I Learned the Nerdy Cooking Secrets of Modernist Chefs—And You Can Too

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

You can cook food worthy of five-star restaurants, even if you’re the most inexperienced cook. You just need to throw a bit of money at your kitchen. It will be wasteful. It will be expensive as hell. But it will taste incredible. I know this because I tried it. I lived the Modernist Cuisine lifestyle.

Modernist Cuisine is a term coined in the eponymous Greek epic-length cookbook by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet, referring to an obsessive and pervasive trend in contemporary cooking as a whole. It holds at its core the idea that using chemistry, food preparation can be controlled to a scientific level, allowing for more avant-garde ways of cooking and a different kind of eating experience. These are the secrets employed by top chefs like Ferran Adrià, founder of the now-closed elBulli and Grant Achatz, the chef behind Alinea, to ensure that the creative dishes they serve to hundreds nightly come out perfectly.

The book first came out in 2011. But its tenets have become mainstream. You can buy chemicals incorporated in the modernist pantry, like sodium citrate, on Amazon. InstantPot pressure cookers, a critical tool for cooking grains and vegetables quickly, were perhaps one of the year’s most popular Christmas gifts. And who hasn’t sat around with their friends watching Chef’s Table on Netflix?

I am a regular person who cooks sometimes. Usually I just follow Googled recipes or roast, and then inevitably burn a pile of vegetables I chopped with a dull knife. But I’ve long been interested in molecular gastronomy, the farm-to-table movement, and the crazy science behind food. I like physics and eating, after all.

Recently, I acquired the Modernist Cuisine at Home cookbook and an Anova sous vides. I had an unopened InstantPot I thought I’d review sitting on my desk for six months. My roommate’s unwashed cast-iron skillet had been sitting on the stove top, too big to put away. Rather than just reviewing old cooking equipment, my boss told me I should try to use it all simultaneously. I resolved to spend a week learning to cook everything in the most delicious way possible, using the nerdy techniques I knew almost nothing about.

All photos: Ryan Mandelbaum

At the very least, Myhrvold, one of the cookbook’ authors, told me over the phone, I’d need a thermometer and a kitchen scale. Science requires precision, and these tools allow you to combine perfect amounts and get perfect results. I don’t have a scale so I ordered one on Amazon. On top of that, I brought home the InstantPot and unpacked the movement’s other hallmark appliance, the sous vide. Sous vides are gizmos that maintain a constant temperature in a vat of water, so you don’t have to rely on a fire if you only need to cook your meat’s centre to 140 degrees. Just put the meat in a Ziploc and keep it in the bath until the interior temperature’s right, then blast it with heat for a minute in your skillet or with a blowtorch for flavor. Oh yeah, I borrowed a blowtorch, too.

I also ordered a cheap immersion blender for mixing and a whipped cream canister for food foams (like whipped cream, but with beans). Cooking modernist doesn’t mean cooking naturally, of course—it means cooking optimally, so I also needed chemicals like sodium citrate, xanthan gum, and Wondra flour. Sodium citrate, when mixed with melted cheese and liquid, changes the cheese’s chemistry so it melts smoothly, like American cheese. Xanthan gum is a powerful thickening agent that prevents liquids from separating out. Wondra is a cooked flour that also thickens.

My only rules were that my budget was $400—and I had already blown a hundred buying the kitchen stuff. That, and every meal for a whole week would have to be scientifically prepared. I would spend no time making it look pretty.

So, one Thursday, without much of a plan, I started cooking.

Dear diary

Day 1. Today, I actually started shopping. I turned on the sous vide to warm up the water and headed out at 7am to the supermarket for groceries. I wandered around, shopping solely from iPhone photos of recipes. I spent over $100 and was still missing xanthan gum, Wondra flour, and a blender. I lied to a butcher and told him I was taking cooking classes when he asked why I needed xanthan gum. I stopped into four supermarkets before finally finding everything and arrived home at 10am.

I cooked eggs “sunny side up” for breakfast, placing a whole egg in the sous vide for its yolk and baking egg whites from two eggs in the oven separately. Whites and yolks, I learned, cook optimally at different temperatures. I am required to throw away one and a half eggs in this process. After an hour I was treated to the best damn egg I’ve ever had. The yolks felt like pudding in my mouth. Finally, I began my workday.

A sunny side up egg with clarified butter (not piss), Modernist style.

An hour later, I plopped a strip steak into a Ziploc, vacuum sealed it by pressing the bag into a pot of water and zipping it with just the top above the surface, and then tossed it into the sous vide. I made xanthan gum and Wondra flour-thickened creamed spinach while I waited. My scale hadn’t arrived yet, so I had to measure all the ingredients by volume. My kitchen was a disaster zone. After an hour, I blowtorched the perfectly medium-rare steak. It tasted better than the steak from the steakhouse I used to visit for my birthday. Then I blogged some more.

My office for the next week would be my kitchen floor.

Day 2. I dropped another hundred bucks shopping. I vowed to cook only recipes that shared major ingredients with other recipes. I put some ahi tuna in a brine and soaked chickpeas for tomorrow’s lunch. I made broccoli-gruyere soup in the InstantPot so I could save some of the puree for a recipe later—pressure-cooked bomba rice with chorizo with a broccoli gruyere puree. The recipes take an hour for the soup and thirty minutes for the rice, sausage and puree. I immediately understood why people like InstantPots so much. Blogging duties fit nicely around recipes that don’t require more than throwing shit into a big pot and waiting.

My kitchen was once again a nightmare. I felt like I’d devoted my life to cleaning, not cooking. While washing all the dishes, my tap water got so hot that it burnt my hands. I guessed I wouldn’t need to wait for the sous vide to warm the water anymore.

Day 3. I didn’t go shopping until just before lunch since I had mostly everything. Except “ricotta salata,” which I had never heard of. Some food blogger said the cheese was riding a “wave of popularity” back in 2009. Okay, lol. I stopped at two supermarkets and couldn’t find it, so I went to an Italian specialty store. I found it after looking directly at it for 15 minutes. When I returned home, I realised it was covered in mould. I ate it anyway.

I pressure cooked the chick peas and sous vide the tuna I prepared the day before. I made my first ever emulsion, a smooth mixture of two normally insoluble things: the olive oil I soaked the tuna in with sherry vinegar, capers and anchovies. It was perfect, and I felt like I really “get” salads. I kissed my blender.

Later, to return the favour, my blender blew a load of carrots and onions onto the floor and sink while I tried to make polenta and meat sauce.

I shared this food with my roommates and partner. I realised that these recipes make more sense when you cook them for multiple people. I wondered if I could afford a dishwasher.

Interlude. I asked renowned food blogger Kenji Lopez-Alt if he thought my plan was dumb. “I think strictly adhering to anything like that is dumb,” he said. “I don’t think anyone intended to say that these techniques are better or going to replace traditional techniques. It’s a new set of tools to add to our arsenal.”

I continued on, unfazed.

Day 4. My scale, immersion blender, whipping siphon, and sodium citrate finally came. I made this omelette.

Later, I used the sodium citrate to make melting cheese slices from some leftover gruyere and cheddar. It’s like the Fiji Water of American cheese.

I had an extended date with the bathroom afterwards, so I opted not to make dinner. I ate Chinese food with my parents for dinner anyway.

Day 5. I went shopping at the same supermarket I’ve been going to all week, and the first cheese I saw was ricotta salata.

I’ve hit my 400 dollar budget, so I called an audible and put another 100 in. I made scrambled eggs in the sous vide, immersion blended them, and foamed them with my new whipping siphon over a bagel for breakfast. I reasoned that New York bagels are already perfect, scientifically. I blasted myself in the face with nitrous oxide while cleaning it. Tasted good, felt good.

Burger.

I made a sous vide hamburger recipe for dinner, and stuffed the meat with that homemade American cheese from yesterday—a Juicy Lucy at my Minnesotan partner’s request. I finished it with the blow torch and topped it with a homemade shallot, leek, and vermouth burger sauce. I “chopped” instead of “minced” the sauce’s vegetables, but the immersion blender fixed things right up. Fuck, it was good.

The scale has cut the amount of cooking detritus I left over in half, since I just put a bowl on the scale and dumped everything together. I am a cooking God.

Day 6. I went to the store again to buy ingredients for a xanthan gum-thickened pistachio pesto. I poured it over quinoa, which took four minutes to cook in the InstantPot. I topped it with sautéed asparagus and my favourite cheese, ricotta salata. This could have been the best food I’ve ever eaten, ever.

I made a huge pot of mac-n-cheese for my friends for dinner, using all the leftover fancy cheese and some sodium citrate. I fed it to my friends who told me it was amazing. Uh, duh? I’m the best home chef in Brooklyn now?

Day 7. My credit card has accrued food purchases I don’t remember making. I feel like I have wasted as much as I have purchased. I ate my guilt for breakfast.

Later, I resourcefully prepared some frozen chicken nuggets sous vide and finished them in a cast iron skillet with hot oil. I paired them with another scientific culinary wonder, Doritos. They are perfect. I am perfect. I am King Midas and have turned frozen nuggets into gold.

“I love that you tried cooking chicken nuggets sous vide,” Myhrvold later told me. “It has never occurred to me but it makes tons of sense.”

High on nuggets, I tried to make a refried beam foam using some dry red beans like the recipe said.

All of the beans burnt and stuck to the bottom of the InstantPot. I did not eat them. I did not eat anything else.

The final meal.

What’s the point of all of this

The main thing I realised was that cooking all of this food was much easier than cooking with a pan on the stove. Most of these recipes required tossing food into a sous vide bath or an InstantPot, waiting around, and then eating it. I figured out why I botched the beans—I got the amount of water wrong and have since successfully foamed beans.

“A lot of people approach this thinking, oh that’s something I should only do if I’m an advanced chef, maybe as my most advanced thing I’ll try this,” Myhrvold told me. “But once you’ve got the equipment it’s dead easy. You punch the number in, you put the food in, and it comes out!”

But why was it so easy? The reason was obvious. “Originally these tools were put in restaurants because it’s hard to train a cook, or if you are a cook, it’s hard to consistently pull of the same result time after time because there’s so much human error involved,” Lopez-Alt told me. “In a restaurant where you’re cooking 15 steaks at a time, every once in a while you’ll screw one up. Sous vide prevents you from screwing it up.”

So much money.

That’s not to say this is the correct way to cook everything, he warned me—sous vide is great for tough cuts of meats but you’d never use it to cook a slice of pizza. These expensive tools exist so that people like me can recreate recipes like that French omelette without struggling like our grandparents or fancy chefs did.

Myhrvold didn’t think that was a problem. “There are some people who say it’s cheating. And the fact is, if you’re cooking for yourself or your family, you don’t have a super skilled person on task to make food for you whenever you want.”

So I’m here to say that this is an expensive-as-tell, tech bro-minded way to cook food perfectly. And I hate that—except everything tasted so damn amazing. If you got an InstantPot or a sous vide for Christmas, you’ve got yourself a culinary magic set.

“It’s easy and it tastes good,” said Myhrvold. “Really for me that is enough.”