The World's Most Expensive Cookbook
The story of the most epic, exhaustive, encyclopedic—and expensive—cookbook ever created.
A rule of thumb to consider next time you dine out: In cooking, as in Third World dictatorships, revolutions aren’t born in ornate palaces—those are for the fat cats being overthrown. Revolutions are born in unassuming, out-of-the-way locations.
In March 2000 I drove two hours northeast from Barcelona to the miniature golf course–turned–three star mecca El Bulli, whose leader, Ferran Adrià, had just been decreed the best chef on the planet by French master Joël Robuchon. The roads were unmarked, the surroundings unmemorable. I got lost. Twice.
In this unlikely spot, Adrià set out in the mid-eighties to revolutionize the way the world eats by bringing scientific techniques and space-age creations to the fossilized specimen that was the European plated dish. Famous recipes included tobacco-flavored blackberry crushed ice and Kellogg’s paella made with Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavored mashed potatoes. Molecular gastronomy, as the movement came to be known, elicited as many catcalls as huzzahs. One critic even accused Adrià of poisoning his customers.
I found the experience both electrifying and stressful. Waiters would bring out dishes with names like “seeing-eye partridge soup” and then give instructions: “Take the ‘egg,’ which is actually foamed quail’s breast mixed with marshmallow, and place it on the right side of your mouth. Then place the ‘pupil,’ which is emulsified caviar and raisin skin, on the left side of your mouth. Next, pour in the pea consommé, which is actually boysenberries with the purple removed, infused with pear confit. Finally, stand up, turn around three times and sing ‘…and a partridge in a pear tree.’ Voilà! It’s the twelfth day of Christmas!”
The balance of power had completely shifted from the diner to the chef, I thought. And the food, while fascinating, wasn’t always exactly enjoyable. At the risk of being technical, the meal wasn’t yummy.
A decade later, I was driving to a similarly unlikely destination, a crowded suburban shopping stretch in Bellevue, Washington, on my way to what has been widely whispered in recent years to be the home of the next revolution in cooking. Once again the buildings were unmarked and unromantic. Once more I got lost.
Here, in a former warehouse, one of the wealthiest, most learned and most idiosyncratic foodies in the world, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars of industrial equipment and a team of about 30 chefs, researchers, editors and other enthusiasts, set out to codify the principles of contemporary cooking. That would be all the principles, from the elementary (the best way to steam broccoli) to the obscure (reverse spherification and spray-drying).
Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, left the firm in 1999 with $650 million and has followed his passions, which include hunting dinosaur bones in Mongolia, ever since. He also trained as a chef and has spent countless millions turning himself into the Medici of modern food. For more than three years, Myhrvold and his team deconstructed, invented and tested thousands of recipes, which they painstakingly documented in what can safely be called The Most Expensive Cookbook Ever Written. Actually, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is six books, with 2,400 pages and 3,500 photographs. It goes on sale in March for $625.
Like a meal at El Bulli, the awesomeness of the undertaking is electrifying but also odd—a six-volume printed book from the hometown of the Kindle?—and raises a host of questions: Is this type of cooking truly a revolution, or is it just a fad? Is Modernist Cuisine the most important food publication since the Larousse Gastronomique debuted in 1938, or is it merely the vanity project of a food-crazed millionaire? Perhaps most importantly, will Modernist Cuisine help make food yummier?
The inside of Nathan Myhrvold’s culinary playground, like the inside of his mind, is a chaotic and appealing place. A replica of the Wright Brothers’ plane hangs from the ceiling. A poster quotes Thomas Edison: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Surrounding the small counter space is what seems like an acre of industrial equipment, including a rotary evaporator for extracting essential flavors from ingredients; a freeze dryer, which zaps moisture from food; and a centrifuge that’s used to pull apart everything from crushed peas to Hungarian goulash.