Food Science as Art
It’s official: Food science is über-hip. At least that’s what chef Nathan Myhrvold implies in his new, 2,438-page, six-volume, 46-pound, $625 opus to molecular gastronomy, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
Myhrvold with the help of two other chefs, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, assembled what has been described as “the greatest cookbook ever,” receiving rave reviews from everyone from random Twitters to foodie rock stars, like Harold McGee and Wylie Dufresne.
No, I haven’t gone over to the dark side and started to worship at the altar of foofy food. I haven’t even seen the books. (I’m of course assuming my personally autographed copy will soon be on its way, bundled with the missing books of the Bible, a mint copy of Action Comics 1 and the winning Powerball ticket.) In fact, culinary philistine that I am, I never even heard of it until today. Somehow I missed Myhrvold’s appearance on The Colbert Report.
What I did see, however, was a story about the book and author Myhrvold in The Wenatchee World. Who outside the state of Washington knew that not only there was such a publication, but that they were interested in the haute cuisine outlined in Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking? What caught my eye was the sentence: “Most of the tools in the typical home kitchen once were technological breakthroughs, and many traditional ingredients—including baking powder and baking soda—are no less synthetic than certain staples of the modernist kitchen, such as the calcium salts in gelling ingredients.”
What food scientist could argue with that? In fact, a lot of us have been saying that all along—and wondering why the likes of Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal are lauded for using “science” and “chemicals” to construct food, while the industry rank and file are heaped with scorn for similar practices. “But, Lynn,” you say, “this is high art.” Well, of course it is, but some of can’t help but smile at Stephen Colbert’s comment upon tasting Myhrhold’s dairy-free pistachio-oil-based gelato during an interview: “You’ve achieved ice cream that tastes like ice cream—that’s a true breakthrough!” Actually, I’d like to see him do it on a 92-cent-per-pound raw-material budget, but that’s left to people like us.
Myhrhold is obviously not afraid of science, referring to what is popularly known as molecular gastronomy as “science-inspired cooking techniques.” He has an impressive pedigree: Founder of a firm that creates and invests in inventions, holder of nearly 250 patents, first chief technology officer at Microsoft, degrees in math, geophysics, and space physics from UCLA, and PhDs in mathematical economics and theoretical physics from Princeton University and a post-doc gig with Stephen Hawking. The only person who might not be impressed with that might be Stephen Hawking, but I’m not taking bets. Young is no science slouch either, with degrees in math and biochemistry.
While I suspect that outside of the foodie world, the majority of the unwashed masses will trundle along, leading productive lives, blissfully unaware of Modernist Cuisine, it’s nice to see food science get a thumbs up, even when presented as art.
-Lynn A. Kuntz