Q&A with Nathan Myhrvold, the author of Modernist Cuisine, 2011’s most talked about cookbook
Unless you’ve been hiding under some kind of rock where no foodies are allowed, you’ve probably heard of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, the stunning six-volume, 2,400-page, 50-pound, $625 cookbook that came out early this year. Nathan Myhrvold, who spent five years working on the tome (three-and-a-half of them with a team of 30 in a 20,000-square-foot lab), was in town this week to speak to about 250 food and science nerds at an event hosted by The Cookbook Store at the Isabel Bader Theatre. A staggering polymath, by age 23 Myhrvold had already acquired a pair of master’s degrees (economics and geophysics) and a Princeton PhD (theoretical and mathematical physics), before working with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, holding the chief technology officer job at Microsoft, running a patent empire called Intellectual Ventures and dabbling in photography, paleontology and, of course, cutting-edge food. We sat with Myhrvold over breakfast to talk about the surprising success of Modernist Cuisine and what the future holds for the project.
Modernist Cuisine feels like a mix between a mega-cookbook, a food encyclopedia and a coffee table book. How do you classify it?
The book has all the capabilities of those things. There are things in the book that can be used for 30-minute meals, but there are also recipes that take a hundred hours [laughs]. My book is about satisfying passion and curiosity in a broad way. We take all the principal methods of Western cooking, many of the principal methods of Asian or other cooking in the context of 21st-century cuisine, and every modern technique we can find. We call the book a reference book, but having step-by-step techniques was important for us, as was showing things photographically. In terms of whether you need other cookbooks? Well, I have other cookbooks.
What was the inspiration behind the massive project?
One of the goals of our book is that everyone who reads it will learn something they never knew before, even if you’re Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal. We don’t dumb down the story—we’re trying to explain how cooking works. Another inspiration was the sous-vide thread on eGullet that started in 2004—one of the guys there, Bryan Zupon, was a junior at Duke University and he was cooking sous-vide as a sort of loophole: they didn’t allow hot plates in the dorm, but you could use a water bath. I realized that this could be my contribution to cooking. I love this kind of food, and I knew how hard it was to learn this kind of cooking because I was learning it myself.
Given the somewhat niche appeal of the subject, has the enthusiastic reception surprised you?
We had no idea if it would work, but it seems like it has. Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can design a product. You can go do market research, appealing to committees and asking people what they want. That gives you a limited view of things. The other way, you can come up with a design to do what you want and hope someone will buy it. That’s the way art and great restaurants are made. So that’s what we did. We had this vision.
What was the biggest myth you debunked in your research?
We found a bunch of errors in food safety—there’s a whole chapter on that. Also, duck confit: some chefs say if you cook duck in fat it will create this unique flavour. That’s a fraud—fat molecules are large and they won’t go through the membrane! We did a taste test where we cooked the duck three ways: traditionally, sous-vide and steamed. As long as the time and temperature are the same, in a blind taste test, we couldn’t tell the difference. When I tell some chefs this, they almost get angry and don’t agree with it.
What’s your next cookbook project? A giant book on pastry and desserts?
The books that will come next will be smaller, single-topic books. We have to find areas that are worthy of our attention, different ethnic cuisines or a technique in a more specialized form. But I would also like to see pastry and desserts, so hopefully that will come later.
We’ve noticed that chefs who have been reticent to use the label “molecular gastronomy” are now suddenly happy to talk about “modernist cuisine.” What are you thoughts on that?
Well “molecular gastronomy” is a terrible name. Chefs hate it. The ironic thing is that Hervé This, who’s this French food scientist—he would tell you he’s the father of molecular gastronomy—feels strongly that that term shouldn’t be used to describe restaurant cuisine, but used for science. I think “modernist” is a significant improvement over “molecular.” It’s more encompassing and broader: it includes people who cook foods that are deliberately different, but also a lot of chefs who don’t cook that way but use modern techniques as part of their cuisine.
What do you eat when you’re not at home or in the lab?
When I travel, I like trying to experience things that I don’t get at home. In Singapore, there’s this crazy guy named Seto who writes all about street food, and when I’m in Singapore, he takes me around. You go to like 30 places and at each one you order only one dish. It’s things from all across Southeast Asia and all the things that are unique there. So if there were a Seto in every town, that would fantastic. But of course there isn’t.
How was your experience been in Toronto?
Unfortunately I didn’t have much of a chance to try things in Toronto. I did have pre-arranged dinners at Splendido and Campagnolo, which was fine, but I ate at one Indian restaurant while I was here called Utsav. We asked one of the concierges, who’s an Indian woman, where to go for lunch. It was very good actually. I love all food basically.