Fancy Feast

Modernist Pantry

Modernist Pantry’s Sphere Magic powder “spherified” stout beer atop this chocolate, cherry, and fig carpaccio dessert.

Maine’s Modernist Pantry helps democratize avant-garde cooking.

By Will Grunewald
Photographs by Derek Bissonnette

One of Janie Wang’s favorite ingredients is meat glue. It sounds gross, she knows, but it’s just an enzyme, transglutaminase, and it comes in handy for bacon-wrapped scallops. “Once you glue them, it’s like one solid piece,” she says. “Pretty neat.”

Wang was working at a charter school in New York City in the early aughts when her husband, Chris Anderson, took an interest in such modernist techniques. But Anderson, a software developer by day and passionate home cook by night, was frustrated that the esoteric ingredients he needed often only came in bulk.

So, in 2011, the couple moved to Maine and, in Anderson’s parents’ York basement, started Modernist Pantry, selling cutting-edge ingredients in small quantities. It turned out plenty of other culinarians wanted non-industrial quantities of methylcellulose and sodium alginate. Soon, Wang and Anderson bought a house in Eliot and moved operations into the 800-square-foot detached garage. Two years ago, they built a 12,000-square-foot facility 2 miles down the road.

Grapefruit “flavor pearls” mimic caviar.
Grapefruit “flavor pearls” mimic caviar.
Powder #1 lends the color and flavor of curing to chicken-liver pâté.
Powder #1 lends the color and flavor of curing to chicken-liver pâté.

Food-as-art started in hifalutin restaurants. Now, modernist techniques are everywhere. “People are still making foams,” Wang says, “but foam isn’t the highlight anymore — it’s just a garnish.” Consider, she says, Portland’s Central Provisions, a Modernist Pantry customer. “Chris [Gould] is an amazing chef doing a lot of fancy cooking, but you don’t look at it and think, ‘This is molecular gastronomy.’ You know, it’s just excellent food.”

Cilantro foam on a crab, avocado, and mango tower uses Foam Magic powder.

Cilantro foam on a crab, avocado, and mango tower uses Foam Magic powder.

Most Modernist Pantry customers are pros, although some are amateurs who saw something cool on Chopped. “There’s a lot more awareness of these strange ingredients and techniques,” Wang says, “but there isn’t a lot out there to help people understand how to use them.” To that end, Wang and Anderson hired Scott Guerin, a former Le Cordon Bleu instructor, to run their test kitchen, where he comes up with recipes for the company blog — tzatziki fluid gel with homemade pita, bruschetta with balsamic flavor pearls — and hosts WTF (short for We Transform Food), a weekly web series demonstrating various ingredient applications.

When Modernist Pantry was getting started, a savvy cadre of chefs knew what they wanted and how to use it. “What we’ve seen change over the years,” Wang says, “is that now people will come and say, ‘Hey, I heard about locust bean gum. How do I use it?’”

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Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is a senior editor at Down East magazine.