Dry Cocktails, Edible Charcoal, And More Modernist Marvels

Anne Willan, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is the founder of the celebrated La Varenne Cooking School in France. Now based in Santa Barbara, she is a culinary historian and the author of the memoir One Soufflé at a Time, a new e-book edition of the classic La Varenne Pratique, and more than 30 other cookbooks.

I'm recently back from an amazing experience — a 35-course dinner with Nathan Myhrvold, researcher, physicist, chef, and author of the definitive five-volume guide to Modernist Cuisine (as well as Modernist Cuisine at Home and The Photography of Modernist Cuisine). Myhrvold is not only a leader of the modernist cuisine movement, he also coined the now-universally used title for this revolutionary new style of cooking. He would be the first to credit his friend and mentor Ferran Adrià with the creation of this approach to cooking, but it is Myhrvold who pushes experiment to new boundaries with dehydration, whipping siphons, sous-vide slow cooking, the use of ultra-cold liquid nitrogen, and separation in a centrifuge. And like any research scientist (he worked under Stephen Hawking in Cambridge), he documents every move.

Our dinner begins with a tour of Myhrvold's main laboratories, in a windowless warehouse where his research company, Intellectual Ventures, explores such esoteric projects as space intelligence and the zapping of malarial mosquitoes with laser beams. His kitchen shelters unobtrusively in one corner, surrounded by the tubes and wires of a working laboratory — a space odyssey atmosphere. This dinner is in honor of 25 women, all of us cooking professionals who will appreciate the audacity of Myhrvold 's approach. "We want people to know we can cook," he says.

First comes a dry cocktail, all water extracted to leave a shimmering, zesty tablespoonful of moonshine with a whiff of basil and olive oil. Corn-based elote evokes Mexican street food, reduced to powder; gazpacho is a pretty green paste, intense with cucumber but with all the water removed, topped with a brilliant red sauce ("not tomato," declares Myhrvold, "but strawberry" — though it scarcely seems to tastes of either).

Our host is everywhere during the six-hour-long dinner, supervising the kitchen, which is right next to our tables so we can see, smell, and roam if we want to. We pepper him with questions at every course and his face lights up with enthusiasm as he unlocks the mysteries of what has happened to the food before it arrives on our plates. Nothing is quite what it seems.

His chicharrón, for example, has nothing to do with pork rind but is a strip of bread dough microwaved at full blast for two minutes so it puffs, almost explodes, and then dries to a fluffy crust. Not a great discovery as far as I'm concerned, but perhaps it has possibilities. This sparks a general conversation about microwaving, which has moved far outside my heat-the-cold-coffee experience. It seems that top chefs Wylie Dufresne and Rick Bayless consult with Nathan on the subject.   

There are experiments I personally disapprove of — for instance, "Give Peas a Chance" involves fresh baby peas (it is springtime here in Seattle) that are centrifuged and then reconstituted as peas in pods (I'm not quite sure how), with the insipid pea liquor ("not much flavor in it" admits Nathan) drizzled around it. The brilliant green "peas" are charming and their flavor is intense, but do they really improve on a crunchy fresh baby pea? "If you don't have failures," says Myhrvold, "you're not trying enough things."

At my table are chefs Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn in San Francisco), Carrie Nahabedian (NAHA in Chicago), Ana Sortun (Oleana in Boston), Maria Hines (Tilth in Seattle), and Lauren DeSteno (Marea in Manhattan), as well as Kerry Diamond, the founder and editor of Cherry Bombe magazine, and New York-based freelance chef–consultant Elizabeth Faulkner — and this experiment certainly makes us all think. Whether one of us is modernist, or a traditionalist like me, we all certainly put modernism to the hard, professional test, snapping pictures all around. At one stage the liquid nitrogen tank is disconnected so my neighbor can recharge her phone.

We all laugh at the massive, phallic geoduck clam that Myhrvold totes to our table as we down its thinly sliced raw cousin disguised as spaghetti alle vongole. Apparently the skin is best stripped off with a blowtorch. A universal favorite is "cappuccino" of concentrated mushroom extract topped with smoked Gouda foam and sprinkled with a few drops of butter that has been cooked with coffee beans. Quite a pick-me-up in the middle of the meal!

Two preparations stand out for me: one was a light, creamy tofu, a worthy rival to crème fraîche, here topped with a veil of ponzu and some finely chopped Asian pear. The other was a take on the Japanese charcoal, binchōtan: dark greens (possibly kale) had been dehydrated to a charcoal-black dust that Nathan used to coat a baby log of foie gras. Black is such a rare color in the kitchen, I can image all sorts of uses for such a powder.

Two decades ago, I had an early insight into Myhrvold 's culinary journey, which began with weekly stints in the back kitchen of Rover's, headed by the French-trained Thierry Rautureau, then Seattle's leading restaurant. Myhrvold also joined us at La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy — for only three weeks, it's true, but I like to think that some of the French love of fine ingredients and the importance of technique rubbed off during that time.

And perhaps he picked up from me an insistence on the order and technique that frees a cook to experiment with flights of fancy in the kitchen. Certainly Myhrvold 's team of a dozen or more mostly young cooks are wonderfully disciplined as well as enthusiastic. Their faces light up when we ask a question, and I suspect that some of them double as lab researchers too. They are closely involved; "This is Aaron's dish," remarks Myhrvold at one point.   

At some stage in the game, someone mentions the recent fad for swirling a pinch of salt into a glass of red wine to enhance the flavor. Myhrvold counters "Try blending a glass of wine too. You'll have a huge head of foam that that will disappear in 20 seconds, then taste again. The pulse of oxygen will have transformed the flavor."

Looking back, I realize that what Myhrvold has engaged us in is indeed a game, a sophisticated maze of move and countermove of familiar ingredients and preparations — an exhilarating, challenging form of gourmet chess. The outcome on the plate is anyone's guess.