it. I question the morality of charging over $250 for dinner. Yet, if we follow the Modernist Cuisine, we should have more of it. Chefs should be creating food that no one but the super-rich can afford.

    So yes to food science, no to taking a craft and turning it into the unreachable. No to the obsessive perfectionists who move what we should all be doing into the realm of the gods. Yes to knowing the principles, and cooking from the heart.

  • Patrick Ciccone

    Curious what kind/size pressure cooker you (or anyone else) are using for stock? The larger capacity ones–16 and up, appear designed for canning, but I imagine they are functionally . Seems like you need that size for decent size batches of beef/veal stocks–those bones are sizable.

  • Bryan

    Ruhlman-
    Have you decided if you will purchase it for yourself? I am a cooking enthusiast at home. Although, I kinda fall into your “ooking geeks who don’t blink at the bill at any decent high end restaurant in NYC” category, but my cooking passion lies much like yours in cooking whole foods, the best and most natural possible. I don’t like that all the recipes require a chemicals. I am also really into the science of cooking. I own McGee’s books and love them, so any more content that sheds light on how science (minus chemicals) can be used to create excellent, delicious food is what I am interesting in.

    I have the book on pre-order at Amazon due to ship next week. I have been going back and forth debating whether I should cancel it ever since I ordered it.

    • Nick D

      You use chemicals in cooking pretty much everything: H2O, NaCl, NaHCO3, etc.

      How do you decide now that adding something like Calcium Carbonate, etc. crosses the line?

      This seems to be more an argument from tradition than some ethical framework.

    • ruhlman

      it’s got tons and tons of science in it, adds substantially to mcgee without surmounting him.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    ruhlman
    lots of bone and gelatin-giving cartilage in the wings!

    Yes, some, but I like feet and heads in my stock.

      • Robert Wells

        I can vouche for the Fagor. Very well made 18/10 thick steel pot. Best pot I own. Use it for nonpressure soups and stews. I have had mine for over 10 years. Totally safe, not the silly grandma, jiggler. Bed, Bath and Beyond carries it so you can use the 20% discount. I know I paid less than $70 bucks. Spanish made, very high quality.

  • Charity

    Great review! Thanks for your honesty!
    I’ve been really curious about this book for months~ I think I read about it in F&W last fall. Not really curious in that I want to possess it, but just contently curious about what food people and chefs, think of it. I’m not curious anymore.
    The problem with it, for me at least, isn’t the price tag, though god know what line cook has an extra $500 kicking around. The problem for me is that “Modernist Cuisine” pisses me off. Yes, there are chefs who do it well, and I’m in awe of those guys. But for every one of them there are hundreds of cooks who resort to modern techniques for cheap visual thrills~ seriously dudes, let’s learn some old school cooking techniques first, like just concentrate on learning how to properly use salt and acid before spherify anything. I don’t care if it’s a work of art on the plate, the most important aspects of the medium are the flavors! And what about those cooks who have no idea how to make an emmulsion without the use of xanthan gum or soy lecethin?! Infuriating! I could rant for several more paragraphs. For real.
    So, this is what would happen, were I to purchase this book:
    I’d flip through it, jaw agape, gazing at the pictures. Then I’d read a few paragraphs, get super bored and then angry, and take to work. One of my staff would fall in love with the book, read something about pressure cooker stocks and start a conversation with me about that very same topic. At that very instant, my head would explode and I’d go on another rant (it’s scary in person). The book would become an elephant in the kitchen, and we’d feel it’s eerie, hulking presence watching us from the corner whilst we made our stocks on the stove, the “old-fashioned” way. The end.

  • Charity

    Also I will add that yes, I am aware of how awesome pressure cooker stocks are… my point is that I strongly feel that young cooks aught to learn and master the slower techniques first.

    • DiggingDogFarm

      Hmmm!
      I found Michael’s review honest, not negative!

    • Sherry Bellamy

      Good grief. So Michael having both positive and negative views of the books, (what some might call honest and balanced, particularly given the monstrous amount of information that he reviewed) is “schizophrenic”.

      Ah. Mature.

      • ruhlman

        thanks for pointing this out chris, I look forward, and with some trepidation, for his is formidable gray matter, to reading it.

    • Robert Wells

      I honestly can’t say that I found Micheal’s review negative. Nathan is very close to this project. I was a long time participant on the eGullet Sous Vide topic. Nathan is a dedicated contributor who put his heart and soul into this project so I understand his reaction. I think this book will ultimately be recognized as a LaRousse and McGee type influence on the culinary arts. The sheer scholarship is overwhelming.

  • E. Nassar

    Charity
    Great review! Thanks for your honesty!I’ve been really curious about this book for months~ I think I read about it in F&W last fall. Not really curious in that I want to possess it, but just contently curious about what food people and chefs, think of it. I’m not curious anymore.The problem with it, for me at least, isn’t the price tag, though god know what line cook has an extra $500 kicking around. The problem for me is that “Modernist Cuisine” pisses me off. Yes, there are chefs who do it well, and I’m in awe of those guys. But for every one of them there are hundreds of cooks who resort to modern techniques for cheap visual thrills~ seriously dudes, let’s learn some old school cooking techniques first, like just concentrate on learning how to properly use salt and acid before spherify anything. I don’t care if it’s a work of art on the plate, the most important aspects of the medium are the flavors! And what about those cooks who have no idea how to make an emmulsion without the use of xanthan gum or soy lecethin?! Infuriating! I could rant for several more paragraphs. For real.So, this is what would happen, were I to purchase this book:I’d flip through it, jaw agape, gazing at the pictures. Then I’d read a few paragraphs, get super bored and then angry, and take to work. One of my staff would fall in love with the book, read something about pressure cooker stocks and start a conversation with me about that very same topic. At that very instant, my head would explode and I’d go on another rant (it’s scary in person). The book would become an elephant in the kitchen, and we’d feel it’s eerie, hulking presence watching us from the corner whilst we made our stocks on the stove, the “old-fashioned” way. The end.

    Is that the fault of the Modernist Cusine book though? So we should bash some new piece of information (in 2400 pages) because some might abuse it? Make stocks the “old fashioned way” if you want to but you cannot fault MC if it tells you that using a pressure cooker (not particularly that modern BTW) produces a better result. FWIW, I still use clay pots for lots of my cooking, but making confit Sous Vide makes much more common sense than using vats of fat. My point is, MC provides us with tons of well-researched information. What we choose to do with it is our business.

  • Chris

    What a hardcore set of books to process. I went through the El Bulli set several years ago. I’m still in counseling…LOL!

  • Todd

    Thank you for such a pleasant distraction Mr. Ruhlman. I’ve spent the last couple of hours researching this collection and it’s techniques. I’ve never wanted, nor had the need for a vacuum sealer….until now. Can’t wait to try the MacGyver sous vide steak at home.

  • Erik

    MikeW
    Really an excellent and fair review of this. The true belivers on the EGullet site are ripping you and one of the fans there calling you “Lazy”

    Maybe it’s because the review has lines like “I saw not a single recipe involving meat where the meat is not cooked sous vide.” And yet the article includes chicken stock where the chicken is not cooked sous vide! Involves meat? Yes. Involves sous vide? Nope.

    • Mantonat

      That’s just quibbling. When you make stock, you aren’t cooking meat, you are making stock. Any meat involved is incidental without the intention of primarily eating meat. You might as well assert that baking a cake is the same as cooking eggs.

      • Erik

        But if my job is a professional writer, I’m going to be more precise with my language. Baking a cake absolutely “involves” egg, but we’d never call it an egg dish or a way to “prepare” eggs.

        Regardless, it’s more to illustrate the point that it’s statements like “I saw not a single recipe involving meat where the meat is not cooked sous vide” seem to be written without much regard to their accuracy. Why didn’t Ruhlman write “this is not as single recipe…?” The index of the book includes entries for “pressure cook tough cuts for quick results,” “roast a chicken in a combi oven,” “make bacon and eggs in a combi oven,” “microwaved beef jerky,” “hanger steak tartare,” “combi oven ribeye,” … The list goes on an on! I don’t have the book here in front of me, so maybe all of these recipes require sous vide cooking, but if so, wouldn’t it be more interested to say “even the steak tartare is cooked sous vide?” I seems like the reason Ruhlman said “I saw not a single recipe…” was because he didn’t want to look, or was too lazy to do so.

        • Erik

          And of course my complaint about precise writing contains a typo. In P2, S2, it should be “Why didn’t Ruhlman write ‘there is not as single recipe…?’”

  • Paul

    Well said

    Erik
    Is there really any difference in using carrageenan, purified from seaweed, as opposed to corn starch? Are mashed potatoes made using sous vide something exclusively for the wealthy while seared fois gras is for the commoner? No one whines about thermostats on our refrigerators or ovens, yet you stick one on a stock pot to do sous vide and suddenly you’re a mad scientist. You glue pastry together with an egg wash, but using Activa, from animal blood, to glue meat, is heresy.
    IMO, people are welcome to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable ingredient or technique wherever they want. But don’t pretend like that line isn’t arbitrary.

  • Paul

    Top 10

    Ruhlman … your review is now at #10 in the times Most Popular.

  • JeffRB

    Seems like a lot of upset people about what basically amounts to a book about new techniques. I think that most people are basically conservative, and when they’ve spent a lifetime doing something and they feel they understand it, it can be hard to accept someone telling them that it can be done better or even differently. It’s a natural human reaction. I don’t understand the criticism about it being too much “art” and not enough craft. I am an amateur woodworker and I know what my limitations are, but that doesn’t stop me from buying books that show pieces that I will never be able to attempt in my lifetime. Why? Because that’s what pushes creativity. Those who look at the recipes and throw their hands up in disgust while saying, “Well, I’ll never be able to do that” are missing out on the potential to learn and incorporate new ideas and techniques. I have the “Alinea” cookbook and I cook from it all the time. When I first got it, I saw that there were recipes that I likely couldn’t do as written. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t pull some key ideas or techniques from the recipe. The same way a beautiful piece of artwork may inspire someone to reach for new heights, regardless of their ability to faithfully recreate that level of artistry. This “all or nothing” approach to cookbooks is, to me, a fundamental misunderstanding of the utility. Are people going to jump into some of the modernist techniques without a sufficient base in the fundamentals? Of course. Will their food be pretty to look at while possibly being inedible? Probably. So what? Science, technology, art – they generally advance at a snail’s pace and the pushing often comes from the fringes. A technology that is decried by one generation becomes indispensable to the next. That’s just how human culture works. Deal with it.

  • Barton

    Saw this in the times, my favourite piece of your writing by far. Thanks, I had heard about the project and found it absurd but seems like it is a great follow up from mcgees work

  • Ryan

    Ruhlman — I have to say I was extremely disappointed by your NYT review. I’m generally a fan of your writing, but your review just fell flat for me. Any chance you can address some of the issues I have below?

    First off, I think everything you wrote criticizing the level of detail, amount of science, or inclusion of research is completely uncalled for. Why in the world would you (seemingly) prefer less detail rather than more? What is the benefit of depriving people of information?

    Second, you seem to bring in a very strong bias against new technology and new ingredients. Regardless of your personal opinions, the fact is that these techniques and equipment are becoming quite common in restaurant kitchens across the country. Don’t you recognize that we’re sorely missing an all-inclusive reference for these?

    Overall, it seems the problem is that you’re a poor match to review these books. Not because you’re unqualified, as you suggest in your review–no single person can be an expert in all these areas. But rather because the topics of the book don’t fit with your style, aren’t things you’re interesting in learning about, and are things you rejected in advance because they’re too novel, too unestablished, and aren’t thinks you’ll be using at home.

    You reviewing this work is akin to Sandra Lee reviewing The French Laundry Cookbook or Under Pressure. Not her style, not her interests, and involving ingredients, techniques, and equipment she’d (almost assuredly) reject in advance. The fact that you so explicitly express your disinterest in the science and research discussed in the books shows just how unfitting you were as a reviewer.

    I find these books to be a welcome addition to the world of culinary writing. Just how many more books of roast chicken, braises, pies, and so on, can we have? Is that what you want? It’s time for something new, something that’s breaking new ground. It’s a great sign that you’ll never make any of this at home. It’s great because that means it’s something new. This is a beautiful backlash to 30-Minute Meals, Semi-Homemade, 5 Ingredient Meals, and the other trash we’re being bombarded with from the other extreme.

    It’s disappointing that you missed the big picture and reviewed this work as if it were marketing itself like the Betty Crocker Cookbook rather than the professional, scientifically-grounded, information-dense reference that it is.

    Perhaps Rachel Ray can review the upcoming the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook, which you’re co-writing. She’ll never make a macaron, doesn’t like fancy baking equipment, and will need a bottle of aspirin to get through a multi-page essay on a particular ingredient or technique. Sounds like the perfect match, and I’m sure she’d do a wonderful job of writing a contradictory review that ends up saying absolutely nothing.

    • ruhlman

      I’m truly surprised that so many people view my review as a negative one. It’s a positive one, and you can be sure the book’s pr people will be pulling quotes left and right from it. That review will also sell a lot of books, I’d wager. I think it’s one of the most important cookbooks to be published in years and I believe the review implies this. Is it perfect, no. I’m in awe of the book, but I took the job of reviewing it very seriously. To respond to your questions.

      1. I wasn’t criticizing the level of detail, I was criticizing the lengths at which the detail go on and on. So much of the text needed condensing, which was part of the frustrating nature of reviewing it. This should have been clearer in the review.

      2. I have no bias against this kind of food and cooking. I spent a week in Achatz’s kitchen when he was at trio trying to understand it then returned to see that restaurant open. I then made a special trip to Chicago with my wife to eat there. I wrote the intro to the Alinea cookbook. Heston Blumenthal created one of the coolest dishes I’ve ever eaten, the sea shore dish where you listen to the surf. He’s an incredible chef and wonderful human being. I regret not having eaten at WD-52, but I admire Wylie and so many others mentioned in the book, such as David Kinch, who are at the forefront of modernist cuisine.

      Am I skeptical that this is an art form as definitive as Impressionism. Of course I’m skeptical. That said, the authors are pretty convincing and I found myself agreeing with them. But again, no one can know. On these new techniques and ingredients the book is absolutely jaw-droppingly thorough.

      But are these new techniques going to change our understanding of cooking and change cooking in this country. I don’t think so. I want chefs to be able to explore modernist cuisine, and I personally enjoy eating at these restaurants and want them to continue. But the fact is, very few will. It’s difficult, it requires a lot of work and highly skilled employees, and therefore will always be very expensive. There will never be a lot of restaurants practicing this craft. Sous vide, yes, a technique here and there perhaps. But 2 or 3 dozen throughout the world is all—a tiny number, but enough certainly to justify modernist cuisine as a bonafide cultural movement. At home, only the so called cooking geeks will cook this way, for the same reason, it’s expensive and difficult. And the fact is, while I learned a helluva a lot and was grateful for all the new vantages this book showed me food from, it’s not going to fundamentally change anything I do in the kitchen.

      4. I did not pursue this assignment, The Times asked me. They thought I was the perfect reviewer, and still do. I wrote Sous Vide with Keller, Benno and Lee, I’ve studied the modernist chefs. I think it’s kind of unfair to compare me to Sandra Lee. The only people more qualified than I who might have reviewed this would have been Harold McGee or Jeffrey Steingarten. But they are prominently featured in sidebars in Vol 1. I still hope Jeffrey weighs in on it in Vogue. He too has been following modernist cuisine carefully and could bring valuable perspective to it and the book.

      You don’t say if you’re a chef or a home cook, Ryan, or what perspective you’re coming from, but you seem to want the review to have been an affirmation of the supremacy of modernist cuisine over traditional cuisine. But how can it reign supreme when only a relative few can actually cook this way. And besides the book doesn’t make that claim either.

      This book surely will be the bible in all modernist kitchens. I hope it will be found in every serious restaurant kitchen, available to student cooks at every culinary school and in the library of every serious student of cooking. I think I was very clear from my review that it was a “professional, scientifically-grounded, information-dense reference,” as you say. And quite a bit more.

      • Jeff

        ” I think it’s kind of unfair to compare me to Sandra Lee”.
        Yes, it’s absolutely unfair to to compare you to Sandra Lee, you have MUCH better hair.

    • Rhonda

      Ryan, Ouch!

      Scathing review.

      There is something that isn’t being said here and you may have inadvertently hit the nail on the head.

      Perhaps Rachel Ray IS the correct choice to “review” this clusterfuck.

      Writers do not belong in the mix.

      The man behind this (whatever the fuck it is), is a Billionaire Patron who’s biggest achievement in the Food world is perhaps procuring the equivalent of a Black American Express Card at Hooters.

      He ventured to tackle the food world. Garnered the unsuspecting “Best of the Best” in his opinion, and published it.

      HOWEVER, food is NOT NOT NOT SOFTWARE.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I wonder how a farmer, reading this would feel? What does he or she think about this nouvelle cuisine? The truth is I feel this whole point of view is moot. It will never be affordable in both dollars, time and effort to ever be part of mainstream dining.

  • chris k

    No section devoted to pastry?! Man, at $500 that’s a deal breaker.

    Kudos to Ruhlman for having the balls to tackle this behemoth in a two-page review. It must’ve been like drinking water out of a fire hose. What did you do when you first got the books? Did you just put them on your desk, and stare at them for a couple days?

    I found your review quite even-handed, and enjoyed the bit about “molecular gastronomy.” Dave Arnold over at the FCI has some strong feelings about that phrase. “Modernist cuisine” isn’t much better. After all, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were “modernists.” But let’s face it: “postmodern cuisine” is even worse, and at the end of the day, you gotta call it something.

    I didn’t see this topic addressed in your review: how does Modernist Cuisine address food safety in regards to the techniques themselves? Does it touch on the hazards of liquid nitrogen (burns aside, in a confined kitchen a bad spill can asphyxiate an adult in minutes)? Or cleaning and sterilizing that used centrifuge or immersion circulator purchased for a song on eBay?

    It’s probably a good thing that the equipment used in Modernist Cuisine is inaccessible to most home cooks. Over time I’m sure that will change. Pressure cookers are much, much safer than they used to be. Williams-Sonoma may be working on an idiot-proof liquid nitrogen dispenser right now…

  • Marlene

    I have a copy. I’m just beginning to look through it. I bought it, not because I expect to cook from it, but I am interested in the theory behind it. I bought the Big Fat Duck book for the same reason. It’s the same reason I own Escoffier, the French Laundry and Julia Child. I learn from everything I read. I own neither a pressure cooker nor any sous vide equipment and while I can see myself maybe getting a pressure cooker, I am not so sure about sous vide equipment. I don’t think I’d use it that much. Having said that, I’ll reserve my opinion until I’m through it, but the photography is gorgeous at least!

    I think there are several things that even home cooks can probably learn from these books, even if we don’t cook from it per se. Like most recipe books, I’ll take a recipe or two away from any book. If I learn a thing or two from these volumes, I’ll be happy.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    Dave Arnold over at the FCI has some strong feelings about that phrase. “Modernist cuisine” isn’t much better. After all, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were “modernists.” But let’s face it: “postmodern cuisine” is even worse, and at the end of the day, you gotta call it something.
    Hmmmmm!
    Maybe….Progressive Cuisine?

  • DiggingDogFarm

    That review will also sell a lot of books, I’d wager.

    I agree! The review piqued my interest in the book.

  • InTolerantChef

    I don’t understand the animosity about a book review. Simply put it’s just a guide to give an idea of what a particular author thinks about it, to save you wading through the whole thing yourself.
    I will probably buy this book because I like to understand the theory behind all types of cooking. I see it like a text book, not a recipe book, and will treat it as such. I don’t think the price is excessive for the amount of knowledge it contains. It doesn’t hurt that I can count it as a tax deduction! :)

  • E. Nassar

    Rhonda
    Ryan, Ouch!
    Scathing review.
    There is something that isn’t being said here and you may have inadvertently hit the nail on the head.
    Perhaps Rachel Ray IS the correct choice to “review” this clusterfuck.
    Writers do not belong in the mix.
    The man behind this (whatever the fuck it is), is a Billionaire Patron who’s biggest achievement in the Food world is perhaps procuring the equivalent of a Black American Express Card at Hooters.
    He ventured to tackle the food world. Garnered the unsuspecting “Best of the Best” in his opinion, and published it.
    HOWEVER, food is NOT NOT NOT SOFTWARE.

    Ruhlman-
    Some moderation might be necessary. Or maybe a quick IQ test for some who comment on your blog.

    BTW, I do agree that you have better hair than Sandra Lee.

  • Carolyn Z

    I can’t even get my head around the concept of such a collection of cookbooks. I went to my bookcase of baking books and remembered how I enjoyed Flo Braker’s book, The Simple Art of Perfect Baking; The Complete Book of Pastry; Beard on Bread; the Cakes cookbook in the Time-Life series; Tassahara Bread Book; and The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. Times were different then for baking. These books stand the test of time for me.

    I too am able to take away something from every cookbook I read, and that is what makes the experience valuable. For those of you who are into the cutting edge of what these books cover, enjoy!

    Am looking forward to the Bouchon Bakery cookbook. Now if I can get to Yountville to check it out myself! Good luck with that MR.

    Carolyn Z

  • Rhonda

    E. Nassar,

    So sorry I aggravated you, my friend.

    The post was written in sarcasm.

    Ruhlman knows how it was intended. He also knows that I AM an idiot so an IQ test is not warranted at this time.

    Funny story — I used to be a Mensa member.

    Moderation of comments may not be in the interest of a nation fighting for free speech and democracy in other lands at this time.

    Subsequently — well, you know…

    I did however, find the review scathing. After thought, which I always put after my tongue has a wag, found the comments very helpful and enlightening.

    Best to you.

    Forgive me for raking your ire.

  • Gael

    I read your review on nytimes.com and I found this line amusing.

    “While the quantity of aspirin required to read this straight through can be measured in thousands of milligrams…”

    You mean grams?

  • Gavin Scott

    I think what excites me about this book is that people will take the IDEAS that appeal to them and they will find ways to make them work with whatever means are available to them.

    If you’re a bazillionaire and want to distill something, it’s pretty easy to go out and by a $70,000 roto-vap which will do the job quite well. But there are of course much simpler distillation techniques that ought to be easily accessible to the home cook that might be pressed into service to at least do something similar.

    Sous vide immersion circulator too expensive? People will adapt. DIY sous vide controllers are already one of the most often mentioned projects for hobbyists playing with things like the popular Arduino microcontroller for example.

    To the degree that ideas in MC are compelling, I think there will arise a “modernist cuisine at home” movement that will embrace simpler solutions along with the undoubtedly forthcoming consumer versions of some of these more exotic technologies, just as the Sous Vide Supreme and even PolyScience’s own Sous Vide Professional have started to bring these technologies at least a bit closer to the reach of the home cook.

    I think there are a lot of food geeks out there who are excited by the idea of being able to play with food construction and “food hacking” and MC is going to give these people a whole new hobby (which might turn into a significant segment of the kitchen gadget market).

    There are a lot of people who like food but who don’t really “cook” for one reason or another, just as there are a lot of people who like art and may even want to create it, but don’t think they can draw. In that world we now have various 3D software packages that people find empowering because the computer does exactly the stuff they don’t think they’re good at. For the less artistically inclined cook wannabe, MC comes along with its scientific quantitative methods with the message that things aren’t magic and it’s possible to understand how things work and construct a dish or recipe more or less from first principles without years of practice. It’s somewhat like having a computer programming language for food.

    In this respect it’s not so much Modernist Cuisine but Modernist Cooks that may be enabled by the book. It may inspire an entirely new route of entry into the field of cooking.

    Which is more appealing? Going to a cooking school where day after day you have the old school techniques drummed into you until you can reproduce them perfectly even though you don’t really know WHY that particular magic works, or would you rather learn the science behind everything and start with a blank slate and ultimately derive many of the classic techniques while actually understanding how and why they work and then having the basis for new evolutionary experimentation?

    I think if I were the head of the CIA or any similar institution, I would call all of my instructors into a room and point to my new copy of MC sitting on the table and ask them “Why is it that WE didn’t produce this?”.

    G.

  • Karen Gaylin

    There’s a short interview with Dr. Myrvold in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. When asked about the hefty price tag of $463, his response was this is the cost of dinner for two at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in NYC without wine and tip. To paraphrase, dinner will be fond memory the day after, but you’ll have the book to savor much longer. Interesting perspective.

  • J. Moragoda

    I feel fortunate to be living through this great new era of exploration, creativity and the boundless cross fertilization of ideas over many disciplines. Modernist Cuisine is a reflection of our times. Clearly, a work of this scope and nature – which involved, I think, seven years of research and a large team, could only take place at a time of great wealth – much like other great historical periods such as the Italian Renaissance and the European Enlightenment brought forth great works of literature, art and science.
    The great culinary traditions such as have existed in older cultures in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have developed organically over time and owe much to the intrinsic appreciation for good agricultural products (and less disrupted ties to the countryside and tradition) and haute cuisine (from the refinement and sophistication of court life which carried over to the great metropolises of the world). In most cultures there is a distinction between haute and bourgeois cuisine, each with its own place. This book – by virtue of its price, and elaborate methods and equipment tends towards the former.
    Speaking for myself, I have benefitted from the fundamental improvements in American culinary arts over the latter half of the twentieth century and into the present. The early decades provided the remedial culinary tenets and education missing here and set the foundations for the flowering of experimentation and approaches to cuisine that has been going on since. There are many styles and scales of cuisine depending on place, and occasion. Even though many of the dishes in the book may not be feasible to make at home on a regular basis, I am sure there are many amateur and home cooks with intellectual and culinary curiosity (and the financial means) who will enjoy and learn much from this book, let alone, dream and be inspired by it.
    This comprehensive book appears clearly to be a work of passion and no expense appears to have been spared in producing it. Glad that someone was able to indulge his passion and to devote so much time and resources to producing this. Hope the individual volumes will be available to purchase separately as that might make it more accessible to a wider audience.

  • chefsparks

    I ordered this a month ago off of amazon and still have not received an estimated due date. I can’t believe they underestimated the demand so much. I really hope it’s worth both the wait and the cash, but as someone that works in (i suppose) a classic kitchen, I will have little use (without creativity) for recipes (or even techniques) that involve immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen, sodium alginate, calcium chloride, etc…

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