Modernist Cuisine

Nathan Myhrvold

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking’ is a 2011 cookbook by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. The book is an encyclopedia and a guide to the science of contemporary cooking. Five volumes cover history and fundamentals, techniques and equipment, animals and plants, ingredients and preparation, plated dish recipes; the sixth volume is a kitchen manual. 

Myhrvold has attended Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne, a cooking school in Burgundy, France and has also cooked part-time at Rover’s, a French restaurant in Seattle owned by Thierry Rautureau. He is also a scientist, having earned advanced degrees in geophysics, space physics, and theoretical and mathematical physics, done post-doctoral research with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University, and worked for many years as the chief technology officer and chief strategist of Microsoft.

The idea for the book came up when Myhrvold acquired a temperature-controlled water bath for sous vide cooking in 2003. He tried to find information about this new cooking technique, which had been invented in 1960’s and was in use at many restaurants by 2003. He could find only a few articles and one book (in Spanish) on sous vide, however. He posted messages on ‘eGullet,’ a high-end cooking forum and found out that there was no information. Drawing on his food and science skills, Myhrvold performed experiments and calculations to generate tables of times and temperatures for cooking various foods sous vide. When he posted these tables to eGullet, thus answering the question he himself had asked in that forum about one year earlier, someone suggested that he should write a book.

In 2006 he began to do so, but soon realized that he could not write the book he wanted himself; for the book to accomplish all that he wanted, it would have to be produced by a team with proper equipment. Myhrvold started buying equipment for the research kitchen in the Intellectual Ventures lab (Myhrvold’s company, notable for being one of the top-five owners of U.S. patents, as of 2011). Much of the equipment was standard cooking equipment, but it also included items such as ultrahigh-pressure homogenizers, freeze-dryers, a 50 G centrifuge, ultrasonic baths, and rotary evaporators. The laboratory already included other high-tech and industrial equipment, a 100-ton hydraulic press, a large water-jet cutter, an electrical discharge machine, and automated milling machines.

Myhrvold and Wayt Gibbs, an executive editor at Intellectual Ventures who served as the editor-in-chief and project manager for the book, also started hiring writers and editors, research assistants, photo editors, and an art director. First hired was Chris Young, who had just stopped his work of leading the development kitchen in Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck in England. Chris then recruited Maxime Bilet, also from The Fat Duck, who led the team of research chefs that developed and tested the 1,522 recipes in the book. Photographer Ryan Matthew Smith joined the team after answering an ad on craigslist seeking a photo editor. The book team ultimately grew to include more than 50 staff and freelance contributors plus 14 outside experts who reviewed various chapters of the book. At the high point of the project, 36 researchers, chefs, and editors were working simultaneously on the book.

Initially the book was planned to be 150 pages on cooking sous vide in water baths and combi ovens (a professional cooking appliance that combines the functionality of a convection oven and a steam cooker), along with some scientific fundamentals relevant to those techniques. It gradually grew in scope; by late 2009, the book plan had expanded to 1,500 pages, and when finally printed it was 2,438 pages. The exact production cost of the book has not been announced, but Myhrvold confirmed that it cost more than US$1,000,000 to produce the first printing of 6,000 copies, which sold out shortly after the publication date in 2011. The Cooking Lab announced in 2012 a less expensive, two-volume sequel, titled ‘Modernist Cuisine at Home,’ coauthored by Myhrvold and Bilet.

Volume 1, ‘History and Fundamentals’ includes a chapter that chronicles the intellectual history of culinary movements, culminating with a detailed history of the Modernist movement as it appeared in cooking beginning in the 1980s. Also in Volume 1 are chapters on microbiology, food safety, food and health, heat and energy, and the physics of food and water. Volume 2, ‘Techniques and Equipment,’ includes a chapter on the science and techniques of traditional cooking, which it explains by making extensive use of illustrations and photography. This volume also contains chapters on modern cooking approaches, including baking in combi ovens and water-vapor ovens, cooking sous vide, and cooking with a wide range of advanced equipment and ingredients, from homogenizers and vacuum pumps to liquid nitrogen and dry ice.

Volume 3, ‘Animals and Plants,’ contains just two chapters: one on meat and another on plant foods. Scientific fundamentals about these ingredients are presented along with basic cooking techniques, advanced cooking techniques, and many recipes. Volume 4, ‘Ingredients and Preparations,’ explains the use of ingredients more commonly associated with Modernist cooking, including thickening and gelling agents, emulsions, and foams. This volume also contains chapters on wine and coffee. Volume 5, ‘Plated-Dish Recipes,’ consists primarily of 48 more complex recipes, each of which includes both a main dish and various accompaniments. The index to the set appears in this volume, along with two glossaries and a set of reference tables. The final volume is a spiral-bound kitchen manual with reprints of recipes and reference tables from the major volumes on water-resistant paper for use while cooking.

The critical reception was generally positive, citing detail on molecular gastronomic techniques and strong illustrations. However, the book was criticized by reviewers for being dryly written and of limited utility to cooks without a pricey kitchen and array of tools at their disposal.

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