Science Nerds Meet Foodies In 'Modernist Cuisine' The 40-pound, six-volume, $625 and 2,438-page cookbook celebrates the science of cooking. But at that price — and with such exactingly detailed "recipes" — who's gonna buy it?
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Science Nerds Meet Foodies In 'Modernist Cuisine'

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Science Nerds Meet Foodies In 'Modernist Cuisine'

Science Nerds Meet Foodies In 'Modernist Cuisine'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

A new cookbook comes out on Monday. It's unlike anything we've ever seen, a six-volume boxed set, gorgeously produced with amazing photographs, and a whopping $600 price tag. It's called "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking."

Nathan Myhrvold is the moving force behind it. He was Microsoft's first chief technology officer. Maybe only a Microsoft millionaire could have assembled the lab, the staff, and taken the time to self-publish a project he modestly claims will reinvent cooking.

Dr. NATHAN MYHRVOLD (Author, "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking"): When I was nine years old, I announced to my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Went to the library and checked all these cookbooks out. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MYHRVOLD: ...proceeded to do it.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, my gosh.

Dr. MYHRVOLD: And I read literally hundreds of cookbooks after that and was sort of a self-taught chef. Then in the mid-1990s, I took a leave of absence to go to a chef's school in France.

WERTHEIMER: So he can cook. But like the scientist he is, he goes beyond that into strange territory. He documents methods introduced by chefs out on the edges of the culinary universe, pushing the boundaries with science and technology. But Myhrvold insists it's also about food and eating.

Dr. MYHRVOLD: Food, like anything else, lives in the physical world. It obeys the laws of physics. The fact is, when you whisk together some oil and a little bit of 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 lets you cook better.

WERTHEIMER: Reading the book, one might think these recipes require a fully-fitted out laboratory. Not so, says Myhrvold.

Dr. MYHRVOLD: Eighty percent of the book can be cooked with things available in Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table, or some other kitchen store.

WERTHEIMER: There're also lots of ingredients with unfamiliar polysyllabic, chemical-sounding names.

Dr. MYHRVOLD: There's a brand called Bob's Red Mill. They make lots of whole grains and so forth. They sell xanthan gum. They sell guar gum. They sell alginate. And so these things are available in every supermarket. In addition, this is the age of the Internet. So it turns out, no matter how many syllables are on those things, you can buy it in the Internet.

WERTHEIMER: Myhrvold clearly hopes that serious home cooks will join the revolution.

Dr. MYHRVOLD: In the course of the last 20 years, there's been a tremendous amount of effort into a couple of new things. One is understanding science in the kitchen. Another is developing new ways of cooking using technologies. And digital technology is used to make digital thermostats to perfectly control temperature. Or you have something called Sous vide Cooking, which is another example of technology in the kitchen.

WERTHEIMER: Sous vide is cooking at very, very low temperatures.

Dr. MYHRVOLD: It's cooking low accurate temperatures, usually in a water bath and usually sealed in a vacuum pouch, although it doesnt have to be always.

The third trend thats happened in the last 20 years is that chefs from an aesthetic perspective have started experimenting with saying: How can we change our aesthetic to food by using this new knowledge.

WERTHEIMER: You're talking about the movement that started in Spain, right, people just playing with their food in very weird ways?

Dr. MYHRVOLD: Well, Ferran Adria, a Catalan Spanish chef, is clearly one of the leaders of the movement. There's a number of other chefs in Spain and increasingly outside Spain.

WERTHEIMER: In fact, a disciple of Ferran Adria and the modernist movement lives here in Washington. Jose Andres owns restaurants, including the experimental Minibar, just a few blocks from out office. He told us Myhrvold's book is a gift, a way to preserve the best new techniques and approaches to cooking.

Andres himself uses those techniques to reinvent traditional food.

Mr. JOSE ANDRES (Chef/Owner, Minibar): We're talking about tradition and we're talking about modernism, right?


Mr. ANDRES: We're talking tradition and avant-garde. Let me show an egg, like we always ate an egg; and the egg in the new way. Are you ready for that?

WERTHEIMER: I dont know.

Mr. ANDRES: Good, so we go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDRES: All right, we have the egg?

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

Mr. ANDRES: Open it for me, please.

Can you see the beautiful color? Take a look at the egg white. It's shiny and the texture is unbelievable. Okay, I believe this is a great egg. Why I want to fool with this egg, right?


Mr. ANDRES: Well, egg has its limitations, too. Imagine that that egg white can taste like beautiful parmesan cheese. Thats what I want to show you, how tradition meets modernity.

So, guys. Let's go with parmesan egg.

Unidentified Man #2: Should I fill the whole plate now or just the demo show?

Mr. ANDRES: Use the demo.

So here we have a quail egg and we're going to introduce the quail egg into parmesan water. We got the rinds of the parmesan cheese, we put it with water, we melt it, and there we have a liquid that tastes like beautiful parmesan water, like a tea of parmesan. We get that parmesan water with the quail egg yolk inside and we introduce it into these I would say water bath that has a seaweed salt that we call alginate. The seaweed kind of salt is going to start cooking, creating a very thin membrane outside the parmesan water.

Linda, weve made an egg this time with the flavor of parmesan.

WERTHEIMER: It looks like a little poached egg, a beautiful round shaped perfectly done with a crunchy web of fried breadcrumbs on top. The first reaction is delicious. But then, this is not an egg.

Mr. ANDRES: This is not taking over the traditional egg. This is only adding a new possibility to the rainbow of techniques that we have in the culinary world.

WERTHEIMER: Many of which are demonstrated in Modernist Cuisine, but they're also discussions of regular American cooking.

Nathan Myhrvold is a big fan of barbecue.

Mr. MYHRVOLD: And if you really obsess over making the perfect hamburger or the perfect barbecue ribs, it'll be involved. In barbecue, we have extensive information about smoking, about the differences between grilling and barbecue, and even how to do an additional barbecue in a very non-traditional way using some techniques from sous-vide cooking.

WERTHEIMER: One the great things in this book, I think, one of the great illustrations in this book, is you did this completely wacky cross-section of somebodys Weber grill.


WERTHEIMER: You see a cross-section of the grill and a cross-section of the fire, and a cross-section of a hamburger thats sitting on the grill.


WERTHEIMER: An amazing picture.

Mr. MYHRVOLD: So early on in the book project, I hit on this idea of doing cutaway photos, where we would show the magic view of what's happening inside your food while it cooks. 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 what happens is as the heat progresses through the burger. By doing that I would get people excited and I would show them a view of food they'd never seen before.

WERTHEIMER: Howd you do it?

Mr. MYHRVOLD: We cut stuff in half. We made a hell of a mess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MYHRVOLD: So one of our principles is that it only has to look good for a thousandth of a second. So, in that case, we literally cut part of a Weber barbecue off not quite in half. It's more like we cut a third off one side. Its not a recommended way to actually use a barbecue, as one thats cut, but it works.

WERTHEIMER: In a very similar vein, you have a wok cut in half...


WERTHEIMER: ...and you can see this giant stir-fry leaping out of the wok. Thats quite a picture too.

Mr. MYHRVOLD: Yeah. We discovered why people dont cut their woks in half; that caught fire three times, because the oil from the wok would get right into the flame and then, whoosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MYHRVOLD: And wed have to clean up and start again. But we got the shot. And the shot, I think, shows you all the things that go on during stir fry, because stir fry is a combination of tossing things in the air, having super high heat from below and so forth.

WERTHEIMER: So, this book represents a kind of a marriage of the two sides of you, right?


WERTHEIMER: The scientist who headed up Microsoft's technical side and the cook.

Mr. MYHRVOLD: Yup. Thats the idea. I wanted to have a book that would explain cooking in a way I'd never seen a cookbook. I wanted to see food in a way that no book or magazine has ever shown me food visually before. And I wanted to take techniques that have been developed by great chefs around the world that are almost impossible to learn unless you go and you work in those restaurants. I wanted to take all of that and put it together in one big coherent work. So I decided to make that book.

WERTHEIMER: Nathan Myhrvolds six-volume cookbook is called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Amazingly, people are buying it. One of the chefs in Jose Andres kitchen told us hed saved up his money and ordered the book.

(Soundbite of music)

You can see some of those extraordinary photos at our website:

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