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One by one we arrive, dropped off at the door of an unremarkable office building. With an air of reserved anticipation, we nod to each other in recognition, or dispense with brief introductions. Only once we find ourselves ushered into a bright conference room and sit at a large table are our identities clear. Among the dozen guests are chefs David Chang, Michael Voltaggio, and Animal's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, not to mention Dana Cowin, editor of Food and Wine, and guidebook publishers Tim and Nina Zagat.
What, one might ask, does it take to assemble such a group on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a quiet Seattle suburb? Well, when someone like Nathan Myhrvold invites you over for dinner, you quickly say "yes." And then you book a flight.
This isn't a typical dinner party and Myhrvold is not a typical host. A modern-day Renaissance man and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, he employs several hundred people through his Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures, which oversees projects ranging from nuclear reactors and hurricane control to high-tech surgical equipment and efforts to rid the world of malaria. Lucky for us, Myhrvold also happens to be a passionate cook. This passion led him toward barbecue championships, a culinary degree, and a stint in Thierry Ratureau's Seattle restaurant, Rover's. Myhrvold's love of food and his obsessive attention to detail have also produced a cookbook, perhaps to rival all others that have come before it.
It's this book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, co-authored by Fat Duck alum Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, that has lured us all to his lair. A tour of the facility reveals the kitchen, nestled into a corner of the building, an impressive machine shop on one side and a laser room and insectarium on the other (you can't very well study malaria without breeding mosquitoes, now can you?). What for us will become a makeshift dining room over the next few hours has been the nerve center for the book (to be officially released in March) over its three-and-a-half-year journey to realization. Outfitted with conventional kitchen equipment—stove, oven, mixers, etc—the cooking space is also home to a centrifuge, a freeze-dryer, and a roto-evaporator. And the fruits of this kitchen's labor? A 2,400-page, six-volume work chronicling almost every facet of cooking—but through the lens of a scientist, with an emphasis on culinary developments of the last 20 years.
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Back in the conference room, Myhrvold begins a chapter-by-chapter presentation of each volume, while a solitary copy—apparently one of only a handful of sets to already reach the U.S.—is passed around the table. The first shipment, Myhrvold explains, is literally on that slow boat from China. While most publishers choose to print in China for economic reasons, he was after quality: the paper and ink, and the special stochastic printing process that produces the highest resolution possible. The striking photography throughout the book is integral: the recurring cut-away images that detail how heat transfers into and around food as it cooks combine the high-tech (slicing in half everything from a Weber grill to a microwave to a $5,000 oven) and the low tech (fixing plexi-glass to the pots to keep the food intact while shot).
"We pretty much begin with the discovery of fire, and go from there," Myhrvold explains as he cracks the spine of the first volume, "History and Background." The opening treatise takes the reader from Apicius to Escoffier to nouvelle cuisine and "The Seeds of Modernism," finishing with a 30-year timeline placing key techniques and innovators in context. Included among the fundamentals are in-depth overviews of microbiology and food safety, even nutrition and health issues. If there are any controversial findings expressed in the work, it might be found here, as Myhrvold takes issue with certain guidelines established by the FDA and suggests little evidence exists to support claims that olive oil is any better for you than bacon fat. The book began merely as a primer on sous vide cooking, a knowledge gap Myhrvold saw in need of filling as more and more chefs began embracing the technique. The second volume, "Techniques and Equipment," takes us there and far beyond.
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As the dinner hour looms closer, we see the remaining volumes and Myhrvold interjects a few statistics for our amusement. If all the text were laid out in a single, 10-point line, it would stretch over six and a half miles. The project involved three dozen staff members at its peak. Another highlight of the set is the use of parametric tables, which transform mountains of data and countless hours of recipe testing into manageable references for, say, the production of a hot fruit gel—expressed in variables such as acidity, desired texture, and the chosen gelling agent. Another chart lays out a continuum of custards based on temperature and egg concentration (from 10 to 250 percent) and the resulting texture each equation will produce. With the third volume, "Animals and Plants," the reader is introduced to anatomy, butchering, and basic botany under the premise that cooks can't properly know how to treat an ingredient unless they have a basic grasp of its composition and microstructure.
Through volume four, "Ingredients and Preparations," and into "Plated-Dish Recipes," the fifth, all of this knowledge is applied to both original recipes and those inspired by or adapted from leading chefs from Alain Chapel and Frédy Girardet to Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert. Yet it's not all about haute cuisine and the contemporary avant garde. With equal vigor Myhrvold and his team approach omelets, hamburgers, and barbecue, even tofu. The sixth volume is a reproduction of all the recipes, in a suitable size and format to actually work from in the kitchen. As we head back into the lab, Myhrvold lets slip that a 30-course meal awaits. "We couldn't have you come all this way and not show off a little," Myhrvold grins.
NEXT: Liquid-nitrogen oysters, green pea "butter," and other highlights from the modernist meal
The three-hour procession of dishes—many just a single bite—highlight Myhrvold's efforts and offer a treetop view of what modern techniques and equipment have made possible. As Bilet and his team prepare and serve each course, Myhrvold circulates, explaining the products and processes in play. Wet pickles are compressed with starch and fried into crisp chips. Foie gras is blended with shallot jus and cognac in a laboratory homogenizer to produce what he calls a "constructed cream." We're served oysters, effortlessly shucked after a quick dip in liquid nitrogen. And spaghetti vongole is re-interpreted with geoduck clam filling in as the pasta itself.
Just past the halfway mark, we're served polenta with a marinara made not of tomato, but quince. House-made sea urchin "bottarga" is grated over a sheet of cocoa pasta meant to mimic kelp. King salmon is served as a vehicle for Myhrvold's "bullet-proof" beurre blanc, followed by a take on pastrami on rye, and, of course, barbecue.
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If there is one aspect of cooking that Modernist Cuisine ignores, it's pastry, for which Myhrvold apologizes more than once to me and pastry chef Waylynn Lucas of Bazaar in Los Angeles. He is quick to point out that it is often through pastry chefs that many contemporary techniques, if not an overall mentality, seep into the larger, more traditional culinary realm. As we head into the meal's final courses, we're presented with fresh ricotta and a rich green pea "butter"—the pure fat that separates when peas are given a spin in the centrifuge. Pistachio nuts and sugar are emulsified into the smoothest, nuttiest ice cream possible. And as the meal ends on a whimsical note, we're served a plate of gummy worms, produced in a mold normally used to make fishing lures.
We slowly make our way out, with much on our minds to digest, and I corner Myhrvold and only half-jokingly suggest that a pastry edition should follow. "Let's see how this one plays out," he responds, for the first time showing any trace of concern over the book's reception. Earlier, I had asked Food & Wine's Dana Cowin if she saw potential for a breakthrough to a wider audience of cooks. She had admitted to an initial apprehension that it may only serve the interest of a sliver of chefs, but she is now excited about the book's broad scope and in-depth coverage. A representative from the kitchen store Sur La Table agreed, noting that even sous vide technology has become affordable enough for the home kitchen.
If a cookbook can come anywhere near the goal of having something for everyone, Modernist Cuisine definitely comes close. In his early review blurb, Tim Zagat proclaimed it "the most important book ... since Escoffier." As we pile into our cabs at the end of the evening, he ponders revising that statement, acknowledging it may live on as the most important cookbook—ever.