Last Saturday, I attended a dinner hosted by Nathan Myhrvold, at his cooking lab in Bellevue just outside of downtown Seattle, the place where all of the testing, documenting, writing, and photography happened for his upcoming 2,400-page book Modernist Cuisine—a tome that documents, illustrates, and codifies pretty much every cooking technique from prehistory to the present.
Normally I wouldn't do a "hey guys, look at this cool event I went to" type post, but I think this one deserves it.
I spent a good deal of the night thinking to myself, "what did I do to deserve to be here," as we made our way through an astounding 30-course meal. (Check out the full menu here »)
I understand there are mixed emotions on the subject of hyper-modern food, as evidenced by the comments on the burger from the book, and in general, I tend to fall on the side of those who aren't that into the movement, calling the food cold, soulless, joyless.
That said, what I think a lot of people miss is that the restaurants and chefs on the vanguard of the movement—places like El Bulli, Alinea, The Fat Duck—are not the only ones utilizing the techniques developed by it.
Chances are, if you've eaten at a fancy restaurant in any major city recently, you've had food that was cooked sous-vide, a sauce that was stabilized with a hydro-colloid, or an ice cream that's been set with stabilizers and churned in a Pacojet—you just didn't know it.
And that's where the real usefulness of some of these techniques come in: when they are used to augment a good cook's repertoire of techniques and ingredients, not take them over. A great chef shows restraint when using any technique, and the result can be food that's anything but cold and joyless.
This dinner straddled the line a bit—some dishes clearly designed to demonstrate a "cool" novel technique, and other times to create dishes where deliciousness was the only thing in mind. Some of the results can be truly stunning, like this "pea butter" made by running a pea puree through a high-powered centrifuge that exposes it to forces 4,000 times greater than the force of gravity:
The forces cause all of the particulate matter (mostly carbs, with a small percentage of fat) to sink to the bottom of the centrifuge tube while the emerald-green pea juice floats on top. Scrape out the matter, emulsify it with some extra pea fat, season it with salt, and spread it on toast, and you end up with something that's got the texture and meltability of butter, with the bright flavor of fresh peas. It's incredible. Of course, a commercial centrifuge will also run you around $20,000. Start saving up.