A feast for the eyes: Inside the world’s most incredible cookbook

At £395, Modernist Cuisine is the most spectacular cookbook the world has ever seen. Lifting the lid – literally – on the alchemy of the kitchen, it will transform the way we think about food forever, says John Walsh

Friday 08 April 2011 00:00 BST

You imagined that Jean Brillat-Saverin's Le Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante was the classic work on the stuff we eat? You thought that Auguste Escoffier's Ma Cuisine held most of the secrets of cooking food? You were under the impression that Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was something special? You felt that the £100-a-throw Fat Duck Cookbook, with its fold-out pages and 95-ingredient recipes was as extravagant as food literature could get? Oh please.

Perhaps – can it be? – you haven't yet heard about Modernist Cuisine? It's the cookbook of the year, the decade, the new century, or at least that's what the hype will have you believe, a five-volume, slip-cased cornucopia of words and pictures about modern cooking principles and food as you've never seen food before: 2,438 pages of its history, its fundamental essence, the chemistry of applying heat to meat and the physics of organism fusion, plus 300 original recipes from The Cooking Lab in Washington and copious instructions about mind-boggling kitchen techniques, appliances and laboratory transformations, all of it accompanied by 3,200 photographs and illustrations.

Two of its authors, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, are young alumni of The Fat Duck. But the main mover and shaker behind the project is Nathan Myhrvold, a bearded inventor and polymath about whom techies and foodies speak with hushed and awestruck amazement. He was the first "chief technologyofficer" at Microsoft, who graduated to "chief gastronomic officer" at Zagat Surveys, publishers of the famous guidebooks. A Microsoft multi-billionaire, 18-carat wiggy genius (he worked with Stephen Hawking on quantum theories of gravity while doing postgraduate work at Cambridge), he has visited the world's top restaurants and, magpie-like, picked up all manner of secrets from their cutting-edge chefs. So, having harvested the world's expertise about food, he has been busily turning it into "modernist" cooking and publishing the result in a boringly titled but gargantuanly promoted chef d'oeuvre.

Copies of the £395 book are damned hard to get one's hands on. The first edition sold out before copies went into the bookshops. A blog post from The Cooking Lab last week announced that 4,130 copies of the book were currently sailing in nine boats bound for ports in the US and Europe (and a train bearing another 250 copies, bound for Amazon Canada, was "somewhere between Vancouver and Toronto"). The authors promise copies will be available in mid-April, so nobody has yet read the prose or tried out the recipes. In the meantime, fulsome pre-publication plaudits have arrived from all corners of the foodie globe. "A masterpiece... the most important cookbook of the first 10 years of the 21st century" cried the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Ferran Adria, the Catalan sage of El Bulli, said: "This book will change the way we understand the kitchen." But while it's obviously a boon to have all the most sophisticated preparation methods and cooking techniques under one set of hard covers, the recipes may not be the most important thing about Modernist Cookery.

You may feel you do not need more instructions on sous-vide cooking, the role of the homogeniser or emulsifier in producing an edible supper, or the rationale of turning foodstuffs into foams and gels. But you may still crave this book for a simpler reason – the photographs. If there's one thing the foodie revolution of the past 50 years has done, it's to make us look at food with refreshed and curious new eyes, like Columbus discovering the pineapple in the West Indies in 1493, or Evelyn Waugh introducing his children to bananas when they ceased to be rationed after the war (though sadly he ate the family's supply all by himself). We've been encouraged by a thousand food writers and TV chefs to examine the raw materials we're about to transform into fuel and shove into our mouths: to trace the lines of fat that marble a rib-eye steak, to explore the lunar surface of pain de campagne, the rubbery squishiness of the perfect scallop, the bright eye of the super-fresh red snapper. The rise of "gastro-porn" photography in lifestyle magazines has helped us fetishise food, and make a religious communion of its consumption at our communal tables.

The pictures in Modernist Cuisine, go beyond gastroporn. Through digital camerawork, they show us food transformed into metaphor: a segment of grapefruit that looks like a tiny foetus, a double rail of drying spaghetti like a Timotei shampoo shoot, a crimson tornado of wine being poured into a decanter, a stainless-steel sculpture that turns out to be a mackerel tail...

This is cooking re-seen as elemental drama. A double-spread cutaway photograph shows the inside of a wok glowing a menacing reddish-orange over a propane burner, its stir-friend prawns and noodles dancing a vertical tango in the incandescent air like a new galaxy snapped by the Hubble telescope. Another cutaway shot displays a barbecue on which burgers are being grilled – and the simple scene is photographed to suggest we're looking at the afterburners of a Nasa shuttle, and, simultaneously, that we're witnessing a primal scene of Promethean survival with our Neanderthal forbears just out of camera shot.

For those fortunate souls who regularly review restaurants, the visual aspects of the dishes placed before you are crucially important. Taste, flavour, succulence and harmonious blending are of course all-important in judging the success of a dish, but the look of what you're about to eat is vital. I've been so completely turned off by visual grossness or blandness – magnolia-hued risotto, cat-food-clammy charcuterie, pointless blobs of jus distributed around a pork chop as though by a fan by Emma Bridgewater, the spotty-crockery queen. On the other hand, the perfectly presented duck breast, its skin stretched and tautened to an unearthly glowing ochre, or the imaginatively re-invented pudding – such as the chocolate mousse I ate at Whatley Manor, which arrived as a series of train carriages, running alongside a cinder track of sweet raspberry pebbles. One's heart lifts, at these moments, into the blue empyrean, the taste on your tongue perfectly complemented by the feast for your eyes.

The main gift that Modernist Cuisine's five volumes gives to the world may be to offer a series of startling visual correlatives to our most instinctive, old-fashioned feelings about food. The close-up of a creamy stalactite of espresso coffee, for instance, gloopily drooping from a Gaggia machine, is as rich and sumptuous as the beverage itself. A copper saucepan on which drips of sauce have stopped halfway down the side reminds us of the mysterious alchemy of liquids – that golden moment when hot milk is suddenly transformed by the application of Bird's custard powder, its new texture practically erotic in its density and fullness.

We are tempted by the book to anthropomorphise both food and cooking. A lovely image shows the interior of an iron saucepan, with the florets of broccoli within resembling passengers crowded into some uncomfortable mode of transport, or unruly children tumbling around each other in a bed. A globe artichoke, beautifully photographed in gleaming, quasi-metallic close-up, is all shadows and complexity, its leaves gathered securely around it, as if refusing to let anyone near its secret interior...

Heston Blumenthal gave us a completely new category of food preparation, the dish whose ingredients metamorphose into something that looks and tastes completely alien, or (like his celebrated "Meat Fruit" foie-gras mandarin at his new London restaurant) resembles one thing and tastes of another. René Redzepi, of the world-beating Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, returned to the hunter-gathering instincts of his ancestors, foraged in woodland and seashore for obscure herbs and simples, applied modern bursts of Pacojet and Thermomix technology – and wound up with dishes (sometimes served on rocks and slates) that conjured up the forest floor or the volcanic rockpool, even if didn't look much like anything you'd want to eat. Myhrvold, Young and Bilet have borrowed ideas and techniques from both men and presented us with the whole dizzying panoply of modern cooking methods. But they've also done the old-fashioned foodie a favour in their beautiful pictures, capturing the simple beauty of, say, a pear in its skin, and the luscious concatenation of colours and flavours that constitute a perfect burger (though their actual burger recipe includes the direction that you should infuse a Romaine lettuce leaf in liquid hickory smoke, inside a water tank ...). On April 14, we shall be allowed to delve inside this new gastro-Holy Bible. For now we can gaze at its close-up capturing of the secret life of foodstuffs, the intense communion of combined ingredients, and the heady, passionate drama of roasting, frying, baking and poaching. You'll never open the larder door, or light the gas under a frying-pan, in quite the same way again.


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