'Food porn' at its best: Ex-Microsoft CTO publishes groundbreaking cookbook

Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's first CTO, made his mark in the tech world. Now he's cemented his place in the world of cooking and food science with the publication of a groundbreaking six-volume, 2,438-page cookbook.

The nearly 50-pound tome comes with an equally hefty price tag: $625 (Amazon made it available for pre-order for $462). Titled "Modernist Cuisine", it's laden with spectacular photography that captures not only plated dishes but also graphic stills of cooking techniques and awesome chemical reactions such as the Leidenfrost effect (which occurs when a liquid comes in contact with a mass significantly hotter than the liquid's boiling point, and the liquid produces an insulating vapor layer that keeps it from boiling rapidly).

Some of the techniques in Myhrvold's "Modernist Cuisine" are intimidating, to put it mildly, calling for such daunting ingredients as liquid nitrogen and equipment such as centrifuges and rotor-stator homogenizers. But Myhrvold and his co-authors insist that the majority of recipes can be made in a conventional home kitchen - with a few recommended, inexpensive extras such as a digital gram scale and water bath for sous vide cooking.

IN PICTURES: A look inside Modernist Cuisine

Some of the recipes are familiar, too, such as those for the ultimate cheeseburger and southern barbecue. And the cookbook includes tips for not-so-well endowed cooks, such as how low-cost pots and pan can perform better than expensive ones.

But despite tackling traditional food preparation methods such as grilling, smoking and stir-frying, the mission of "Modernist Cuisine" is to explore and document modern cooking techniques. The title references revolutionary periods in the arts when artists and architects eschewed traditional methods and created their own unprecedented styles. "Modernist Cuisine" is dedicated to a similarly innovative movement in the culinary arts.

It explores techniques refined over the last few decades, such as the use of thickeners, gels, emulsions and foams, and it gives step-by-step instructions on how to execute technical processes such as reverse spherification and spray-drying. It also includes recipes adapted from some of the master chefs who pioneered modern cuisine, including Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Wylie Dufresne.

Befitting of Myhrvold's techie background, the first ideas for Modernist Cuisine were not inked on paper, but typed in an online forum.

Geek cuisine

Myhrvold's academic tech credentials are supreme. He's earned degrees in mathematics, geophysics, and space physics from UCLA, and PhDs in mathematical economics and theoretical physics from Princeton University. In his post-doctoral work at Cambridge University, Myhrvold worked on quantum theories of gravity with cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

After leaving Microsoft in 1999, Myhrvold went on to become CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a patent company he founded (along with three others) to shepherd inventions and commercialize intellectual property. He also started pursuing a lifelong interest in cooking and food science.

Myhrvold worked for two years as a stagier at Rover's, a top French restaurant in Seattle, and he trained at the Ecole De La Varenne. Myhrvold's culinary adventures also include a stint as Chief Gastronomic Officer for Zagat Survey, which publishes the Zagat restaurant guides.

Along the way, he researched, sampled and practiced science-inspired cooking techniques from around the world. In particular, Myhrvold became focused on sous vide, a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath. In 2004, Myhrvold started exploring sous vide cuisine in eGullet's online forums and he decided to write a book about it - which would eventually become "Modernist Cuisine".

"Myhrvold snuck onto the scene years ago when he started contributing to Internet forums discussing sous-vide cooking, a technique that (generally) uses water baths and packaging to cook things for hours and hours; a real 'slow food' type of cooking. It took a while for people to figure out who he was," says Joel Snyder, a Network World Test Alliance partner, senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Ariz., and food enthusiast.

As the scope of his writing project expanded, so did Myhrvold's team and his digs. His first hire was Chris Young, who holds degrees in biochemistry and math and opened the experimental kitchen at Chef Blumenthal's legendary Fat Duck restaurant in England. Young then recruited fellow Fat Duck alum Maxime Bilet. As the team grew to include more cooks, editors, designers and photographers, Myhrvold moved the operation from his home kitchen to a state-of-the-art laboratory kitchen in a workshop Intellectual Ventures was building.

The lab is outfitted with not only the latest culinary equipment, but also machinery that's more likely to be found in a contractor's workshop. The heavy machinery made it possible to shoot cutaway photos that are designed to show what happens inside food as it cooks.

Illustrations would have lacked verisimilitude, "so we cut stuff in half," Myhrvold writes in his explanation of how "Modernist Cuisine" came to be. "An abrasive water jet cutter, an electrical discharge machining system, and other machine-shop tools let us cut apart our pots, pans, and other gear. Food was cut in various ways, including with meat-cutting band saws."

Myhrvold, Young and Bilet toiled away in the lab for years as "Modernist Cuisine" took shape. Now, seven years after Myhrvold's early eGullet postings, "Modernist Cuisine" is finished, printed and shipping as of March 3. (See the slideshow for details on each of the six volumes in the set.)

"As a technologist, he seems to have been interested in mixing a lot of the modern thinking on how to cook with a pretty good sense of what good food is," Snyder says of Myhrvold's ambitious cookbook set. "If he's the lead author in this set, then I'd anticipate not only careful research and well-documented results (Cooks Illustrated style, hopefully, and not Food Channel style) but also the kind of rigor that real artists (like Adrià) don't bring to the table."

Early reports from booksellers reveal an unexpectedly high volume of pre­orders - more than 3,000 copies were pre-sold, which is more than half of the book's total first print run of 6,000. (New shipments are on their way from the printer and will arrive in March and April, according to the authors.)

The marketing campaign for the cookbook is working all the angles, notes Christine Burns Rudalevige, a classically trained cook and food writer who used to cover Myhrvold's work at Microsoft for Network World before he left the company for cooking school in 1999 (she, too, left the tech world to attend cooking school).

"Modernist Cuisine" appeals to the most academic culinary audience with content such as an in-depth chapter on how the current revolution in cooking is similar to Modernist revolutions in painting, architecture, literature and other arts. Yet the book is also positioned as a technical manual that tackles the fundamentals such as food safety and nutrition. It also claims to debunk commonly practiced cooking methods -- like why shocking veggies in cold water does not stop the cooking process, Rudalevige notes.

"This updated information grounded in science will certainly appeal to budding foodies everywhere who would rather serve nothing at all to a tableful of guests than something that was not prepared with the latest conventional wisdom on technique firmly in mind so they can discuss it at length during dinner," she says.

"And from what I've seen circulated, these pictures are the best damn food porn out there, which appeals to a very wide audience," Rudalevige adds.

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