Modernist cooking may be all the rage today, but back in 2004 it was just getting started, with few resources and even less press. That's when the husband and wife team H. Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa began their blog Ideas in Food, a digital notebook that chronicled their experiments with hydrocolloids and sous vide machines, and propelled them to the forefront of a whole new world of cooking.
Today their work, which includes a nerdily awesome essay collection and cookbook, is some of the most authoritative writing on modernist cuisine for professionals and home cooks alike.
H. Alexander Talbot talked with us about Ideas in Food's journey, while sharing insights on culinary whimsy and a test kitchen equipped like a science lab.
What do you see as the goal of your work? Our goal is to make cooks we're in contact with better. How does that work? We're still figuring it out. We poke and we prod, and we ask questions and look for answers with individuals, groups, and communities. We get people unafraid to ask questions and look under rocks.
What's your approach to food and cooking? How did that start out? We're constantly trying to ask, learn, and explore, then find out and make mistakes and share our successes and failures. Back in 2004 it wasn't about being modern cooks. We cooked and were curious. Modernist cooking isn't a bad pigeonhole to be in, but we're certainly not just that. I think it's also about a mentality and approach.
There weren't many resources back then. Even today to be honest, there are cookbooks with recipes, but they don't share the hows and whys. The greatest resources back in those days were Harold McGee's books, which showed the hows and whys of what's going on. If you saw something happen you could figure it out.
Working with hydrocolloids was a lot of trial and error. We used books like the Handbook of Hydrocolloids or Thickening and Gelling Agents—not light reading. Even today we go through those books and others like them, and now that we know more we always find something new in them. That's cooking, I think. Your experiences and what you do and the path you take change every day, so if you go back and look at old resources there's an opportunity to learn something new from them.
Where did you get supplies when exploring modernist ingredients? We'd find out where they were made, email labs, and ask for a free sample. You'd get a bunch of different samples and start cooking and not know any better. It was an arcane approach, I suppose. But we had the time on our hands. We were in the middle of nowhere, Colorado, running a boutique hotel, and in the early stages we weren't open yet. So we cooked and tried new things, working with ingredients from xanthan gum to baking soda.
What kind of work space do you have? We have a 2 1/2 car garage that we've turned into a workshop. We have a lot of tools to work with that we've gotten over the years: pasta makers, chillers, homogenizers, centrifuges, pacojets, pressure cookers, circulators, dehydrators, and books. We've lined the walls with books.
Your blog entries seem to emphasize process over product. Any reason you chose that style? I don't think we knew any better. Ideas in Food the blog started in 2004 when blogs were relatively new. We created it as a digital notebook that people could interact with. Process is important. We do something and throw it out there, and then people take it and grow from it. Ideas in Food is about sharing. People throw stuff back at us in a different form. It's great to see a give and take. The more we give the more we get back.
Now that your book, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work is out, has your writing and work changed? Before we used to give out printouts. Now we can hand people a book. It's a great reference point besides our blog. Our photography has improved, so we do photo projects now. We're project managers on other people's books as well, one of which just came out. It was a great project with two brilliant guys, the Voltaggio brothers, and the photography is smashing. It was their first chef book and they pulled out all the stops.
What is your creative process when coming up with ideas? It starts with an idea that may sit on the shelf for days, week, or years. The ideas pop up. Years ago we published notebooks on our website that were 100 pages long, that were literally ideas in the rough: Twitter before Twitter. It could have been the beginning of a dish or a component of a dish or a combination of flavors. That's how my brain works. Aki is more grounded in traditions and Americana. She's certainly interested in modern cooking, but she's a voice of reason. I'll be the one to try all this crazy stuff and she makes sure that there's some substance to it. There's two of us: two editors, two voices.
Your cooking has a genuine sense of play and joy. What role does play have in your cooking? We find great pleasure in cooking and sharing things. Whimsy and connections are essential. I think it's a way to connect and tell a story. In all honesty, you can be creative and break through a culinary barrier with whimsy or alliterations or connecting dots. If I say, "pretzel spaetzle," you have a couple thoughts: that's clever, it's caramelized and toasty. I would want to eat that. It also rhymes. Whimsy is an icebreaker with food. You could serve pretzel spaetzle with sweetbreads to get someone to try them. It brings a connection.
What trends do you see emerging in your work? In the early years we were exploring: finding out how to make paths, which was like wandering through the woods to dig up sticks and stones. Now we're learning how to build a house with those sticks and stones. Then we'll be able to really make something and apply our own voice. We've been able to do that over the years for sure, but now we're seeing refinement and polish. Our approach is modern, yes, but we're breaking down barriers to make delicious food. Not many people have tried our food these days, so whenever we have the opportunity to cook for people, we do.
What's great about our workshops and presentations is that we give knowledge and unlock creativity in individuals. We give them their own voice. We share a process and, okay, then the end results, but they key is process, so others can borrow it and make it their own.
What's next for Ideas in Food? Our first book came out last December. It gives you supporting knowledge and then recipe. Book two has started, which will be photographed by us as well. The premise is using science, technology, and creativity to make most delicious food possible. It's geared toward passionate people, so my mom will cook from it, but I hope that all sorts of professionals will want to cook from it as well. It will be a book with layers, with something to learn for every level. It should come out June-ish 2013.
Is the new book a sequel or standalone to Ideas in Food? It's both. Ideas in Food gets you going. It gets you thinking. This will have that same scientific approach, but there will be fewer essays. Ideas, discoveries, and tips will be scattered in headnotes and the recipes themselves. Ideas in Food was a handbook; this will be more of a workbook.