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09 August 2010

Who needs Modernist Cuisine?

It was announced over the weekend that the website for Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking has been launched.

Modernist Cuisine is a book due out next year.  The list price is $625 (although at the time of writing is available on Amazon for pre-order for $421.87) and is co-authored by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.  Myhrvold is the big name (and money) behind the book.  For those that don't know him, he came to prominence as chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft.

For all that money you get a five volume, 26 chapter behemoth running to over 2200 pages.  At the list price that works out at $0.28 per page, or $0.19 per page at the current discount.  That doesn't sound so bad, but then compare that to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.  Widely regarded as a seminal work and essential for any kitchen, it runs to 896 pages and is listed at $40.  Or, $0.04 per page. McGee's is not illustrated and has been around for years.  But if Modernist Cuisine is going to justify the extra expense, the book will need to attain some lofty heights.

It is no great surprise to see that they're making a virtue out of the printing, at that price it needs to be a work of art.  The table of contents indicates an inexhaustible approach to the vast topic at hand, it also looks quite pretty (see below). The website however looks rather bog standard and simple.  Whilst I'm all in favour of the paired down aesthetic (look around this post), I expected a richer experience than what is currently available.

Beyond the cosmetics I do wonder about the substance and whether the book really is additive.  It feels like much of it has been written before and by similar individuals.  I've already got This, Blumenthal, who writes an introductory chapter and McGee who has given a blurb.  I'm pretty sure I'll be buying McGee's latest and Aki and Alex's Ideas in Food to learn more about what I'm cooking.  But that will set me back £36.59 at list price. I'm sorry to harp on about price, but I do fear that at $625 that is what is going to set this book apart.  And with a December publication date it is surely going to be on all those Christmas lists for "What to buy the foodie who has everything".

The website doesn't help me understand why I need this book.  Perhaps this is just a failing of the current marketing effort.  The book isn't due to be published for some time and they're still in the beta phase, trying to drum up interest, perhaps the odd blog post. (They saw you coming. Ed.)

Or is my understanding not the point?  Is it a rich man's folly?  More about the author, Myhrvold indulging his passion, than the reader?  Not having read it, I've not a clue and it would be wrong to pass judgement on the printed edition.

I don't think the website does the book any favours.  If this is to be a serious addition to our understanding of food and the way its prepared, Myhrvold will need to demonstrate that it is more than a beautifully printed book with some stunning photos.  There needs to be innovation and academy on the printed page.

I genuinely look forward to seeing one in the flesh, it's the type of thing I'm sure Foyles will stock, and then I'll revisit the subject of whether or not this is an expensive indulgence.

Modernist Cuisine Table of Contents

UPDATE: See the comment from Ryan below for further content (pdf) from the book. Ryan took the photographs for the book.



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It's an interesting proposition, isn't it? I don't know how it can live up to expectations given the books already out there. Maybe it will surprise us, but I am not sure I will be forking out all of that dosh to find out.

Niamh, I agree, it's going to be tough to justify.

One to borrow from the local library methinks.

Love McGee though, curious to see his latest book when it's out this autumn.

Sig, I'd love to see the British library with this on its shelves.

We have posted a 20 page excerpt from the Modernist Cuisine book on the site. It is available as a free download on our site http://modernistcuisine.com/docs/ModernistCuisine_About%20the%20book_spreads.pdf, and is also at Scribd.

The excerpt explains the story of the book. It also explains the content of each chapter, how we took the photographs and a lot of information about the recipes. I think you’ll find it interesting.

Ryan, Many thanks for your comment and the link.

Just to clarify for everyone else, Ryan works with Nathan and was the photographer on the book. They set up a publishing house so they could self publish the book.

Hi there, I linked to your post on my own about Modernist Cuisine... just thought I'd share mine with you as well in case you wanted to link back.


Err, thanks for the suggestion Stephanie.

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