Chef at the cutting edge

Chef at the cutting edge

Chef at the cutting edge

What is it like to be part of the team behind what’s been described as “A masterpiece...the most important cookbook of the first ten years of the 21st century?”
With a place in the Gourmand World Hall of Fame, and a slew of awards, including the James Beard cookbook of the year 2012, Modernist Cuisine has been stirring up the culinary world even before its launch in March 2011.

The brainchild of former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, Modernist Cuisine is a big, bold, and beautiful take on exploring culinary history, science and technology, and innovating in the 21st century kitchen. Co-authored with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, the six-volume set is the result of four years and many thousands of hours of work by a team of specialists drawn together by Myhrvold to capture and illustrate his vision.

I met with Chef Anjana Shanker (nee Bidappa), one of the four research chefs on the Modernist Cuisine project, at her Seattle home to find out more.

A graduate with honours from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona, Anjana worked for several years in high-end restaurants in Phoenix and Seattle, before joining Myhrvold’s team.

Having worked with award winning chefs, Anjana is no stranger to exacting standards in the kitchen. However, work at Modernist Cuisine’s “The Cooking Lab”, as the high tech test kitchen is known, brought different challenges.

Besides cooking, Anjana’s job involves recipe development, research, and the recording and analysis of data. A typical day at work could have the team using rotary evaporators and centrifuges, submerging potatoes in ultrasonic baths in pursuit of the ultimate French fries, or sandblasting oyster shells for a perfect presentation! They might also be asked to do some creative food styling for the stunning photographs by Myhrvold and Ryan Mathew Smith that are an integral part of Modernist Cuisine.

Of her work at Modernist Cuisine, Anjana says, “While we take everyday cooking for granted, the project made me aware that there is science in all aspects of cooking. It was very challenging and rewarding to research and test a traditional recipe and apply modernist principles to create a dish.”

The only woman on the team, Anjana is full of praise for her colleagues — Grant Lee Crilly, Sam Fahey-Burke, and Johnny Zhu. “We get along really well as a team, and that’s important in what can be a stressful environment. I must say I have the opportunity to work with the most talented chefs who reflect their diverse backgrounds and distinctive experiences. It is such an honour to be part this team.”

For Anjana, the rewards also lie in expanding her already considerable skill set, satisfaction of a job well done, and the delight in meeting and cooking for some of her favourite chefs and authors, including trailblazers in the modernist mode, Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal.

There’s a distinct Indian component in Modernist Cuisine, thanks to Anjana’s contributions. Myhrvold is passionate about barbecue, and following extensive testing of variations in barbecue recipes from across the United States, Anjana suggested the team try a modernist take on some Indian classics.

To quote the authors, “she reasoned that Indian curry dishes, like American barbecue, come in a vast variety of regional styles. The recipes she came up with were so good that we had to put them in the book. They illustrate how even culinary traditions stretching back hundreds (or in some cases, thousands) of years can be revisited with a Modernist palate and sensibility — to delicious and thought-provoking effect.”

While chatting with Anjana in her home kitchen, she expanded on her early influences.
Growing up in Coorg, Anjana showed an early interest in cooking, and baking in particular. She credits her late brother, Arun, with recognising her talent and encouraging her to pursue a career in the culinary arts.

“My mother, Leela Bidappa, was the primary inspiration. When it came to cooking for the family, mother was very resourceful, using seasonal ingredients that were readily available in her garden or in the estate. ...This approach to using local ingredients has remained with me to this day.”

Modernist Cuisine was published in March 2011, so what’s next? “We still promote Modernist Cuisine and host dinners at the Cooking Lab, always featuring recipes from the cookbook. We are creating step-by-step procedures for new recipes for the Modernist Cuisine blog.”

Anjana is currently at work on “Modernist Cuisine at Home”, due out later this year, which will feature new recipes and simpler ways to achieve professional results in the home kitchen.