“Modernist Cuisine is what happens where there’s no adult to tell you you’ve run out of time and money,” says Chris Young, chef and co-author of the famously hefty book series. With follow-up volume Modernist Cuisine at Home out this week and his entirely new project, Chefsteps, a free online cooking school, launching next week, Young’s “recovery period” sounds like it’s officially over.
We talked over coffee, a great passion of his, and discussed this intriguing new venture. Who wants to learn how to cook like the Modernist chefs for free? Everyone.
How was it decided that Modernist Cuisine at Home would happen?
I can’t speak too much to it because I wasn’t that involved — Nathan and Max are the authors — but a lot of the material I wrote for Modernist Cuisine was condensed and reused for Modernist at Home. To me it’s not surprising it got done that quickly because Nathan, Max and the entire team at the cooking lab are very hard-working and talented.
For Nathan it was a while before he said Modernist Cuisine At Home is the next thing we’re going to do, around summer , and several people stayed on to work on it. I worked for Nathan with the Gates Foundation and with Johnson and Wales University because frankly, I was recovering.
Did it have anything to do with complaints you’ve received regarding the series’ size and weight?
Can I give you one of my complaints? Unlike at least one of my co-authors, I travel on commercial airplanes. It turns out that the book in its box not only doesn’t fit in standard luggage, it also is always overweight. So every time I’d have to haul it to a conference to do a presentation — there were so few copies at the time that I had to bring it with me — I’d come back to the cooking lab with a receipt for the overweight baggage fee, $100. Couldn’t we have made it, like, 5 pounds lighter?
Just curious, how much liquid nitrogen is in your kitchen at home right now?
(laughs) At the moment, I’m all out. But it can vary — I’ve had as much as 800 liters of liquid nitrogen in a home kitchen where I was cooking.
You’re a coffee enthusiast from Seattle — what’s the brewing method you use most frequently?
Seattle is a big coffee town, but I really got into coffee when I was in London because of my friend James Hoffman, world barista champion 2007. My espresso training came from him. Chemex is great, I love Clever Pots, which is a variation on pour-over, I like Aeropress, but the one I probably do most is French press, and I think most people do it wrong. There are some subtle techniques that make all the difference in the world.
Tim Wendelboe, who was the world barista champion in 2009, taught me to brew by weight, which is the most important thing whether you’re doing espresso, pour-over or whatever. I use 70 grams of somewhat coarsely ground coffee for a liter of water. After I let it steep for 4 minutes, you have those grounds that rise to the top — take a spoon and skim them off before plunging it. Your coffee doesn’t oversteep or get bitter, that simple step of weighing grounds and water and skimming it completely changes the French press.
How else have your ties to Seattle influenced the way you cook?
We’re spoiled in the Pacific Northwest to just have amazing abundance, especially produce. We have the Pike Place Market and a vibrant farmers market culture. I think it’s interesting that a lot of people assume that we use technology and the science of cooking and funny white powders to cover up inferior ingredients or ruin the soul of the ingredient, which we’ve been accused of. But what we were cooking was entirely influenced by what was in the farmers market that day, and we really tried to preserve the integrity of those ingredients. You’d really have to be a tone-deaf chef to not let that affect the way you cook.
So you wouldn’t trade science for foraging?
No, one doesn’t replace the other. Look, science is always going on when you’re cooking. But for me, appreciating the “whys” behind the “hows” inspires me to be more creative. Going out and foraging is not incompatible with science; in fact, I find it fascinating why certain mushrooms grow where they do. It turns out, scientifically, mushrooms are more closely related to animals than they are to plants at a cellular level. Well, that might influence how I approach a dish with mushrooms. Foraging and science both have an important role to play in cooking, they’re not going away and one is not a replacement for the other.
What’s one book more important to you than Modernist Cuisine, in the entire food world?
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. There would be no Heston Blumenthal, no Chris Young, no Modernist Cuisine had Harold not written his book. It is the ziggurat that we all stand on top of.
That’s beautiful. I actually predicted you’d say French Laundry because of your precise and scientific approach to cooking.
French Laundry was deeply important to me and my evolution as a cook, but at the end of the day it was Harold’s book that got me to bail on my plan to become a Ph.D and become a cook instead.
Can we look forward to A Very Modernist Thanksgiving or 50 Modernist Brunch Recipes, or are you entirely focused on your new venture, Chefsteps?
Grant [Lee Crilly, chef], Ryan [Matthew Smith, photographer] and I launched Chefsteps last week, which is our online cooking school, entirely funded with our own bank accounts. I think a lot of people assumed that after we left the Modernist Cuisine team we’d do our own big book, and there were definitely offers. That for us what not what the future was about. We wanted to actively engage people who were excited by what we were doing and we believed that a lot of these ideas would be best if they were freely available, so we decided to create Chefsteps.
It’s an entirely free-to-learn cooking school — come watch the videos, see the techniques, come to our live office hours. To me, that’s the power of using the internet: this ability to collaborate with the whole world. We thought it would take a few weeks for people to find it and say “hey, that’s an interesting idea.” Well, we had 30,000 people sign up from 128 countries in 48 hours. So now we’re scrambling to get the first course on sous-vide cooking launched, it’s really up to the people to decide what we’ll do from there. So, is there going to be a Very Modernist Thanksgiving? If enough people say “we really want to see how we’d do it sous-vide,” then it will be a Very Modernist Thanksgiving.
More Modernist Cuisine on Food Republic: