I am not one of the lucky ones who owns the original “Modernist Cuisine” 2,400-page, six-volume set that rocked the food world when it was released in 2011. With its new style of macro presentation, depth of detail, sheer heft and price, “Modernist Cuisine” was acknowledged by the best in the business to be a paradigm shift in cookbook publishing.
The initial work published by The Cooking Lab was the brainchild of Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer for Microsoft, aspiring photographer and insatiable food lover. Myhrvold focused his life passions on creating a body of work that would provide detailed written explanations and visuals that explored the chemistry behind cooking.
With the release of the abridged “Modernist Cuisine at Home” in 2012, I discovered an approachable way to learn the basics about modernist cuisine and, more important, fit it into my life in a practical way. This winter, the inspiration for my gluten-free mac ’n’ cheese came directly from applying a bit more science to the sauce.
Now, with the publications of Inkling’s digital app version of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” and the printed behemoth, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” Myhrvold’s team continues to expand the presentation of 21st century food publishing from a unique point of view.
Both new publications are riffs on the same theme, broadening their audience by narrowing the focus of the initial immense work. They invite photographers and iPad-toting foodies to learn about the unique blend of flavor and science that makes up the world of molecular gastronomy.
Modernist Cuisine at Home, e-Book Edition
I am a big fan of large printed published materials converted into iPad e-books by digital publisher Inkling. The publisher’s ability to merge printed materials with fully engaging videos and glowing photographic details brings “Modernist Cuisine at Home” to a new level of engagement and education. As a digital version, it’s even more interesting than the original printed medium and frankly, more fun. I can tap, swipe and click my way through any recipe in a kitchen-friendly iPad version with a bit more detail than the book.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine
When I first cracked the cover, I was not sure whether I needed a much larger coffee table, a set of museum-quality white gloves or even one of those page-turning contraptions that the Library of Congress uses to showcase important documents one page at a time. Comparing this book to a museum exhibit, I’d vote for the value of being able to savor its breathtaking pages again and again. It’s a stunning inspirational feast for the eyes that encourages you to look at and think about ingredients in a completely different way — all without featuring a single recipe.
Poring over this book, I’m also encouraged to think about food photography differently. For the rapidly expanding universe of food photographers and iPhonographers, this stark homage to the ingredient through obsessive attention to detail gives permission to depart from the glistening food-porn and dreamy expressionism that blankets Pinterest boards and Instagram.
“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” may not motivate me to go into the kitchen, but it motivates me to pick up my camera and open the refrigerator. The iPad app of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” just makes me want to try everything when I do.
Top photo composite:
“Modernist Cuisine at Home.” Credit: Courtesy of Inkling Systems
“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.” Credit: Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
The person who taught me to cook, my beloved stepmother Mary, died in January at the age of 95. She came into my life when I was 14 and motherless, lost in a sea of boys. Our family was in a state of disarray, and with amazing grace, she put it back together again.
Mary, aka Mumsie (my stepsister, who was also part of this wonderful bargain, called her Mumsie, as in “Mumsie and Daughtsie,” so I did too), was a woman of tremendous style and fun. She was also a great cook. I will never grasp how she managed to go seamlessly from being a single mother of one for 15 years to being a wife and mother of five; from turning out meals for two to preparing festive family dinners for seven or more every night when we were all home during school vacations. The French would say of those evenings, “c’était la fête tous les soirs“: It was a party every night.
She made dishes you just didn’t see in mid-1960s suburban Connecticut: ratatouille, pan-cooked Italian peppers, arugula salads. She roasted lamb rare. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were not for Christmas dinner; they were for dinner … maybe once a week! So much meat. I always said, when I became a vegetarian in the ’70s, that the reason had nothing to do with principles; I simply had had my quota of meat by then.
Mary tricked my father, who was vegetable-phobic, into eating vegetables. One August night during the summer after they were married, he told her that he didn’t eat corn on the cob because it gave him stomach trouble (he was convinced that all vegetables gave him stomach trouble). She took a paring knife and deftly scored each row down the middle of the kernels. “If you score the kernels,” she told my father, “the corn will be much more digestible.” This was totally bogus, but he fell for it, and from then on we would have amazing corn fests every night throughout the summer. “It’s a short season,” we would say, as we passed the platter around the table for the fourth time, butter dripping down our chins.
My education in the kitchen began with salads. “Go in the kitchen and help Mary with the salad,” my father would say to me and my sister, while he and my brothers carried on in the den. She gave me the ingredients for a vinaigrette, some measuring spoons and a whisk, and told me what to do with them (3 parts oil to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, marjoram, pepper). This was much more fun than washing and drying lettuce (three different kinds — romaine, red leaf and Boston — unlike the iceberg salads with Russian dressing of my childhood), a task I learned early on to relegate to my sister and friends. There were no salad spinners then; we had a folding mesh lettuce basket that you swung around outside, weather permitting, hoping you would not dislocate your shoulder. I learned to slice the mushrooms and the radishes thin, to score the sides of the cucumber before slicing it; I discovered the avocado.
I didn’t grow up cooking by my mother’s side, as some girls did. I was a teenager before I became interested. Then Mary taught me by giving me the tools and telling me what to do or pointing me to a recipe, sometimes from afar. The summer I started cooking (beyond vinaigrette and salads) was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was 17, I had a job at the local newspaper, and my parents were not around much because my father, a writer, was working on a play in New York City. I told Mary I wanted to learn to cook.
“What do you want to cook?”
“The things we eat,” I responded.
I do remember Mary walking me through a very simple spaghetti sauce — showing me how to cook the onion and add the garlic, then brown the meat, etc. But mainly, I would tell Mary what I wanted to cook, and she would tell me what book the recipe was in, the most frequently used being Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Irma Mazza’s “Accent on Seasoning” and Mildred Knopf’s “Cook, My Darling Daughter.” If I wanted to make something really simple, like broiled lamb chops, she’d just tell me what to buy at the butcher’s and how long to broil the chops on each side.
Every day after work, I would go to the market (and charge the food to my parents), then go home and make dinner for myself and my sister, and whoever else was around (our boyfriends, who knew a good deal when they saw it). Cooking was fun for me, and easy; my food tasted good because I’d had such good food at home, I knew what I wanted it to taste like. By summer’s end I was giving dinner parties, and continued to do this when I returned to boarding school, where I would borrow a teacher’s house from time to time. But it never occurred to me then that I’d make a career of this passion.
My sister and I have always been amused by Mumsie’s adoring, proud line about my work, something she said when I was promoting my second cookbook in the early 1980s. I was preparing a press luncheon that my parents hosted in their beautiful Los Angeles apartment (they had moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s), and she exclaimed — “she took a frying pan and a piece of paper and forged a career!” But it was Mary who gave me the frying pan … and the wok … and the casserole … and the Sabatier knife, and the food memories and first recipes … and always, the support and encouragement.
Spinach Salad With Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing
The dressing is a slight variation on the recipe for Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing that I published in my first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Feast.” The spinach salad recipe is one I found scrawled on the endpapers of “Accent on Seasoning,” a cookbook Mary used so often that the cover fell off when I removed it from the shelf as I was cleaning out her apartment.
For Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white or red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 small garlic clove, put through a press or puréed in a mortar and pestle
The snow outside has me longing for the beginning of rosé season. But sampling this bright 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Rosado, with its lively flavors of cassis and pomegranate, at dinner recently reminded me that you don’t have to wait for hot weather to enjoy savory, medium-bodied pink wines. This food-friendly example was perfect with grilled pork chops and sautéed kale and would be delicious with tapas like olives and sharp cheese.
The wine’s origin, Lodi, Calif., surprised me, as did the varietals in the juicy blend. Bokisch Vineyards has made a specialty of growing Spanish varietals and two found their way into this wine. Made mostly from Barbera, it includes percentages of Graciano and white Albariño that add notes of dark cherry, smooth tannin and a nice crispness. Graciano is a very old variety in Spain, supposedly dating back before the Romans arrived. Aging in stainless steel preserves the wine’s acidity and fruit.
Markus Bokisch, who owns the eponymous winery with his wife Liz, has a deep family connection with Spain, where he spent summers in Catalonia with his mother’s relatives. He started his career at Joseph Phelps in Napa, but spent a few years working in the wine industry in Spain, where he fell in love with Spanish grapes. When the couple returned to the U.S., they bought land in Lodi, planting varietals such as Tempranillo and Garnacha. Now they farm 1,000 acres, selling the grapes to 40 wineries.
I’ve always thought of the Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area), southeast of Sacramento and west of the Sierra Nevadas, as the place big producers such as Sutter Home and Gallo turn to for grapes for their basic, somewhat boring blends. Few realize it has a 150-year-long vineyard tradition; many families have grown grapes — especially Zinfandel and Tokay, used for brandy — for a century or more.
Although Zinfandel is still the most planted grape, a new generation of adventurous growers is branching out. The Bokisches are at the forefront of the experimentation. Many of their vineyards are organic and others are certified green according to “Lodi Rules.” This complicated system includes using solar and biodiesel energy and monitoring the land ecosystem and water, but also permits some use of synthetic pesticides.
The 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Rosado leans toward the bigger, fruitier Spanish style of rosé, which makes it ideal for drinking at any time of the year. So don’t wait for summer to sample its delights over a long brunch or dinner.
Top photo: 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Rosado Belle Colline Vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Bokisch Vineyards
Festivals and celebrations offer a time-tested mechanism of sharing and preserving family culinary traditions and memories. As spring approaches, the vernal calendar brings its share of festivals, all designed to welcome the fresh colors of the seasons and the spirit of renewal. There are simple backyard traditions such as foraging and starting a new garden and then the myriad holidays that fill the calendar with a call to the kitchen.
In my home, I think of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and the Bengali New Year, two holidays that come around in March and April. I look forward to a new season, and time in the kitchen with my children sharing and talking about food memories and working with them to re-create foods of my childhood.
I have to confess, it has not always been this way! I have spent many years confused about why people would feature unchanging dishes every year at their holiday table, the same variations of festive items, at the same time of the year. I marveled at people raving over something as basic as their grandmother’s tempering for lentils and simple food memories without which their table felt incomplete. It all seemed monotonous to me. I did not have the context or need for re-creating tradition, until my children came along.
As my children have grown, my view has changed. I have wanted them to feel grounded, to have a sense of food beyond that it is something cooked in my now-12-year-old kitchen. It’s more clear than ever why my kitchen helper, Martha, preserves the mole recipe from her husband’s mother and prepares it for many a special occasion. I now understand why my friend Patricia has taken over making gnocchi for Sunday suppers. She began this tradition after her grandmother’s recent passing because this was something her Nonna always made, until she was too fragile.
It is less about mole or gnocchi than it is about the memories and historical context the dishes carry. That context is especially important for newly transplanted expats to give their children and families a way to bring gaps and connect their newly adopted land to their homeland. It is also about the value of home-cooked food rather than something you might find in a commercial kitchen or restaurant.
Yet I remained unsure about succumbing to peer pressure, unsure how sustainable such food traditions would be. The ambience in my home seemed so different from my grandmother’s kitchen, where all my food memories were made. Suddenly I was unsure about my much-loved food processor and whether it really would work to re-create the real deal. It seemed so sterile and incapable of replicating and translating the ethos of food created on my grandmother’s time-tested grinding stone.
Bringing little hands into family culinary traditions
Then last year, around springtime, possibly to cheer myself up and break the winter doldrums, I decided to make gujiyas, a traditional sweet empanada that is typical of my mother-in-law’s north Indian kitchen. It is a traditional spring dessert, and it carries with it memories of my first time learning and working with my mother-in-law.
A dessert with multiple layers of shaping and cooking, the gujiya works beautifully as something that can be made in a group. I had often thought of making it at home, but resisted the challenge because it seemed so daunting, almost too complex, but I decided to give it a try.
As I went through the ingredients, sorting out the grated nuts, Indian cheese and flour, my kids came by. As we chatted, I began involving them in rolling the dough and stuffing the empanadas. Some of the guiiya were uneven, as the children’s little hands lacked the precision for uniform shaping. But they were excited and began asking countless questions about the dessert, about spring, about their grandmother and, most important, about the festivals. Through the shared act of cooking, I realized I was transferring traditions and some level of culture.
While I noted the irony that this was a dish few of my friends in India still made from the scratch, it was important for me to do so, in the same way it was important for my grandmother to have me around the kitchen, sharing stories about family, cooking and history.
Working with my children suddenly made it all click. It was less about the elaborate meal, the new clothes or a date on a calendar. It was the need for a reference point easily found in the context of a festival. We need traditions and memories to keep us grounded. They do not always have to be in the kitchen or centered on a holiday. I wait for the daffodils and forsythia in our back yard every year to tell me that spring has arrived. It is cheerful and uplifting for me.
The magic of connecting over a holiday and food is its predictability, and the fact that it allows us to plan. It offers our children a connection point, and the shared act of cooking offers them this context, probably the same way Pat’s Nonna was able to share stories about her childhood in a village in Italy as she rolled and shaped the gnocchi with Pat. Food is about comfort, and it is also one aspect of culture and tradition that can be easily transported from one land to another, from one generation to another, as we talk, share, cook and eat together.
Top photo: Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya
Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
Figs in red-wine syrup. Credit: Rosemary Barron
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett
Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.
It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.
Rosewater and saffron are relatively easy to find at gourmet shops or Middle Eastern markets. The clove, nutmegand cinnamon in this dish are more familiar.
You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.
Supple dates and slivered almonds
Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.
They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.
Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.
These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.
Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people
7 or 8 ounces of dates
About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds
1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups
¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater
5 to 8 threads saffron
½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor
1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.
2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.
3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.
Allow the dates to cool in the honey.
4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.
5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.
What is art? And where do the culinary arts fit into the spectrum of what is referred to as “art?”
These are questions I asked myself at a recent show of Ferran Adrià’s drawings, sculptures, photographs and videos, titled “Notes on Creativity,” on exhibit at The Drawing Centerin Manhattan. Adrià, the world-renowned chef of the now-closed El Bulli in Spain and the master of molecular gastronomy, is mentor to many of the most forward-thinking chefs working today. He has also been the subject of several documentaries, including “El Bulli Cooking in Progress.”
From "Notes on Creativity":
"The type of person who carries a pencil around is the type of person who's open to change. Someone who walks around with a pen isn’t; he's the opposite. I always have a pencil with me, to the point where it forms a part of me." -- Ferran Adrià
In a New York Times review of the art exhibit, Roberta Smith writes, “If his cooking is close to art, then Mr. Adrià is close enough to being an artist to merit the exuberant, engrossing overview of the graphic side of this work at The Drawing Center.”
Adrià’s food is inventive, outside the box and beautiful. Although I never had the chance to eat at El Bulli (it closed in 2011), I was curious to see his recent show. The press release from The Drawing Center describes it this way: “This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the visualization and drawing practices of master chef Ferran Adrià. The exhibition emphasizes the role of drawing in Adrià’s quest to understand creativity. His complex body of work positions the medium as both a philosophical tool — used to organize and convey knowledge, meaning, and signification — as well as a physical object — used to synthesize over twenty years of innovation in the kitchen.”
Does Adrià’s translate to art?
I meandered through the three rooms containing Adrià’s work, including notebooks, drawings (some of which were created in conjunction with Marta Mendez Blaya) and photographs of chefs working at El Bulli. I couldn’t help thinking that the wall of colorful drawings looked a lot like the kindergarten classroom at my daughter’s old school. Oversized words were boldly colored and in childlike print: “Milk. Crème. Beware. Cheese. Yogurt,” read one drawing, like a warning to a lactose-intolerant child. Some drawings had a primal appeal, like the one with stick figures seated around a large oval table with the word “PARTY” printed at the bottom. My favorite drawings involved gardens and vegetables, primitive, colorful sketches of radishes, carrots and other root vegetables coming out of the ground. There is a sense of playfulness and harmony in these drawings that lets you know the sheer joy Adrià must feel when he’s in the presence of truly fresh, seasonal food.
As a cookbook author, food writer and recipe developer, I, too, have notebooks filled with drawings and diagrams of how I arrange or plate recipes I’m working on. Are they museum worthy? Certainly not. In the same way, my journals, for the most part, are not meant for anyone’s eyes but my own. So I have to ask: Is this art because Adrià is world-renowned? Is it art the way Picasso’s doodles are art?
At first, I wasn’t clear. I felt cynical even. But as I took my time and looked at the work without judgment, I began to understand that this is a show about process. It provides a glimpse into the mind of a mad (and I use this word with the utmost respect) scribbling of a genius chef who thinks about every aspect of what goes on a plate and into a diner’s mouth. His almost maniacal attention to detail, the rethinking of every possibility of flavor, is revealed in this show.
One of several in a wall of drawings on display as part of the "Notes on Creativity" exhibit at The Drawing Room in Manhattan. Credit: Kathy Gunst
For instance, a large table contains an exhibit of 247 colorful, plasticine molds that look like fossils or papier-mâché rocks, designed to show the chefs who worked with Adrià exactly how a dish should be shaped and sized. “In cooking, dimension and proportion are very important, and the more sophisticated the style of the cuisine, the more decisive these can become … For a time the kitchen resorted to photographs,” Adrià writes. “But these did not completely solve the problem, because the proportions of each element continued to be difficult to determine.”
The working boards of Ferran Adrià
In another room, an entire wall displays oversized “working boards.” Adrià explains the idea behind these boards: “The process of creating a dish is meticulous but very simple; first jot down an idea, then develop it; if it works, develop it further.” One board, titled “How to Create a Dish,” is a crude pencil drawing of ravioli with various shapes and filling and plating ideas. Ideas are expressed on paper before they go to the kitchen, showing where food will be placed on a plate — oval shapes next to rectangles, triangles surrounded by tiny circles.
These working boards are fascinating for anyone who cooks and thinks about the colors, textures, shapes and flavors of food. And it is a great contrast to the modern world of looking at plates of food on Instagram and Facebook.
In the end, after gazing and considering Adrià drawings, working boards, journals and photographs, I left with more questions than answers. And then I realized: Isn’t that the real definition of art?
Top photo: A wall of Ferran Adrià’s drawings on display as part of the “Notes on Creativity” exhibit. Credit: Kathy Gunst
Exhibition schedule: “Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity,” curated by Brett Littmann, begins an international tour after wrapping up at The Drawing Center in February. Dates include: May 4 to July 31, 2014, at Ace Museum in Los Angeles; Sept. 26, 2014, to Jan. 18, 2015, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland; Sept. 17, 2015, to Jan. 3, 2016, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; March 20 to June 12, 2016, at Marres House for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there were two kinds of pizza: round and square. The “square” variety was technically rectangular, a deep-dish pizza with a crispy crust and sauce on top of the cheese. Given a choice of shapes, I almost always wanted square.
After moving to California as an adult, I thought it was odd that pizza came in only one shape (round), but until recently, I never realized that the square pizza of my childhood was unique to Detroit.
My pizza epiphany came during a visit to Texas a few months ago. My husband and I were exploring the hipster bar scene on Austin’s Rainey Street when we spotted a food truck called Via 313. (313 is Detroit’s area code.) Sure enough, the truck was serving up “Detroit-style pizza” to hungry bar-hoppers.
I thought this was a fluke until I learned that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, locally famous for its regional Italian and American pizzas, also offers a Detroit-style pie.
Motor City pizza in Texas and California? Further investigation was clearly in order. How did this regional style of pizza originate, and why is it suddenly appearing in other parts of the country?
A crusty tale
It all began in 1946 with a Detroit tavern called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Soldiers returning home from World War II had developed a taste for European foods, so Buddy’s owner August “Gus” Guerra created a square pizza based on a Sicilian recipe. Because square pizza pans were hard to come by, he improvised with heavy steel trays used by Detroit’s automakers to hold car parts.
Buddy’s Pizza quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and competing Detroit pizza joints, such as Cloverleaf and Shield’s, adopted the tavern’s unique pizza style. Buddy’s now has 11 restaurants in the Detroit area and still makes its pizza using Guerra’s 1946 recipe.
Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations for Buddy’s Pizza, described the defining features of Detroit’s original square pizza. “We place the pepperoni under the cheese, in part to flavor the crust, and so it doesn’t burn during the cooking process,” he said. “We use brick cheese from Wisconsin (a medium-soft cheese similar to a white cheddar), and we place the sauce on top of all the ingredients.”
The result is a pizza with a light-textured crust and caramelized cheese around the edges.
More than six decades after Buddy’s introduced its trend-setting pizza, a Detroit-style pie scored top honors at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Pizza Maker of the Year award went to Shawn Randazzo, a Cloverleaf veteran who launched Detroit Style Pizza Company later that year. Randazzo now owns three pizzerias in the Detroit area.
Although that would have been enough for many restaurateurs, Randazzo has a grander vision in mind. Through his Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Program, Randazzo is helping entrepreneurs across the country introduce their customers to the Detroit style of pizza.
Shawn Randazzo of Detroit Style Pizza Company shows off his prize-winning pizza. Credit: Courtesy of Detroit Style Pizza Company
“My big eye opener came in 2009 when I entered my first pizza competition at the [North America] Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, which had over 70 competitors from across the country,” he said. “I was just a five-hour drive from Detroit, but I was the only competitor who had a square pizza with cheese to the edge. I couldn’t believe it.”
When Randazzo’s pizza won the top prize, he realized that most of the world was missing out on one of America’s great regional pizza styles.
So far nine pizza makers have completed the Detroit Style Pizza Maker program, and Randazzo has consulted for dozens of others, including clients from Thailand and Korea. Program graduates have opened pizzerias in Virginia and Kentucky, and one is currently setting up shop in Maine.
Making it right
“An authentic Detroit-style pizza requires a dough recipe that has a much higher hydration level than typical pizza dough,” Randazzo explained. “In bakers’ percentage, water content should be around 70% or more, which aids the fermentation process. The high water content also helps produce a light and airy crust.”
Pizzas assembled in the traditional pepperoni-cheese-sauce arrangement are baked at 525 F in seasoned pans made of rolled black steel. (The original Buddy’s pans were made of blue steel, but the manufacturer stopped producing them a few years ago.) If the positive feedback he receives from former students is any indication, the Detroit pizzavangelist’s efforts are working.
“I believe at the rate it’s been going,” Randazzo said, “Detroit-style pizza will become just as popular as New York and Chicago styles.”
Taking it on the road
Around the same time that Randazzo was wowing pizza competition judges in Ohio, Zane Hunt and his brother Brandon were cooking up a Detroit-style pizza concept of their own. In 2010, the Detroit-area natives rolled out their first Via 313 food truck in their adopted home of Austin.
“When I moved to Austin in the summer of 2009, I was on a quest to find foods that reminded me of home,” Zane said. “Brandon was still in Detroit at this point and we often talked about finding that one spot that served the pizza of home. He moved here a short time later and we ate at about 150 pizza places over the course of a year. Along the way it was becoming obvious that the pizza we loved in Detroit didn’t exist here.”
Determined to bring Detroit-style pizza to Austin, the brothers began a trial-and-error process to perfect their recipe. “Our dough mixture changed more than 75 times,” Zane recalled. “We were like mad pizza scientists.”
Less than a year after they launched Via 313, they added a second trailer to the fleet.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Zane said. “Here we are in 2014 and the style has gained serious steam around the country. It makes us proud to know we’re part of spreading the word outside of Detroit.”
A San Francisco convert
Tony Gemignani, 11-time World Pizza Champion and owner of three San Francisco pizzerias, didn’t grow up with Detroit-style pizza. But he has become an enthusiastic convert.
Gemignani serves a Detroit-style pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, and teaches restaurateurs and home cooks to make it at his International School of Pizza, also in San Francisco. He’s also launching a Detroit-style pizza concept at the D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.
He first sampled Detroit-style pizza 16 years ago while doing a commercial for a Detroit pizza chain, and his interest in the style was rekindled years later by a student in one of his American pizza courses. Gemignani went back to Detroit to research the type, and ultimately added a Detroit-style pizza to the menu at Tony’s.
When pressed by his students to compare Detroit pizza to other styles, he describes it as a sort of Chicago-Sicilian hybrid. But even that isn’t quite right. “When it comes to the process, everything’s a little different,” Gemignani said.
The best way to show people what makes Detroit pizza unique, he said, is to have them taste it. In a recent class that included two die-hard New York pizza fans, Gemignani added two more believers to the Detroit pizza cause. “They were really skeptics about it, but then after they ate it they said, ‘Man, this is [expletive] good!’ ”
He then asked the students how they would classify the Detroit-style pizza. Sicilian? Pan? “No,” they said. “This is in its own category.”
Editor’s note: Black steel pans and pizza-making kits are available through the Detroit Style Pizza Company’s website. This fall, Tony Gemignani will release a cookbook that includes recipes for Detroit-style pizza.
Top photo: Via 313′s Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313