from Fine Cooking, #110, April/May 2011
Interview by Kelly Alexander
Cooking may well be an art, but for Nathan Myhrvold, it’s a science, too. A weird science.The former chief strategist and chief technology officer for Microsoft has just released his magnum opus, the much-buzzed-about six-volume, 43-pound, $625 (but constantly sold-out) cookbook Modernist Cuisine, the Art and Science of Cooking.
Fine Cooking: How did you go from being chief strategist at Microsoft to writing a cookbook?
Nathan Myhrvold: I’ve always been interested in food. When I was nine, I announced that I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner. I went to the library and took out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and some Escoffier, and by God, I made Thanksgiving dinner.
FC: Have you had any professional culinary training?
Myhrvold: I took an intensive professional cooking program at La Varenne in France in the 1990s. It was the first time anyone had asked Bill Gates for a leave of absence to go to cooking school.
FC: So why do you think that anyone will want to read a six-volume cookbook?
Myhrvold: Who wouldn’t want to read the definitive book explaining how cooking actually works? It’s all about the new techniques and ingredients of the last 20 years, from how a modern stove functions, to sous vide cooking, to ingredients like xanthan gum.
FC: Xanthan gum?
Myhrvold: Sure. Seeing things like that in an ingredient list may take some getting used to, but it’s really no stranger than calling for cream of tartar to stabilize egg whites in a meringue recipe.
FC: Is it true that you produce the recipes and photos for the book in a lab?
Myhrvold: Yes. It’s called the Cooking Lab, and it’s in a warehouse in Seattle. I hired 16 cooks, editors, designers, and photo editors to staff it. We have all kinds of things in there: a rotary evaporator for vacuum distillation, a spray dryer for turning liquid into powder, and a $250,000 freeze dryer.
FC: There are some pretty unusual photos in the book, including images of kitchen equipment cut in half. Why was that necessary?
Myhrvold: We had to cut into things and photograph them to help readers visualize how cooking works. So we cut a Weber grill in half for the grilling section, and we cut a wok in half to show how to properly cook pad thai.
FC: What’s your favorite recipe in the book?
Myhrvold: The hamburger recipe is fantastic. From the top down, there’s a bun toasted in beef suet; the glaze on the bun is made from suet, tomato confit, beef stock, and smoked salt. Then comes layers of maitake mushrooms and sous vided romaine lettuce that’s been infused with liquid hickory smoke. Next, a vacuum-pressed tomato; a slice of cheese made from Emmental, Comté, and wheat ale; and a beef short rib patty that’s been ground to vertically align the grain. Next, a layer of cremini mushroom ketchup with fish sauce. And last, the bottom of the bun.
FC: Wow! I’m beginning to understand why the book is so long.
Myhrvold: The ink alone weighs 4 pounds.
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—Kelly Alexander is an award-winning food writer who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.