On March 16th, 2004 at 3:44 P.M., a question was posted on the online message board eGullet under the username nathanm: “I am wondering if anybody has sources for recipes for sous-vide cooking—which is to say, cooking done in sealed vacuum bags.” This was the humble first step on a path that would lead eventually to Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume tome that David Chang of New York’s Momofuku empire calls “the cookbook to end all cookbooks.”
To describe Modernist Cuisine as “a cookbook” is a bit like describing Mount Everest as a hill. With 2,438 pages, 3,216 full color photographs and 1.1 million words, Modernist Cuisine will surely be the longest, most thorough examination of food ever published. It hits the market next month with a price tag of $625. (Or only $467.62 if you pre-order on Amazon!) Its release was delayed by months because the custom-designed plexiglass case that houses the volumes kept cracking under their astonishing 43-pound weight. The ink alone weighs over 4 pounds—that’s about the same as Thomas Keller’s entire French Laundry Cookbook.
“Every one of the traditional publishers balked at the scope of this project,” says Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, the eccentric multi-millionaire behind Modernist Cuisine (there just had to be an eccentric multi-millionaire backing this one), “which is why I had to found my own publishing company to get it done.” Fortunately, as former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft and current CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a $5 billion patent portfolio development company, the real-world nathanm had the necessary resources—and not just financial ones.
A child prodigy, Myhrvold had his first master’s degree (physics, UCLA) by the age of 19, which he followed up a year later with another in mathematical economics from Princeton and then a PhD in theoretical physics. He also spent a year studying quantum field theory and the origins of the universe with Stephen Hawking in Cambridge, England, and he’s an award-winning nature photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic and Time. He took first place at the 1991 World Championship of Barbecue. He’s an inventor with nearly 250 patents issued or pending. He races cars, flies helicopters, skydives, and excavates dinosaur bones in his spare time (you wonder where this spare time comes from). This is a man who’s probably better than you at pretty much everything. And now, at 51 years old, he’s writing a cookbook?
Not that Dr. Myhrvold is exactly a food neophyte. While at Microsoft in the early 1990s he spent two years moonlighting as a stagier at Rover’s, one of Seattle’s top restaurants, then he took a leave of absence to complete a course in the culinary arts at the renowned Ecole De La Varenne in Burgundy. After several years spent traveling obsessively to the temples of haute cuisine and talking with leading chefs known for novel cooking techniques utilizing scientific methods and laboratory equipment, he decided to devote 1,000 square feet of his home to a state-of-the-art kitchen. His interests eventually focused on codifying the methods behind sous-vide, in which food is cooked in vacuum-sealed bags in precisely temperature-controlled water baths. Over the past decade this technique has revolutionized the way high-end chefs produce food, and recently it has been gaining traction as a viable method for home cooks. This is when the eGullet explorations began. In fact, it was the messageboard members who eventually convinced “nathanm” to compile all his findings into a book.
In 2007, Myhrvold outgrew his homegrown digs and decided to convert a large corner of the 30,000-foot warehouse-like Intellectual Ventures laboratory space into a high-tech test kitchen, bringing on chef Chris Young. A mathematician/biochemist-turned-cook, Young had previously overseen the experimental kitchen of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, the English restaurant known for its innovative and science-driven cuisine. With the addition of fellow Fat Duck alum, Maxime Billet, the core development team was in place. Dubbed “The Cooking Lab,” this kitchen became the hub for the massive amount of recipe testing, research, and data collection required for what would eventually morph into Modernist Cuisine. “Once I decided to write about sous-vide, I thought I’d also do a manual on food safety, and from there different ideas kept branching out until we decided: ‘Let’s just do it all!’” What was originally intended as a 300-page book ended up taking on a life of its own. “I joke that this is a coffee table book—in that it’s big enough to be your coffee table.”
The first volume, History and Fundamentals, “basically begins with the discovery of fire,” and goes on to cover every key moment in the history of food from the ancient (“foie gras was invented by the ancient Egyptians—I went and took photographs of the carvings that prove it!”) to the modern (a timeline of every key food discovery of the last 30 years). Also covered is a basic course in microbiology, as well as food safety and nutrition. (Myhrvold seems to take special glee in debunking nutritionists. He grins as he shows us some slides explaining how there’s no real evidence that olive oil is healthier than bacon fat, despite what the USDA charts say.) The next three volumes, Techniques and Equipment, Animals and Plants, and Ingredients and Preparations, delve deep into the modernist world, while still devoting a large chunk of real estate to explaining the fundamentals of traditional cooking—offering, for example, a microscopic view of the structure of meat fibers and how they are affected by heat; or a cross-section of a pressure cooker filled with canning jars, each also shown in cross-section, along with its contents. The fifth volume offers recipes for 50 dishes developed specifically for the book, many of them inspired by top chefs around the world. The last volume is a spiral-bound kitchen manual designed to be used stove-side with condensed recipes, tables, and charts collected from the other volumes.
Defining a Cuisine
For a long time, the style of food served at places like Spain’s elBulli or England’s Fat Duck was a movement without a name. Instinctively, it was understood that even if the similarity was difficult to pinpoint, transparent pineapple-flavored film wrapped around powdered freeze-dried bacon at Chicago’s Alinea or a crisp nugget of deep-fried hollandaise from New York’s WD-50 were cut from the same culinary cloth. “The visual arts, architecture, and music all had Modernist movements in the late 19th or early 20th centuries,” explains Myhrvold. “They were all defined by a conscious effort to break from the past by turning conventions on their heads and playing with the users’ expectations.” It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that the equivalent movement began to take hold in the food world, led by Ferran Adrià of elBulli. The idea was to make a self-conscious effort to present cuisine and utilize food technologies in ways that had never been conceived before. The movement is often referred to as “molecular gastronomy”—though chefs hate the term (“What makes using a modern thickener any more ‘molecular’ than cooking an egg?” Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 has wondered.)
There are a few techniques that have become the hallmarks of Modernist Cuisine: Cooking with unparalleled control over temperature and humidity using vacuum sealers and water baths or vapor-injected C-Vap ovens is one of them. Another is the use of modern gelling agents and emulsifiers like methylcellulose or modified food starch to achieve surprising textures. And laboratory-grade equipment—rotary evaporators, centrifuges, and liquid nitrogen canisters—has been co-opted for separating liquids and solids, for extracting and concentrating flavorful compounds, or for altering the textures of solids, liquids, and gels.
“What’s fascinating is that a lot of these technologies and techniques have existed for a long time,” says Myhrvold, “but they’ve only really been picked up by the mainstream in the last couple of decades.” The very first sous-vide meal was served in 1973 in a Howard Johnson’s, of all places. Ice cream dramatically produced table-side by pouring -321°F liquid nitrogen into a custard base was first served—again, in the 70’s—by the legendary Gascon chef André Daguin. Myhrvold points out that there is written evidence that the concept of liquid nitrogen ice cream existed for nearly 100 years before that, yet when the method started seeing more common use in the late 90’s, critics and customers alike were impressed by its novelty.
The phenomenon of eternal novelty can partly be explained by the fact that unlike, say, traditional French cuisine or American barbecue, the techniques used by Modernist chefs have never been collected. Sure, there’s a Fat Duck cookbook and a Momofuku cookbook, and even a book by Thomas Keller all about sous-vide (“Under Pressure”), but these books just skim the surface. “What Nathan’s really doing is codifying everything that exists out there into a single resource,” says David Chang.
It’s Myhrvold’s goal to make Modernist Cuisine the standard reference book for these cooking techniques for years to come. “A book like The Fat Duck cookbook does exactly what it’s supposed to do,” he explains. “It’s the singular vision of a solitary chef. It’s meant to convey his ideas about food. Our book is different: What we’re doing is treating things in a scientific manner to explain them in such a way that anyone can jump in, even with no experience.” (Anyone with a spare $625, that is. Or $467.62 and an Amazon log in.)
So, how is this done? For a start, Modernist Cuisine distills mountains of data into tables, giving, say, the correct ratios to achieve any kind of texture starting with any liquid of any pH, plus any gelling agent. “Our tables are meant to serve as a diving board. It frees chefs up from having to repeat the research themselves so they can spend more time creating.”
There are also step-by-step photographic guides to nearly every Modernist technique. One page, titled “How To Restructure Cheese,” is a 9-photo spread documenting how, with the aid of specific emulsifiers and melting salts, you can construct slices of cheese that melt like a gooey American, but have the flavor of an aged Comte. Another spread documents the construction of “mushroom omelet”: a paper thin sheet of steamed egg striped bumble-bee style with deep black lines of pureed mushroom wrapped around a just-set center of eggs cooked sous-vide.
Though there’s a strong emphasis on the avant garde, everything from Indian curry and American barbecue to roast chicken and hamburgers gets the Modernist treatment. Myhrvold’s recipe for a burger (one of the simplest in the book) calls for grinding short ribs in a manner that vertically aligns their fibers (for tenderness), slicing it into patties, cooking them in a sealed bag full of beef suet in a water bath, giving them a dip in liquid nitrogen, then dunking them in the deep fryer. And that’s before you even get to the homemade bun or toppings (beef fat mayonnaise, liquid-smoke infused lettuce, vacuum-compressed tomato, a slice of that meltable cheese, and a mushroom ketchup). Phew! To complain that this recipe misses the point of a hamburger would be correct, but such a complaint would also miss the point of the recipe. And of the book.
Conventional cuisine also gets the table treatment: There’s one chart that shows how concentration and temperature affect the final texture of a cooked custard. “If you break it down, a custard is really just a liquid—any liquid—with a certain percentage of egg white and egg yolk in it, cooked to a certain temperature. Those are the two factors that affect its texture,” says Myhrvold. So he put a cook to work making hundreds of custards with various ratios of egg yolk and white (from 10 to 250 percent) and cooked to different temperatures, and he tabulated the results. The result is a color-coded, easy-to-read continuum of custard textures. “Did we invent the custard?” asks Myhrvold. “No, of course not. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen the information tabulated with this kind of detail or presented in such a useful way.” Recipes of this sort are presented as ratios rather than specific volumes or masses. “With a custard, the important thing is not ‘how many eggs to a cup of milk,’ but ‘what is the ratio of eggs to milk.’ Once you realize that, you can make as much or as little as you’d like.”
This kind of data collection methodology doesn’t come cheap. Aside from Chris Young and Maxime Billet, the Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab has had a full time staff of at least 15 for the past three and a half years. At various times as many as three dozen were working on the project simultaneously, including a half dozen cooks, a photography team, a writing and copy-editing staff, and a design team.
“We didn’t start this project planning on turning a profit, at least not for a long time,” says Myhrvold. Though Amazon pre-sales alone are already pushing well past $1 million, that “long time” may be putting it mildly. “I decided from the beginning that I wouldn’t disclose exactly how much we’ve spent,” smiles Myhrvold. “But let me put it this way: When one well-known magazine editor exclaimed to me at a presentation, ‘Wow—you must have spent millions!’ I just laughed.”