Nathan Myhrvold’s 2,400-page ‘Modernist Cuisine’ upends everything you thought you knew about cooking
Here’s the recipe for the most astonishing cookbook of our time: Take one multimillionaire computer genius, a team of 36 researchers, chefs and editors and a laboratory specially built for cooking experiments. After nearly four years of obsessive research, assemble 2,400 pages of results into a 47-pound, six-volume collection that costs $625 and requires four pounds of ink to print.
To call inventor Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine: The Art & Science of Cooking,” on sale next month, a “cookbook” is akin to calling James Joyce’s “Ulysses” “a story.” The book is a large-scale investigation into the math, science and physics behind cooking tasks from making juicy and crisp beer-can chicken to coating a foie-gras bonbon in sour cherry gel. There is precedent in this genre—science writer Harold McGee has published popular books explaining kitchen science, and chefs Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià have written about sous vide and other techniques of avant-garde gastronomy—but nothing reaches the scope and magnitude of Mr. Myhrvold’s book. While it will likely appeal to professional chefs, within its pages are insights that even the humblest home cooks can use to improve their meals. The book puts traditional cooking wisdom under scientific scrutiny, destroying old assumptions and creating new cooking approaches.
The man behind the tome is a former chief technology officer for Microsoft and an inventor of hundreds of patents (he invented an electromagnetic car engine and is seeking a patent for his French fries treated with starch and placed in an ultrasonic bath). Though many of Mr. Myhrvold’s 51 years have been devoted to math and science—by the age of 23, he held two master’s degrees and a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton—in the 1990s, his passion for food began to loom large. First, he got deeply into barbecue (he was on the “team of the year” at the Memphis World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in 1991), and then moved onto haute cuisine.
“My career at Microsoft really was getting in the way of my cooking,” said Mr. Myhrvold. After leaving Microsoft in 1999, he launched Intellectual Ventures, an invention and patent firm, and in 2007, with help from two young, scientifically-minded chefs, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, he began work on the book. When publishers balked over the size and scope of the project, Mr. Myhrvold said, he ditched the conventional route and decided to self-publish through his publishing company, the Cooking Lab.
Among the book’s revelations: Expensive pots and pans are a waste of money. Organic food is no healthier than non-organic. Black coffee cools off faster than coffee with cream.