Science Nerds Meet Foodies In 'Modernist Cuisine'

  • This cutaway of a Weber grill demonstrates what happens inside food as it cooks. The grill itself was sliced in half, as were the hamburgers, to show how heat progresses through the meat.
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    This cutaway of a Weber grill demonstrates what happens inside food as it cooks. The grill itself was sliced in half, as were the hamburgers, to show how heat progresses through the meat.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
  • Whereas a traditional cookbook might devote a chapter to eggs, Modernist Cuisine has a reserved a chapter just for gels — followed by a chapter on emulsions and another on foams.
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    Whereas a traditional cookbook might devote a chapter to eggs, Modernist Cuisine has a reserved a chapter just for gels — followed by a chapter on emulsions and another on foams.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
  • The book's instructions for the perfect cheeseburger deconstructs its elements — providing directions for grinding the beef and "smoking" the lettuce.
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    The book's instructions for the perfect cheeseburger deconstructs its elements — providing directions for grinding the beef and "smoking" the lettuce.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
  • The cutaway photos — like this one of broccoli steaming — are all real. The Modernist Cuisine team arranged food in the cut-in-half equipment and then took photos.  In most cases, the food is really being cooked as shown.
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    The cutaway photos — like this one of broccoli steaming — are all real. The Modernist Cuisine team arranged food in the cut-in-half equipment and then took photos. In most cases, the food is really being cooked as shown.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
  • There are 36 annotated cutaways in the book. This diagram explains in detail how stir fry cooks — a combination of being tossed in the air and using high heat from below.
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    There are 36 annotated cutaways in the book. This diagram explains in detail how stir fry cooks — a combination of being tossed in the air and using high heat from below.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
  • This photo graces the back cover of Volume 5, which is devoted to plated-dish recipes. Part of the modernist movement is looking at food from an aesthetic perspective and using technology to achieve that aesthetic.
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    This photo graces the back cover of Volume 5, which is devoted to plated-dish recipes. Part of the modernist movement is looking at food from an aesthetic perspective and using technology to achieve that aesthetic.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
  • This lobster — without the shell — is found in the third volume, Animals and Plants. The two chapters examine how various cooking techniques affect food and how chefs can make the most of their ingredients.
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    This lobster — without the shell — is found in the third volume, Animals and Plants. The two chapters examine how various cooking techniques affect food and how chefs can make the most of their ingredients.
    Courtesy of The Cooking Lab

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When Nathan Myhrvold was 9 years old, he announced to his mother that he was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner — the entire meal, all by himself. Though it wasn't a smashing success, it did cement his life-long interest in food.

Myhrvold read hundreds of cookbooks and essentially became a self-taught chef. In the mid-1990s, he took a leave of absence from his job to go to a professional chef's school in France.

Nathan Myhrvold

hide captionNathan Myhrvold

The Cooking Lab

That job that he had left was at Microsoft, where Myhrvold served as the company's chief technology officer. With degrees in mathematics and geophysics, as well as Ph.D.s in mathematical economics and theoretical physics, Myhrvold is more well-known for his work in the world of science and technology than he is for his cooking.

Food continued to be a passion, though, and Myhrvold found a way to combine that love with his love of science. Along with his two co-authors, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, Myhrvold created a self-published, highly produced, six-volume cookbook entitled, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

"Food, like anything else in the physical world, obeys the laws of physics," explains Mhyrvold. "The fact is when you whisk together some oil and lemon juice and make mayonnaise, you're using the principles of physics and chemistry there, too. I think that understanding how those principles affect cooking helps you cook better."

That scientific approach to food is part of the modernist movement, which strives to understand science in the kitchen and to use new technologies and techniques to change how people eat and appreciate food.

The Magical Making Of A Parmesan 'Egg'

Chef Jose Andres and his team at Minibar in Washington, D.C. demonstrate the making of a Parmesan 'egg.'

It's a movement that started in Spain, under the leadership of a Catalan Spanish chef named Ferran Adria. But increasingly, chefs outside of Spain are experimenting with modernist cooking, like Jose Andres of Washington, D.C. Andres studied under Adria, and his restaurant, Minibar, is known for its innovation and creativity with food.

Andres thinks Myhrvold's book will be a gift to humanity; a way to preserve the techniques and creativity of cooking in the early 21st century. They are techniques that he himself uses as he tries to reinvent traditional food. And, as Andres point out, what's considered traditional now was likely revolutionary once upon a time.

"Today we take New England clam chowder as something traditional that makes our roots as American cooking very solid, with a lot of foundation," says Andres. "But the first person who decided to mix potatoes and clams and bacon and cream, in his own way 100 to 200 years ago, was a modernist."

Modernist Cuisine: The Art And Science Of Cooking, Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, 2011
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
By Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet
Hardcover, 2,438 pages
The Cooking Lab
List Price: $625

Myhrvold also uses traditional cooking as a jumping-off point; an example is that old American standby, barbecue. The book has extensive information about smoking, and the differences between grilling and barbecue. But it also demonstrates how to do traditional barbecue in a nontraditional way, using techniques from sous-vide, which involves cooking at low, accurate temperatures, usually in a water bath.

At first glance, these kinds of elaborate techniques might seem intimidating — calling for unfamiliar, high-tech equipment. But Myhrvold says that 80 percent of the book can be cooked with items available at any ordinary kitchen store.

As for following the 1,600 complex recipes? The book contains elaborate photographs and detailed step-by-step illustrations providing information on both the how and the why of modernist techniques.

In fact, the astonishing photography is one of the ways Myhrvold hopes to get people excited about the book.

"Early on in the book project, I hit on the idea of doing cutaway photos — what's happening inside your food as it cooks," he says. "You see the glowing coals, and the fat flaring up from the burger, and the burgers themselves are cut in half so you can see the heat progressing through the burger. And by doing that, you got people excited, and I would show them a view of food they'd never seen before."

With a retail price of $625 ($461.62 online), there's some question as to who might be able to afford a copy of Modernist Cuisine. But, as Myhrvold points out, the book costs less per pound than Parmigiano Reggiano — and about as much as dinner for two at a top restaurant.

And, it will last much, much longer.

Books Featured In This Story

Modernist Cuisine
Modernist Cuisine

The Art and Science of Cooking

by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, Maxime Bilet and Ryan Matthew Smith

Hardcover | purchase

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  • Modernist Cuisine
  • The Art and Science of Cooking
  • Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, et al

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