The Tastemaker

Can Nathan Myhrvold's scientific culinary opus change the way we cook?

  • Ryan Matthew Smith / Modernist Cuisine LLC

    Prep chefs Myhrvold samples a dish created by co-authors Young, far left, and Bilet

    The ultimate kitchen is in Bellevue, Wash., and it's not pretty. There are no granite countertops or sleek stainless-steel appliances. It's big but not especially spacious. There's no wood-burning oven, no stools. There is, however, a centrifuge that can create a force 40,000 times as strong as earth's gravity, for separating pea broth; an ultrasonic welder; plenty of hydrocolloids, to make ice cream or pea butter with; plenty of liquid nitrogen, into which you can dip your burger before you cook it to ensure it won't get well done while browning; immersion circulators and controlled-vapor low-heat ovens; induction burners to let you cook with magnets; and, of course, a full-scale industrial machine shop to allow you to build any tool you don't already have. Oh, and it has 72 of the best chefs in the world as advisers and unlimited credit at the store. The kitchen belongs to Nathan Myhrvold. He is using it to create the most ambitious cookbook ever written.

    Myhrvold, a billionaire mad scientist with a culinary bent, is surely the man for the job. An übernerd who got his first Ph.D. at 22, the 51-year-old polymath has degrees in mathematical economics and theoretical and mathematical physics but turned to computer science in his 20s and spent 14 years as Microsoft's technology guru before cashing out 12 years ago. He's almost certainly the only man to have discovered Tyrannosaurus rex fossils, won the Memphis in May barbecue championship and studied quantum physics with Stephen Hawking. Bearded, bespectacled and given to giggling loudly, the ebullient scientist has the air of a boy left alone in a toy store — a boy with a titanic intellect and vast bank account. At the moment, his nonculinary projects include building a laser that can zap the wings off mosquitoes and attempting to solve global warming by shooting particles into the atmosphere. He is also running a large, highly controversial patent-licensing firm with over 700 employees. But what he really loves is the kind of cooking commonly known as molecular gastronomy, which he prefers to call modernist cuisine. In March he will release a six-volume, 2,438-page, 48-lb. (22 kg) lavishly designed and photographed $625 cookbook that he believes, not unreasonably, will be the definitive work on the subject.

    A cookbook from just one of the world's leading modernist chefs, like Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next in Chicago or Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain, is typically the subject of endless discussion; Modernist Cuisine has 1,500 recipes from nearly all, along with a great number developed by influential amateurs, bloggers and Myhrvold's team, operating out of its multimillion-dollar food lab in Seattle. There are two volumes before the books even get around to recipes, one on history and fundamentals and one on the kind of high-powered techniques that define modern cooking. Volume III, a beast, covers the plant and animal kingdoms; Volume IV covers the nonfood ingredients of this kind of cooking — like emulsifiers, gels and foams — and has chapters on wine and coffee, two other subjects in which Myhrvold is an expert. The fifth volume is the closest to a traditional cookbook, dedicated as it is to plated-dish recipes. And since probably no one would carry these behemoths into the kitchen, there's a sixth volume: a spiral-bound kitchen manual with waterproof, tear-resistant pages.

    While there have been era-defining cookbooks — Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire (1903) is one precedent — it's unlikely that anyone will ever have the desire or wherewithal to produce a print project of this magnitude again. Myhrvold has spared no expense and taken the time to get it right. But why should anyone care about a book based on tools that no one actually has, in the pursuit of foods that few people eat? Myhrvold has a ready answer: the books don't tell you how to cook; they try to make you grasp what is happening when you cook. That, Myhrvold believes, is how you get better at it. They tell you not only how to cook a chicken but also what happens when you do so and how you can control it — by whatever means are available to you. If the books have a signal image, it's that of a pot or pan literally cut in half to show a cross section of what happens inside as something cooks.

    For all the food lab's use of high-tech tools, the most radical innovation in the books might well be the parametric recipes that, without commentary, lay out the exact temperatures at which various foods change taste and texture — applying science to cooking with the blunt force of a meat tenderizer. Forget tradition. "Most people out there, if they got sick, don't want their great-grandmother's surgeon or their great-grandmother's pharmacist," Myhrvold says. "They don't really want their great-grandmother's cook." Putting a whole piece of an animal in an oven and hoping that all the parts will turn out equally good isn't something we have to live with.

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