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The extremist: Nathan Myhrvold and 'Modernist Cuisine'

The food world eagerly awaits the former Microsoft technology officer's book on the science of cooking.

September 23, 2010|By Betty Hallock, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Bellevue, Wash. — Holding the business end of a centrifuge in one hand and a jar of pea solids and their liquid in the other, Nathan Myhrvold explains with a gleam in his eye how to separate pea purée at a force 40,000 times Earth's gravity. "It's a fun thing to do to food once in a while," he says, grinning.

Also scattered around his cooking lab in an office-park warehouse in a Seattle suburb are, among other things, a rotary evaporator (for vacuum distillation, of course), various homogenizers (high-tech blenders), a spray dryer (for turning liquid into powder) and a $250,000 freeze dryer that he bought at a discount from a company gone bankrupt (though he's a multimillionaire several times over, he's reportedly quite thrifty).

But there's more to this than mad scientist and his toys. Former chief technology officer of Microsoft (he managed the development of Windows) and a founder of patent firm Intellectual Ventures, Myhrvold will be coming out with his own highly anticipated cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine," sometime in the not-too-distant future. He describes it as "an encyclopedic treatment of modern cooking," including instructions for the avant-garde techniques that have sparked what Myhrvold calls a culinary revolution — think of it as "The Joy of Cooking" for the Ferran Adrià set.

It's six volumes including a waterproof kitchen manual, 2,400 pages and more than 43 pounds (without its acrylic case). He and his publicists like to say that it weighs as much as a small child and that if you break down the retail price — $625 — it comes to less than $15 a pound. Some are calling it the next Escoffier, or outlandish, or both.

And it's also late. Until this month, the book, four years in the works, had an expected December release date; it has been pushed back to mid-March. ( Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's website have listed it for pre-order since May.)

Now a cadre of 16 full-time editors, designers and photo editors are holed up at the lab, a workshop carved into Intellectual Ventures' warehouse, intently pushing through the last two volumes.

Myhrvold, a polymath and inventor with a background in space physics and fascinations including paleontology and photography, formed his own publishing company in the midst of writing the book — a tome too daunting for other publishers to tackle. What started as 150 pages or so on sous-vide (cooking vacuum-packed food in water at a relatively low, very stable temperature) snowballed into a magnum opus, the culmination of Myhrvold's obsession with cooking.

A year ago Myhrvold described the book as three volumes and 1,500 pages, but it obviously continued to grow. "If you talk about sous-vide, then you have to talk about food safety, and microbiology, and heat…," says Myhrvold, whose co-authors are chefs Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. "Now we laugh that we once thought 800 pages was big…. There are a hundred more things I wish we could have had time to cover."

What it does cover are topics such as (but not limited to) culinary history, the physics of food and water, modern ovens, thickeners, gels, emulsions, foams, plants, starches, fish, poultry and cuts of meat both tender and tough. There is sous-vide, and there is barbecue. More than 600 pages are devoted to recipes, including the "ultimate burger," Indian curries and elaborate plated dishes inspired by or adapted from chefs such as Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Wylie Dufresne.

The aim "was to explain how cooking actually works, the science behind it," says Myhrvold, who is professorial and inclined to crack wonky jokes. Why boiling often cooks faster than steaming, why a hot wok glows, what happens when you brown a piece of steak. And more. If you want to know about food poisoning and the differences between viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, it's in there.

"We kept saying we can do this in five pages and then 50 pages later…," says co-writer Young, who has degrees in biochemistry and math and headed the research kitchen at Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant in England. Myhrvold, Young and Bilet worked alongside several other cooks to develop and test recipes.

"When we started, my hair was short," adds Bilet, an exuberant Frenchman whose résumé also includes a stint at the Fat Duck and whose wavy coif now reaches his shoulders.

Myhrvold, who occasionally and enthusiastically answers cooking questions with "You have to buy the book!," won't say how many he is printing or how much it has cost to publish them, only that "it's an expensive project and I hope that it will be successful and people will like it."

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