Modernist Cuisine, spanning six encyclopedic volumes of science-driven cooking techniques backed by unbelievable food photography, has proven to be the greatest, most gorgeous culinary work of our time. Then its little brother, Modernist Cuisine At Home, distilled a lot of the lessons into a single volume aimed at home cooks.
But go to Amazon or to Apple’s iBookstore, and you won’t see the eBook versions of either Modernist Cuisine release. Which is why the brand’s first iPad app—a digital rendition of Modernist Cuisine At Home—is a fairly big deal. Because according to Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of Inkling, the book’s author Nathan Myhrvold wanted nothing to do with digital (even though, ironically, he's a former CTO at Microsoft).
"His concern was around usability," MacInnis tells Co.Design. "He has an insane attention to detail. The notion he’d do this on a normal ebook reader wouldn’t do justice to the work he’d put into it."
Myhrvold actually rejected MacInnis's first pitch, a phone call in which he suggested Inkling tackle a Modernist Cuisine app. So MacInnis flew out, and spent several hours with Myhrvold making his case. Myhrvold gave his consent, but the project to follow would be massive: It would take a team of 10 to 15 people the next nine months to build the app. And despite the fact that Modernist Cuisine At Home began as a book, the word "app" is most definitely appropriate here.
"The goal, when we built this, was to make it practical," MacInnis explains. "It could have been an art project, frankly, a glorified coffee table book on the iPad."
If you’ve seen the Modernist Cuisine series, they basically are coffee table books. Oversized, snow white, and filled with photos, they may contain perfectly practical recipes, but the thought of splattering $500 in paper with spherified tomato sauce is probably too much for most of us to stomach.
What Inkling has built is like Modernist Cuisine for the power user. Three panes drive the experience. You start with chapters on the far left (like Roast Chicken). A flick right brings you to subsections within each chapter (clickable sections like an overview, the science of dark meat vs white meat, and recipes). And another flick right brings you to what you’re here to see: A standard print layout with all the pretty pictures that reads more like a book.
You could read the whole book straight through in this third, standard view. But you won’t. You’ll be tempted to tap hyperlinks, watch videos, or click into recipe cards. These recipe cards are of particular note. Because what looks like a simple recipe card is actually an interactive calculator. As you change the amount of people you’d like to serve, all of the measurements change in tandem. But since volumes aren’t as reliable as weight at scale, cups measurements will disappear when you adjust serving sizes so that you can’t screw up the recipe. The app essentially knows better and only provides weights. This recipe has another trick—like almost any part of the book, you can tweet/Facebook share it with friends, even if they haven’t purchased the app—or you can beam the recipe as a shopping list to your phone.
"We don’t think about it as a book; we think about it as a cooking app that happens to use our platform," MacInnis says. "What is a book in a digital context? It’s an assembly for knowledge."
And the app will have more core knowledge than the book—including dozens of new videos and hundreds of new recipes (most of which are variations which couldn’t fit into print but easily squeeze into a digital edition). Even still, MacInnis recognized something important: More value and usability wouldn’t be enough to encourage purchases. So the app is free to try if you download it through Inkling's own app, where chapters beyond the first cost $5. And the full, standalone version of Modernist Cuisine At Home is priced at $80 inside the iTunes Store (or $35 less than Amazon’s current asking price for the hardcover edition).
"Amazon is already selling it at a loss I'm sure, so we priced the full digital version below that," MacInnis says. "It’s already a hell of a lot easier to use than a print book. We didn’t want any excuse."