Modernist Cuisine Meets Social Justice

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He had me going there. “We keep quails on the roof at the labs,” chef Maxime Bilet told the table of Modernist Cuisine aficionados on Thursday night. “And we’re playing around with feeding them different things to see how it effects the flavor of their eggs.” Before us sat a small plate with a lovely little nest of straw in which sat a speckled quail egg shell with the raw “egg” inside. As servers circled the table, tipping the egg from its shell into a porcelain spoon sitting alongside, Bilet went on to assure us that the raw eggs were perfectly safe to eat, not to worry, and so on.

This “egg” was, in fact, a pocket of passionfruit purée suspended in a completely convincing clear mixture of lemongrass liquid lightly thickened with seaweed extracts. An explosion of bright flavor that had us all thinking twice about how we literally look at food. There were an astounding number of highlights at this one-of-a-kind dinner of 30 courses. This was one for me.

Before you discount this dinner as another of those over-the-top extravaganzas that just shows how out of touch this whole modernist cuisine movement is with real food we all eat every day, think again. This dinner had a purpose (or two) well beyond just impressing a devoted audience with the marvels of modern-day cooking. “We’re here to celebrate all the roles of food,” Bilet explained during the earlier cocktail portion of the evening. “Sustenance, creativity, fun, connecting people.” Bilet was one of the trio of authors, along with Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young, of the massive Modernist Cuisine volume that have garnered major culinary cred in this past year, having won Cookbook of the Year from the recent James Beard awards.

The dinner held at Tom Douglas’ Palace Ballroom was billed as a “feast to honor culinary education and social responsibility,” an opportunity to gain better understanding about how seemingly disparate facets of the food world—farmers, scientists, educators, chefs, social justice advocates—are in fact working toward a similar goal of creating greater awareness about the importance that quality food experiences play in our lives.

Tickets were sold by auction on eBay earlier this month. Each ticket auctioned had a starting price of $500 and went up from there. I heard that one couple had a winning bid of about double that for each ticket. In all, the evening is expected to have brought in over $25,000 – all of that going to the six beneficiary charities of the evening: Teen Feed, FareStart, Hunger Intervention Program, Castings (at McCarver Elementary in Tacoma), Hopelink and Food Lifeline. The auction hit the radars of not only local fans, but some out-of-towners as well, including two couples from Washington, DC and a couple from San Jose.

Speaking of Washington, DC, there was quite a special guest in attendance: Bill Yosses, the executive pastry chef from the White House. He and Bilet spoke together at a conference earlier this year and clearly found common ground in their passions about enriching people’s lives through food. His contribution to the meal came at dessert time, certainly, and included a rich cake-like pistachio bar with local berries and gelled “globes” filled with honey from the White House bee hives.

He was just one of a few special guest chefs that evening, including Jason Wilson from Crush, Matt Costello from Inn at Langley and Jason Franey from Canlis. All three chefs have integrated modernist techniques into their restaurant menus and shared with us that night a treat from each of their menus. In fact, Franey said that his contribution—an incredible mosaic of flavor, color and texture built around a delightful piece of foie gras—was that evening being debuted on the menu at Canlis (go and give it a try).

Modernist Cuisine is often decried for being an extreme manipulation of food just for the sake of show. But as Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern put it after taping a recent episode in Seattle—which included some time spent in the Modernist Cuisine culinary labs in Bellevue—“the idea that modernist cuisine is all about science and gadgets is not true.” He goes on to say “it’s about great ingredients, great food and wondering ‘how might I do this differently?’ I’m a convert.”

Everyone in that room Thursday night was probably already a convert. Even more so after that incredible array of flavors, textures, ingredients, surprises, new adventures on the plate. But the meal served, too, as a reminder that all the values we hold dear when celebrating food—culture, seasons, farmers, flavors, well-being, community—play out just as well around a table of modernist cooking as any other.