Make it New! In Conversation With Nathan Myhrvold

Whatever it is, Nathan Myhrvold will revolutionize it. An avid inventor, a science and art genius, Myhrvold is the man behind the avant-garde Cooking Lab of Modernist Cuisine where ‘mad’ science meets art. We have recently had the opportunity to discuss with Myhrvold about the remarkable Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, the ‘bible’ of science-inspired cooking, about food photography, kitchen myths, and his current project on bread. 

They have called him ‘a Renaissance man’ and ‘a man of many missions’. Bill Gates once said that he is “the smartest man he knows”. Myhrvold entered college at 14 and by age 23 he had completed two master's degrees in physics and economics, and a Phd in physics, followed by a post-doc with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. He has been Bill Gates' tech visionary at Microsoft for 14 years and the founder of Intellectual Ventures, one of the largest patent companies in the United States. An avid inventor, Myhrvold runs a research center for the exploration and creation of new technologies.

However, Myhrvold’s scientific virtuosity and creative fervor seem to have found their place in gastronomy and photography. Having received training as master French chef at École de Cuisine La Varenne in France, Myhrvold founded Modernist Cuisine, a team dedicated to revolutionizing culinary art through the creative application of science. With this name, he wanted to designate an avant-garde approach to the kitchen based on modernism, the movement that shook culture and the art world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like Impressionism and Cubism, modernist cooking aims at breaking with the past and the 'canon'. According to Myhrvold, the much belated culinary modernism is now underway and was made possible with the advent of molecular gastronomy which poses a challenge to tradition, Escoffier's canon, Nouvelle Cuisinesignature dishes and the 'tyranny' of the agro-industrial complex and mass produced food.  

While science-inspired cooking has now spread into famous restaurants and culinary schools, it was not until the publication of the Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking in 2011 that a comprehensive guide appeared in the literature. This 2,438-page encyclopedia is now considered the ‘bible’ of science-inspired cooking, a remarkable tours-de-force comparable to Larousse Gastronomique, which is the last word on French cuisine. In 2012, the team produced the beautifully illustrated 456-page volume Modernist Cuisine At Home offering a concise guide to the secrets and techniques of modernist cooking, carefully tailored for home cooks.

“We wrote and designed our books for anyone who is passionate and curious about cooking. Food, like anything else in the physical world, obeys the laws of physics—especially as they relate to chemistry. You can cook better if you understand what is going on, particularly if you want to deviate from the ways people have cooked before. Ultimately, we hope home cooks will use the recipes and techniques in this book as a starting point for their own experiments and creative exploration”, explains Myhrvold.

Being primarily a state-of-the-art research kitchen and laboratory, The Cooking Lab is the place where the team pursues novel edible creations. In pursuit of culinary excellence, the team also tests and fine-tunes techniques and recipes that we often find in cookbooks. We asked Myhrvold to share with us one of the kitchen ‘myths’ that he has busted in the Cooking Lab

“Most cookbooks describe steaming as a much faster cooking method than boiling. Because steam can be hotter than the boiling point of water and can carry large amounts of latent heat, this makes intuitive sense even to those unfamiliar with the underlying physics. But in this case, intuition is misleading. Many cooks are surprised to learn that boiling actually cooks vegetables and fish faster than steaming does. We were surprised by this, too, so we took out our lab equipment to test this theory. We found that thermometers in the boiling scenario consistently hit our target temperature of 92 ˚C (or 198 ˚F) well ahead of the thermometers in the steamer.”

Vegetable Garden

The Cooking Lab houses also the team's photo studio. It is no exaggeration to say that Myhrvold reinvented the art of food photography presenting “food as never seen before”. Anyone who appreciates the beauty of food and the enchantment of seeing food from surprisingly new perspectives should see The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, the team's newest book. Unlike ordinary food photography which portrays mouthwatering dishes, in this volume simple ingredients and the cooking process itself become stunning art photography. Aspiring photographers may wonder what they could learn from the book or whether they could possibly master the techniques.  

“A geek at heart, I appreciate authors who describe their methods in detail—such guides are invaluable when you want to learn how to do things. That is why we decided to include a 38-page chapter on the Techniques of Modernist Food Photography, which provides a tour of our photo studio at The Cooking Lab and explains, in a highly visual way, how our team captured and digitally edited some of our most intriguing images. We also included tips for taking better photos of food, such as lighting tricks for camera phones, that we hope both budding and experienced photographers will find useful”, replies Myhrvold.

A few months ago, Myhrvold announced that the next book of Modernist Cuisine will be entirely devoted to the intricate art and science of bread. But what attracted Myhrvold to this project with bread?

“When dining out, many of us have started taking the bread course for granted. But bread shouldn’t be an afterthought on the table or simply a building block for sandwiches, because breaking open a good loaf of bread, fresh from the oven, is an experience that can evoke nostalgia for years to follow. It is considered an important mainstay in our diet and is rich in history. Although bread is created from very basic ingredients, the craft behind it requires attentive skills and complex techniques. We are using our scientific, fact-based approach toward this project, which will include a discussion of ingredients, food safety, baking techniques, equipment, and, of course, Modernist approaches to bread. Our hope is that, by revealing the history, science, and techniques of baking bread, we will create an in-depth, multivolume set of books that will be useful and accessible to amateur home bakers, passionate bread enthusiasts, restaurants, and small-scale bakeries alike.”

A collage of Modernist Cuisine's photography

A collage of Modernist Cuisine's photography

Some worry that science takes the poetry out of cooking. Myhrvold argues that "science informs us and lets us cook while knowing what we are doing...and that allows you to be more artistic, not less!" Moreover, he thinks that the modernist approach to cooking transforms it into an art. In his brilliant and seminal essay The Art in Gastronomy: The Modernist Perspective, Myhrvold writes: “One of the most notable things about modernist cuisine is that it self-consciously strives to be art. Wishing does not make it so, but even aspiring to the status of art poses interesting challenges”. 

Myhrvold's parallel of modernist cooking and art is telling. ‘Make It New’ is the credo of top modernist chefs, like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. Like all artists, these chefs are passionate about novelty and originality. They are also in dialogue with an audience—the diners—seeking to elicit aesthetic responses. In this way, they raise cooking to artistic prominence.

It might strike us that modernists drive home their point of the chef-as-artist via science. But for Myhrvold, the main thrust of employing available technology is “to push forward the realm of the possible”. Historically, modernism’s openness to techno-culture has pushed forward the limits of art itself, and posed a series of enigmas for critics and artists. Perhaps it shows that, somehow, answers about artistic status lie one step ahead of our intuitions.

For now, the modernist revolution in cooking is underway along with its ambitious intellectual project. Witnessing this revolution is “like getting a ticket to the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874 to see the painters shake the art world”, says Myhrvold. Modernist Cuisine playfully shakes our senses, imagination, and intuitions about cooking. Isn’t this what art does after all? 


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Nathan Myhrvold, founder of The Cooking Lab, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and Modernist Cuisine at Home and author of The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, has had a passion for science, cooking, and photography since he was a boy. By the age of 13, Nathan had already cooked the family Thanksgiving feast and transformed the household bathroom into a darkroom. Unlike many childhood hobbies, Nathan’s fascinations did not fade—they intensified. He consumed cookbooks and invested in new cameras and equipment even after enrolling in college at the age of 14.

He went on to earn a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics as well as a master’s degree in economics from Princeton University. He holds additional master’s degrees in geophysics and space physics and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He did postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University researching cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space-time, and quantum theories of gravitation before starting a software company that would be acquired by Microsoft.

As his career developed, he still found time to explore the culinary world and photography. While working directly for Bill Gates as the chief technology officer at Microsoft, Nathan was part of the team that won the Memphis World Championship Barbecue contest; he worked as a stagier at Chef Thierry Rautureau’s restaurant Rover’s in Seattle; and then he took a leave of absence to earn his culinary diploma from École de Cuisine La Varenne in France.

Nathan retired from Microsoft in 1999 to found Intellectual Ventures and pursue several lifelong interests in photography, cooking, and food science. During this time, some of his photographs were published in America 24/7 (DK Publishing, Inc., 2003) and Washington 24/7 (DK Publishing, Inc., 2004). Unable to find practical information about sous vide cooking, he decided to write the book he had hoped already existed—one that provided a scientific explanation of the cooking process, the history of cooking, and the techniques, equipment, and recipes involved in Modernist cuisine. Inspired by this void in cooking literature, he decided to share the science of cooking and wonders of Modernist cuisine with others, hoping to pass on his own curiosity and passion for the movement.

Nathan founded The Cooking Lab, hired an interdisciplinary team that included scientists, research chefs, and writers, and published the much acclaimed five-volume 2,438-page Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking  in 2011. That was followed by Modernist Cuisine at Home in 2012, which applies the insights of the original book in a format designed for home cooks. In 2013, he wrote The Photography of Modernist Cuisine and The Cooking Lab partnered with Inkling to publish the Modernist Cuisine at Home App.


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