Modernist Cuisine, and My Conversation with Nathan Myhrvold

The anatomy of lobster

In the fall, as we worked on our February celebration of nerds (see the Nerd Issue), it fell to me to interview Nathan Myhrvold, the man behind Modernist Cuisine, the 2,438 page, six volume tome that aims to be the first, last and every word in between on molecular gastronomy. Only, don't call it that I was warned. Myhrvold prefers "modernist cuisine."

Don't get me wrong; interviewing the former Microsoft mega-millionaire (who holds such mind-curling degrees as a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics, and who's done postdoctoral work on quantum theories of gravitation with Stephen Hawking) and current cofounder of Intellectual Ventures wasn't a burden of any kind; it was an honor, but an intimidating one, for sure.

The legendary braininess and the crazy undertaking of putting together a book that weighs as much as my 4-year-old, the size and depth that Modernist Cuisine would turn out to be, the early raves from the world's best chefs....well, butterflies in my stomach is putting it lightly. I paced in my kitchen waiting for Myhrvold's rep to call precisely at 1:15 p.m., with my list of questions scrawled on my notepad (scrawled on a notepad! Imagine what Myhrvold, who surely jots his own ideas down using telepathy and some sort of disappearing computer ink, would think).

But I'd been told also what a personable guy he is, and so it went. He warmly told me how the cookbook had started out as a way to remedy the fact that, back in 2002, his searches for information and recipes for sous vide (the slow, warm bathing of food in seeled bags emerged in water) cooking on the web left him high and dry. Myhrvold simply did what any loaded, curious and crazy-smart guy would do: he decided to write that book (ahem, those 6 books) himself, with a team of skilled chefs of course (Chris Young and Maxime Bilet).

My nerves softened when he mentioned early in our conversation that, when the book had reached 850 pages, "then we got carried away." We laughed at the understatement; that was 1,500-odd pages ago. Talking to Myhrvold was invigorating and fun; it's not every day that I get to speak with someone who mentions off-hand that his first step in his work on sous vide was to "write computer code to simulate heat moving through food." He then dug down into food safety and microbiology, finding many widely accepted truths about food safety out of date or simply scientifically wrong.

But that's not the part that excites me about this book. What gets my motor running are the new ideas pushing food forward, pushing us to think of food as art and not just fuel for the body. Myhrvold likes to point out that traditional cooking is full of new ideas that we're all just used to now. I love that.

He said to think of pasta: at some point someone had think to grind the wheat to a powder, add egg and water, and then knead the mixture to create a soft, pliable dough. Modern? Not anymore, but at one point it must've seemed so. He also points out that some ingredients and methods that may strike some as kooky molecular gastronomy trickery--using agar to create a gel, say--have actually been in use in Asia for a century or longer.

Still, Modernist Cuisine, with its foams, its sous vide steak and its noodles made of oysters, isn't for everyone. Sometimes, it's not even for Myhrvold: When I asked him what he'd eaten at his last meal, his answer? A ripe Epoisses and celery sticks.

Remarkably, even at its whopping $461.62 pricetag on Amazon, the book is currently the #74 bestselling book on the site.

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