Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (The Cooking Lab, 2011) is a six-volume, 2,348-page work that relies heavily on photography and illustrations to make the science and technology of modern cooking accessible and engaging to everyone from science buffs to professional chefs. One of our goals in producing the book, by inventor and physicist Nathan Myhrvold, along with co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, was to give readers insight into what happens inside food as it cooks. So we developed a unique "cutaway" style of photo illustration that reveals all the action occurring at the center of, say, a pot of steaming broccoli or a pair of burgers on a Weber grill. To make these striking images, we actually sliced pots, grills, rotisseries and even a $5,000 water-vapor oven in half using various tools, including an abrasive water-jet cutter, an electrical discharge machine and an industrial band saw. The book contains 36 cutaway images of this kind.
Some of the most interesting aspects of food and cooking occur at scales of time and space that are too short or small for normal photography to capture. So we used an ultrahigh-speed camera to shoot fast-moving phenomena, such as popcorn kernels popping and Leidenfrost droplets skittering across a hot surface. We also employed high-powered microscopes to capture the many beautiful patterns and structures visible inside foods.
Modernist Cuisine also uses thousands of photographs to document the novel dishes that modern chefs (including those at our research kitchen in Bellevue, Wash.) have invented by using high-tech equipment and ingredients, such as vacuum chambers and liquid nitrogen as well as hydrocolloid gelling and thickening agents. These recent additions to the kitchen have vastly expanded the range of culinary ideas that creative chefs can express through their cooking.
W. Wayt Gibbs is editor in chief of Modernist Cuisine