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.
Chris Young, a biochemist who previously ran the experimental kitchen at London’s Fat Duck, is one of Myhrvold’s two coauthors (the other is Maxime Bilet, also a Fat Duck veteran). He showed me some of their prized inventions: freeze-dried lobster tail (like beef jerky, only flakier) and a cup of ramen noodles, where the cup, containing mushrooms, noodles and other ingredients, is actually broth solidified with gelatin. Add hot water, and the cup dissolves into soup.
I asked Young which of their inventions would blow my mind. “Freeze-dried lettuce!” he said. “When you remove the water, the natural sugars and flavors are concentrated and the lettuce gets crispy—like a Dorito but more delicate. It’s suprisingly sweet and vibrant. We did a riff on a Caesar salad where we turned all the other ingredients into a powder, which we then sprinkled on top of the lettuce chips.”
At this point Myhrvold himself appeared, with a shock of red hair and an eager grin. He was dressed like a high-school science teacher, in khakis and a blue-and-white oxford, and had a gee-whiz-gobsmacked-isn’t-the-world-cool gusto. The boy genius who went to college at 14, studied under Stephen Hawking and is now named on 250 patents, is a mad scientist more akin to Gene Wilder than to Dr. Jekyll. The image that kept appearing to me was Willy Wonka and the Freeze-Dried Lobster Tail, Centrifuged-Carotene Soup Factory. When I mentioned that, unlike other people I’ve spoken with about molecular cuisine, he seemed undefensive, he replied, “That’s because I don’t need to fill a certain number of seats every day. The night The Fat Duck got its third Michelin star, it had no customers!”
“I guess you don’t need to be The Fat Duck,” I said, perhaps a bit too forward. “You already are a fat duck.”
He laughed so delightedly that he slapped the floor. “Yes! I’m a foie gras!”
We settled into chairs, and I asked Myhrvold whether creations like the Caesar Dorito altered the fundamental relationship between humans and food. Is the narrative now controlled by the chef? “Of course nobody should eat stuff they don’t want to eat,” he said, “but there is a different approach when you’re trying to create art. There are plenty of circumstances—in a book, in a movie, in a play—where we give ourselves over to somebody else’s vision.
“One of the things that marks this genre of cooking is a real desire to be art,” Myhrvold continued. “Something that is deeply intellectual and, yes, where the artist takes narrative control. But when you eat it, certain ideas occur to you that will impact how you consume food forever.”
The essence of modernist cuisine, Myhrvold asserts, is using science to enable art, and he views this transformation as being in line with other cooking breakthroughs, from salting to refrigeration to the microwave. The difference today is that chefs can apply scientific knowledge or use technology to get results that would have been difficult or even unthinkable in the past. “It’s like using a computer to fabricate those titanium sheets on the Guggenheim in Bilbao,” Myhrvold said. “Without technology, that art would not be possible.”
As a parallel, Myhrvold likens today’s modernist chefs to the Impressionists at the end of the 19th century. Then as now, a group of artists moved away from ossified traditions, took techniques in limited use and brought them into widespread acceptance.
Myhrvold views his book as a culmination of a similar movement, as amassing a body of knowledge—including recipes from 72 chefs, from Heston Blumenthal to Wylie Dufresne—that has never been gathered in one place before. The revolution, in effect, is in the assemblage. Modernist Cuisine is at once a historical document, a defense brief and a handbook for professionals and lay readers alike.
As for what to call the book—and this type of cooking in general—Myhrvold struggled. Like many in the field, he finds the term “molecular gastronomy” too cold and off-putting. In the end he went back to another parallel with the 19th century.
“The reason I call this cuisine modernist is that in the 19th century you had these seeds of modernism that revolutionized art, architecture, literature and philosophy. It was a reaction to industrializing the modern world. But it didn’t happen with food. Le Corbusier, who was out there calling a house a machine that you live in, sat down to the same coq au vin as everybody else. The Bauhaus guys who said ‘Architecture, let’s change that! Typography, let’s change that!’ did nothing to change schnitzel. This is finally the modernist revolution of food, just one hundred years late!”
Myhrvold said he had no credible explanation for why the culinary revolution was so delayed, but maybe the answer is too obvious for him to see. The food world didn’t have the patronage those other worlds enjoyed: wealthy art lovers to commission the paintings, rich industrialists to hire the cutting-edge architects. In one of the barons of modern technology, the food world has finally found its grand patron with even grander ambitions. Myhrvold wouldn’t say exactly how much he spent on Modernist Cuisine, but he told me about a reporter who, knowing nothing of his background, had quizzed him on the project. “He finally blurted out, ‘Wow, that must have cost a million dollars!’ ” Myhrvold laughed. “And I said, ‘I wish!’ ”
When I asked Myhrvold what was the common notion that linked all of his pursuits, he replied, “It’s about ideas. Whether it’s determining issues about space and time with Stephen Hawking or determining the best way to make omelets, I like taking ideas and applying them.”
“So if Modernist Cuisine and the Larousse Gastronomique sat down to eat together,” I said, “what would they say to each other?”
He thought for a second. “That the realm of possibility is much larger now. That the interesting things you can do with food are being enabled by some understanding of science and technology.”
“And if the Larousse were to push back and say, ‘Sure, but is your food yummy?’”
“Then Modernist Cuisine would say, ‘I don’t believe that every meal has to be yummy, just like I don’t believe that every poem has to be happy and rhyme well. T. S. Eliot is there alongside Little Miss Muffet. Some food might be yummy to your mouth, but other food might be yummy to your mind.
“The best food,” he added with a Willy Wonka flourish of his hands, “is both.”
The Book: Each of the five main volumes of Modernist Cuisine (the sixth is a waterproof kitchen manual) has a different theme.
The Photographs: The images in Modernist Cuisine, such as this one of chef Maxime Bilet with wok contents mid-toss or the mussels encased in brine gel above, are among the book’s most impressive features. To get the innovative sideview shots, which show the interiors of pots as, for example, broccoli steams (see the cover of Volume 1), the photographic team, led by Ryan Matthew Smith, sawed the cooking equipment in half and sealed the open sides with heat-resistant glass.
- Nathan Myhrvold founded Microsoft Research and spent two years as an apprentice at a French restaurant in Seattle.
- Chris Young founded the experimental kitchen at London’s Fat Duck after getting degrees in math and biochemistry.
- Maxime Bilet trained at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education and was a lab cook at The Fat Duck.