"Modernist Cuisine": Tech Innovator's Passion for Food and Science Becomes a Revolutionary Book
The book "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" is shaking, not stirring, the culinary world with its molecular gastronomy that couples innovative techniques with the science behind what's plated on dinner tables. Penned by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, all of whom are accomplished cooks, scientists and inventors, the 2,438-page "cookbook" includes six volumes, 3,216-full color photographs and 1.1 million words, and weighs 43 pounds.
Does Nathan Myhrvold's name sound familiar?
Think Microsoft Corporation. Myhrvold's Microsoft tenure spanned 14 years, and he retired from his position as chief strategist and chief technology officer in 1999.
"Life has not been boring for me," Myhrvold explains in "Life in Full," a 2011 article published at Forbes.com. A high school graduate at 14, two master's degrees and a Princeton Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics under his belt by 23, and a wildly successful tech career left Myhrvold free after retiring from Microsoft to pursue his true passions in life: skydiving, car racing and dinosaur hunting to scuba diving, photography, inventing--and food.
"My career at Microsoft really was getting in the way of my cooking," Myhrvold says in "The Game-Changing Cookbook," a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece.
Myhrvold is certainly not a cuisine neophyte. In the early 1990s, he moonlighted as a stagier at Rover's, one of Seattle's top restaurants, and then he completed a course in the culinary arts at the renowned La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, France, according to Gourmet Live blog . After years of traveling to the hubs of haute cuisine, talking with leading chefs specializing in novel cooking procedures using scientific methods and laboratory equipment, he grew fascinated by sous vide, a modernist culinary technique, literally translated as "under pressure." Gaining popularity over the last decade, sous vide has revolutionized how high-end chefs prepare food.Initially, Myhrvold set out to codify the methods behind sous vide.
With infectious excitement and a love for science and food, Myhrvold created his own invention and patent firm, dubbed Intellectual Ventures, for his modernist culinary pursuits. And that's where "Modernist Cuisine" was born. Young, Bilet, and a plethora of other talented individuals were added to the team, while a 30,000-foot warehouse-like laboratory space was equipped as the ultimate high-tech test kitchen, and the rest is history. Well, almost. Skepticism waited in the wings.
Foodies take sides in debate
Changes, additions, adoptions, variations, deletions--all of these can be uncomfortable, especially for the fine-dining sector, which has been refined over decades. Culinary royalty has yet to issue a clear verdict on "Modernist Cuisine," but two camps are taking shape.
On one hand, supporters of the modernist movement and molecular gastronomy applaud Myhrvold's landmark contribution to the cooking world, including legends like Ferran Adrià, Tim Zagat and David Kinch.
On the other hand, the current culinary landscape is driven by the values of sustainability, nutrition and organic simplicity. This down-home, naturalist philosophy runs counter to the intimidating bulk of "Modernist Cuisine," whose scientific language is seemingly impenetrable. Many foodies view Myhrvold's work as an affront to their own.
But perhaps "science" and "nature" don't really have to clash where food is concerned. After all, locavorism is simply about utilizing ingredients that are produced nearby, to take advantage of maximum freshness. Molecular gastronomy concerns itself with how the ingredients are used--the physical and chemical processes that occur during cooking. As such, wouldn't a scientist or culinary professional, in their quest to create the most delectable dish imaginable, want to use exceptional ingredients, just like locavores?
A flash in the pan? History will tell
Myhrvold, perhaps anticipating the climate of rivalry, discusses the Impressionist movement of the late nineteenth century in Volume 1 of "Modernist Cuisine." Claude Monet, like Myhrvold, created quite a controversy with his innovating painting technique. When Monet's works were first displayed publicly, they were considered so offensive that they were banned. Soon afterward, however, his art was embraced.
"Much like Impressionism, the Modernist culinary movement was often misunderstood by the public in its early days," Myhrvold and his team write in "Modernist Cuisine." "And as happened with the masters of Impressionism, the creative geniuses of Modernist cooking eventually surmounted the initial confusion to achieve prominence and acclaim."