The tall man was agitated. “Pshht, pssht, immersion circulator!” he whispered tensely to a wide-eyed younger man. Nathan Myhrvold was holding a press event for his book Modernist Cuisine at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York, and I was standing in the building foyer half an hour early.
Moments later Myhrvold himself pushed through the glass doors, with a corona of pale, fluffy hair and arms loaded with toys—a svelte Santa. Trailing him was a team of younger, nerdy elves weighed down with armfuls of sharp-edged metal contraptions. They stumbled in from a sudden hailstorm on 35th Street. The immersion circulator seeker looked relieved.
Thirty minutes later, all the immersion circulators presumably in place, I walked into the event space to immediately spy Marcel Vigneron from Marcel's Quantum Kitchen and Top Chef. I was handed a glass of Champagne and a white spoonful of what looked like Cotija cheese studded with corn kernels. “Mexican corn,” a friend told me casually. I swiveled my neck to star-gaze, seeing Gail Simmons, Grace Young, Amanda Hesser, and Paul Liebrandt. I took a bite and almost dropped the spoon. The "cheese" was actually a white, semiexplosive powder with an overwhelming taste of lime: “Explosive sour thing!” I thought, guzzling Champagne. I grabbed a recipe card to learn that I had just eaten corn kernels freeze-dried using N-Zorbit, lime and ash powder, brown butter powder, and mayo. I resolved to be more wary when next handed a spoon, and sat down to hear more about Myhrvold’s mad science.
Modernist Cuisine, if you haven’t heard, is a six-volume, 2,438-page behemoth that weighs 43 pounds and costs $625. “And four pounds of ink!” exclaimed its mastermind, now happily clad in chef’s whites and standing before rows of his fans. Myhrvold is no slouch academically or culinarily: He has earned multiple graduate degrees in math and physics, is a graduate of culinary school La Varenne, and is the former CTO of Microsoft. He started this project to explain sous vide science—how to cook food in vacuum bags in hot, circulating water—but expanded it to include kitchen safety and the science of how heat passes through food, and through water for that matter.
He figured he might as well add a few recipes—1,522 of them—in consultation with chefs like Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià, and subtitled the finished creation “The Art and Science of Cooking.” Attentive foodists might note the title itself and think that a party full of exploding ash and N-Zorbit might make it a “molecular gastronomy” event, but Myhrvold disdains the term: “Chefs that cook this way hate the name.”
The book, written in conjunction with Chris Young, Maxime Bilet, and a giant team of researchers and chefs, is one part primer on the history of molecular gastronomy, one part technical explanation of the science of cooking, a whole bunch of recipes—some easy, many not—and a lot of gorgeous photos. Cutaways are one of the nerdiest features: Myhrvold arranged for dishes like a braise to be split right down the middle, making a pork roast look like an archaeological discovery. Indeed, “our machine shop was bigger than our kitchen!” he exclaimed. A $5,000 oven was donated. It was promptly cut in half.
Myrhvold admitted over the course of a multimedia presentation that he wanted to “use dramatic photography to seduce people,” and he has: A high-speed camera captured food looking at once like itself and not at all itself—sizzling and jumping on a wok like lava jumping from a volcano; a falling glass of wine that looks like glass wrapped around red jelly; a tiny golden bead of corn leaping out of oil to bloom beautifully into a white popcorn flower.
Watching the movies made from these photos provoked “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience. Myhrvold, who modestly called himself “a physicist and sort of a cook,” has the academic’s drive to know how stuff works and a bit of the magician’s charm and need to entrance and provoke his audience. He introduced a chapter on wine by sniffing that wine is typically “treated like a holy sacrament.” An image popped onto the screen of red wine being spun in a blender. Myhrvold informed us that it was an ’82 Margaux (inducing a “woo!” from a person sitting behind me; the wine regularly sells for $1,000 to $1,750). He put his Margaux into a blender to aerate it, served it to guests, and declared that most preferred it after it had been blended. No decanter needed! He admitted with a sly smile, however, “Half the reason is to see the look on their faces.”
What else? There is a chapter on coffee, a section on regional Indian curries, and recipes for nine barbecue sauces, which fellow writer Michael Ruhlman declared “fabulous” in the New York Times. There are recipes for things you couldn’t make at home, and those you could, like a carrot soup made in a pressure cooker. (They served samples at the event. It was rich and delicious, with notes of toasted marshmallow, and I wouldn’t want to eat more than five bites.)
Myhrvold has procured some great recipes. A deconstructed mushroom omelet with “constructed egg stripes” was beautiful, with an earthy mushroom foam that was like an umami prototype. The sauerkraut accompanying a single bite of sous vide pastrami was perhaps the best I’ve eaten—sweet and “precisely fermented,” as its recipe card boasted. The four that didn’t hit the mark for me included a pistachio “gelato” that was dairy-free and tasted like a gel, and an eerie pea-and-ricotta concoction made using a centrifuge that felt like a Top Chef Quickfire gone awry.
When I left, I walked away with respect for Myhrvold the Nerd—his attention to detail and devotion to learning are transparent—but curious about Myhrvold the Dude. I still wonder how many of the experiments prompted the phrase, “Oh! This is going to be EPIC!”
Forty-three pounds, four pounds of ink, and 2,438 pages, yes. But how many high-fives?