Nathan Myhrvold didn't just go to school; he worked on the quantum theory of gravity with Stephen Hawking. He didn't just get a job; he became Microsoft's first chief technology officer. He didn't just take up grilling as a hobby; he took prizes in the World Championship of Barbecue.
So it's not surprising that when Myhrvold decided to write a cookbook, he didn't just write a cookbook.
He outfitted his kitchen laboratory in Bellevue, Wash., with hundreds of thousands of dollars of whiz-bang equipment, including a centrifuge, freeze-driers, humidity-controlled smokers and special evaporators. He brought together dozens of people, including top chefs, and spent the next three years turning slabs of meat into pincushions for digital thermometers and cutting expensive cookery in half to demonstrate how it works.
The result is the 2,438-page, six-volume, 46-pound, $625 Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Astonishing in its scope, audacious in its ambition and breathtaking in its photography, the work traces the development of cooking from prehistoric spit-roasted meat and early agriculture to the seemingly magical foods of the modernists — dishes that change temperature as you bite into them, gels that transform liquids into solids, edible dirt — and then tells you how they're made.
"I didn't believe it made sense to tell part of the story," Myhrvold said. "It seemed to me there was a huge value in having all of this material all in one big work, all cross-referenced, so that sure, if you want to do a recipe, you can just do a recipe. But if you care about why something happens, you can figure that out, and if you want to know the why behind the why, we can point you at that, too."
Released this month with an initial press run of 6,000 copies, Modernist Cuisine comes at what might seem an odd time. The Slow Food movement, with its emphasis on back-to-the-land simplicity, is widely popular. Alice Waters, one of the movement's most prominent figures, recently dismissed modernist cooking by saying such food "doesn't feel real to me." And in a New York Times review of Modernist Cuisine, prominent food writer Michael Ruhlman suggested the style is limited to a "splinter group of passionate chefs who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end cooking."
Myhrvold argues persuasively that such criticisms are irrelevant. First, the book is largely about new techniques, and there's no reason modernist chefs can't also have sustainable, organic or healthy values. Secondly, he readily concedes that modernist cuisine isn't for everyone, especially those for whom convenience is key.
But one of the book's accomplishments is helping readers — even those who might never try a modernist recipe — understand what might otherwise just seem like bizarre food. Much like avant-garde art or architecture, modernist cuisine — also known as "molecular gastronomy" — seeks to challenge and surprise diners by showing them what can be done with food. Most buildings aren't the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; most meals don't involve centrifuged pea butter.
In other words, Myhrvold says, it's nothing to be scared of. Most of the tools in the typical home kitchen once were technological breakthroughs, and many traditional ingredients — including baking powder and baking soda — are no less synthetic than certain staples of the modernist kitchen, such as the calcium salts in gelling ingredients. Myhrvold hopes the ultimate legacy of the book is to help some of the new methods trickle down into broader use.
The tome's price tag does raise an immediate question: Who buys a $625 cookbook? Much of the material is directed at professional chefs, who are far more likely to have access to the specialized equipment required for some of the techniques. There are only so many people who are going to make gelled spheres of carbonated mojito or foie gras parfait, or spend 30 hours making a mushroom Swiss cheeseburger with tomato confit, smoked lettuce and mushroom-based ketchup.
But there's plenty to fascinate home cooks, too, from discourses about how traditional cooking methods work to the debunking of conventional wisdom and easy suggestions for improving your own culinary chops.
During his research, Myhrvold says he perused every major food-science technical publication of the past decade in search of tips. One article seemed downright weird: You can extend the shelf life of fresh lettuce and berries by plunging them first in hot water.
Intrigued, his team tested the theory. Sure enough, dipping blueberries in 140-degree water for 90 seconds extended their shelf life from seven days to 20. Grapes placed briefly in slightly cooler water lasted 25 days instead of five.
"You'd think, no, that will wilt the lettuce," Myhrvold says. "But it seems to wash off and kill the organisms that would wilt the lettuce. So we put it in the book."