by Mona Bavar
"Man is unique not because he does science, and his is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind."
~ Jacob Bronowski
Francisco Migoya is living his dream. He wakes up every morning and goes to his office — The Cooking Lab at Modernist Cuisine — a spectacular space where food, science, and art unite. Working along side scientists, head chef Migoya and his team combine research, history, art and creativity in order to develop new and, as yet undiscovered, techniques to enhance our modern cuisine.
Like every true artist, Migoya expresses his essence through his creations. His intensity and passion blur the lines between the realms of delicious food and potent art, which ultimately coalesce into a unique and expressive style.
DLISH spoke with Migoya about his wondrous journey from self-taught artist to world renowned modernist chef, working with Nathan Myhrvold, his love of éclairs as well as his new project, Modernist Pizza.
Mona Bavar: Your first love was art but after a job in a restaurant at the age of 16, you realized you had to be in the kitchen. Did realize then that you could apply your art to food?
Francisco Migoya: I had always loved food and cooking and in my family it was always a big deal to have special meals. When I first stared working at a restaurant I realized that I could apply aesthetics and artistic inspiration to food. I think taste is very important, of course, but I think what a dish looks like is even more important because that's your first experience. With food you don't eat it first and then look at it, right?
It also pleases me. I try to make food beautiful because it makes me happy. Of course, I love good flavors and I love playing with flavors, but the fact that it could be something aesthetically moving is important to me as well.
Pistachio Cookies by Francisco Migoya
MB: It is said that art speaks where words are unable to explain. As an artist what are you saying to us through your work. Who inspires you?
FM: You know, I think it's very important for many artists and many chefs to have a distinctive voice. I have a particular vision that I bring to my work and when somebody looks at it, they can identify it as my work. One of my goals is to make sure that whatever I'm doing nobody can say, ‘oh, he copied it from this person or that person’.
I take a lot of inspiration from the art world directly. I try to emulate their work into my food.
MB: Is your work like therapy for you?
FM: Oh, for sure. Yeah. I think that for me the moments when my head is deep in making a dessert or working on art or drawing, I’m in my head - the outside world doesn't exist. At the risk of sounding cliché, it's definitely a very spiritual thing that one does - it's all you.
Éclairs by Francisco Migoya
MB: What led you to Modernist Cuisine? How is it working there?
FM: Before I started working here I was a professor at the Culinary Institute of America, and simultaneously working at the chocolate shop I had opened. So I was teaching in the mornings and working at the shop in the afternoons – completely exhausted. Keep in mind that I had always said to myself that ‘if Modernist Cuisine ever decides to do a book series on baking and pastry, that would be a dream come true’. So one day I get this message from them saying, ‘I'm calling on behalf of Modernist Cuisine, wondering if we can have a conversation about future projects.’ It was like someone saying I want to win the lottery, and then somebody giving them the winning ticket.
It’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me - to be able to do this sort of research and experimenting, utilizing real science, not what some people would call soft science. I work with a lot of scientists and a lot of professional chefs to develop our recipes. We also have extraordinary photographers here - the photography that we do here is just mind blowing.
My boss (Nathan Myhrvold) is amazing. He is probably the best boss I've ever worked for. He trusts me and leaves me alone to do my work and experiment - get creative. It's a really good relationship that we have. I'm perfectly happy here. We're currently working on a new book - Modernist Pizza.
MB: What is the objective on Modernist Cuisine?
FM: If I had to put it in a quick description, I would say that we want to write the most comprehensive book on a particular subject - the ultimate truth about pizza, about bread, etc. Our books are the ones that will answer all of your questions. It’s our goal to provide all the tools you’ll need for successfully making a pizza or make a great loaf of bread. It’s not just reading a recipe, a lot of it is also understanding how things happen, right? How ingredients interact and behave with one another. And if you can also show that in a beautiful way, then it will have a deeper impact.
MB: What did you learn while working on Modernist Bread?
FM: I realized an interesting thing - the more you learn, the less you know. Initially, it was the other way around. Actually when I was interviewing for the job I remember thinking, 'these people are crazy, how are we ever going to get even one volume out of something that has only four ingredients?' I mean there’s flour, water, salt, yeast - how complicated can it be? But you keep learning and learning and learning and keep finding new recipes and new realms, like flat bread.
MB: What’s your favorite bread?
FM: There are few things that are as enjoyable as tearing apart a freshly baked baguette. Right? And just the smell when it's just slightly warm and putting butter on it. I mean, that's one of my favorite breads. But I think if you've had a good panettone - there are almost no words to explain what a good panettone is to me.
Panettone by Francisco Migoya
MB: Are you worried about the future of the hospitality industry as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic?
FM: I am very worried. I think that we're going to get out of this, but I don't know what we will look like after we do. Not to get political but in the US the government could care less about small restaurants and small businesses. I think so many restaurants that are gems or were gems are going to disappear. Institutions and restaurants that have been around for 20-30 years or even 5-10 years are going to disappear. And that does worry me. It worries me because I don't know if our future is going to be just fast food and chain restaurants.
MB: Any last words for our readers?
FM: Stay true to yourself and your path.
Click here to learn more about Francisco Migoya and his work.