Kitchen Influential

By Heron, Katrina | Newsweek, February 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

Kitchen Influential


Heron, Katrina, Newsweek


Byline: Katrina Heron

Tech tycoon Nathan Myhrvold serves up the ultimate cookbook, a 2,438-page manifesto on the art and science of what we eat.

For a wunderkind who began his career as a research assistant to Stephen Hawking, went on to become chief technology officer for Bill Gates at Microsoft, and now leads an invention brain trust, producing a cookbook might suggest, well, a half-baked anticlimax. Or would, if the work in question could by any plausible definition be called a mere cookbook.

There can be little fear of that for Nathan Myhrvold's much anticipated Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, which goes on sale March 7. In size alone the six-volume set defies categorization, weighing in at 43 pounds (not counting a five-pound custom-made acrylic case). Then there's the outsize price tag: $650. (Online retailers Amazon and Barnes & Noble are advertising a discounted price of $467.62 and free shipping, which will come in handy.)

At 2,438 pages, laden with illustrations and edibly explicit photography (from skinned animal carcasses to microscopic globs), Modernist Cuisine stakes its raison d'etre on its title, seeking to establish the past, present, and--most important--the future of food preparation as a purely scientific yet inherently artistic endeavor. By turns breathless and pedagogical, it aspires to be to cooking what Le Corbusier's Towards a New Architecture was to the building arts of the 1920s: a true modernist manifesto.

"Something much like this book could have been done earlier," Myhrvold says, noting that many of the techniques and even a fair amount of the technology employed are not new. What he and his team bring to the table, he says, is "the attitude and outlook of the cuisine"--a way, in other words, to savor its intellectual and emotional impact on us, the eaters.

Myhrvold, 51, was on the hunt for such first principles when, back in 2004, he set out to learn the secrets of sous vide (a method of slow-cooking food inside vacuum bags in a water bath). From there, he pondered the greater mystery: why had the modernist thinking that revolutionized art, architecture, and design in the 19th and 20th centuries all but ignored the clanging in the kitchen?

The question launched him on a personal quest that morphed into a laboratory team working full time for three and a half years to explain the physical properties of thousands of ingredients, ingenious means of manipulating and transforming them, the particular utility of implements both familiar (the humble whisk) and arcane (the rotor-stator homogenizer), common misconceptions about everyday procedures (raising a rack off the flame doesn't slow cooking), and why it's actually not crazy to spend 30 hours making the perfect cheeseburger (some of the fixings: suet and beef-stock glaze; lettuce infused sous vide with hickory smoke; vacuum-compressed tomato; cheese made with wheat ale; crimini mushroom ketchup--and a vertically ground short-rib patty cooked sous vide, then dipped in liquid nitrogen and deep-fried). Pastry and baking, meanwhile, were left for another day.

"The book could have been longer," Myhrvold muses, "but we really wanted to get it done." Critical to producing it was his decision early on to build a team of highly skilled contributors, he says. …

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