Food News: Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine

Three and a half years ago technologist/chef/inventor/photographer/physicist Nathan Myhrvold (whom we wrote about in last month's Nerd issue) set out to write the definitive book on modernist cooking and molecular gastronomy, a la elBulli’s Ferran Adrià, Alinea’s Grant Achatz, and The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal. Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (available March 14, co-authored with ex Fat Duck-ers Chris Young and Maxime Bilet).

Myhrvold talked to UW's Hanson Hosein, at the Four Peaks innovation and digital media salon last week.

The book flies in the face of web and digital publishing platforms, bringing stunning photos and a scientist’s eye toward cooking in this six-volume collection. The former chief technology officer at Microsoft has called it the perfect time ever to publish a book. And though he loves his Kindle, plans are still fuzzy about making the huge tome an e-book.

The research and recipes in the series is clearly science-y, but how else would a guy who hangs out with Stephen Hawking go about it? Dr. Myrhvold loves a good joke - the Bellevue kitchen/laboratory is in the old Eastside Harley-Davidson building – and the patter between the recipes is like a great conversation peppered with wry asides and humor, so that the epic (2,438 pages, 43-pounds) set is a surprisingly good read too.

Myhrvold has no idea how popular it will be, though pre-sales keep it bouncing among the top five best-selling reference cookbooks on Amazon.com. It’s full of unique information gleaned from kitchens all over the world, much of it accessed through word-of-mouth. He credits the blogosphere and Twitter for ramping up a boatload of interest months before the book was published.

By his estimate home cooks can make about half of the recipes with a regular kitchen and a pressure cooker, and 80 percent of the recipes can be made if you add cool gadgets like sous vide equipment and flavor injectors from the internet, Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma.

The recipes are all over the map, from burgers, pigeon en salmis, barbeque, Shanghai soup dumplings, to a soufflé that was tested 150 times. Spot prawns in a foie gras nage were inspired by Rover’s Thierry Rautureau — Myhrvold worked in Rover’s kitchen one night a week for two years while learning to cook. (He also holds the title of a Chief Gastronomic Office at Zagat where I work.)  The ingredients are listed by weight and when a recipe says to ‘be precise’ you should believe it – a pinch too much of a powerful gelling agent and the sauce could be toast. When unfamiliar ingredients like hydrocolloids are called for, the book specifies the brand used, where to buy it, and what you can sub in for it.

Those lucky enough to get a taste of the food have pretty much raved about it, and that sealed the deal on my buying the book. I have sous vide equipment which isn’t getting used enough because the dishes I’ve made have been very tender, but just a few were really great. I’m hoping to fix that with this cookbook.

Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXTQLV6Cv98 for a video of the University of Washington salon.

Photo by Ryan Matthew Smith, Modernist Cuisine

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