Of all the eccentric projects a billionaire can embark on—buy a sports franchise and run it into the ground, build a giant wooden aircraft and fly it once, run for high office and alienate half a state—Nathan Myhrvold's is among the more bizarre. For three years the former Microsoft (MSFT) chief technology officer has been on a mission to write, edit, photograph, and publish the world's most comprehensive cookbook. The result: Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume, 2,400-page, 48-pound, $625 compendium of contemporary cooking techniques that Myhrvold will publish in March. It is, Myhrvold says, the book he's always wanted to own, if not necessarily bring to the beach. And since he has the means and technological aptitude to create pretty much anything he's ever wanted, it's a good thing he's more interested in cooking than, say, an affordable, suitcase-size thermonuclear device.
In 1999, Myhrvold, a trained physicist who led the development of Windows software and had a net worth of approximately $650 million, took what turned out to be a permanent sabbatical from Microsoft. The next year he left the company altogether and founded Intellectual Ventures (IV), a Bellevue (Wash.)-based incubator of inventions and patents. Myhrvold, 51, subsequently became known for pursuing an eclectic array of scientifically grounded pursuits. Thus far he has embarked on elaborate dinosaur fossil hunts, proposed spraying sulfur particles into the stratosphere to counteract the effects of global warming, and created a surgical stapler able to reach the more inaccessible parts of a patient's body. He's also received more than $5 billion in investment from Apple (AAPL), Intel (INTC), Microsoft, Nokia (NOKIA), and Sony (SNE) to develop green technologies in developing countries.
Myhrvold has balanced these pursuits with a lifelong love of cooking. (Another one of IV's quests has been a method for making a better-tasting Pringles-style potato chip.) When he was nine, he single-handedly cooked Thanksgiving dinner for his family from scratch. "I got all these books from the library and taught myself about cooking turkey, stuffing, yams, sweet potato pie," he recalls. In the early 1990s, while still at Microsoft, he attended the renowned Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne in Burgundy and became an early advocate of modernist chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. Their technique of sous vide cooking—the heating of food in sealed, airtight water bags in precisely controlled temperatures—combined Myhrvold's two great passions, science and food, and became a fascination for him. "This style of cooking was raising all sorts of scientific questions, some of which I would sit down and write thousands of lines of code to simulate," he says. "Everyone's intuition was based on conventional wisdom. But these new approaches defied that—and there were no books explaining the science of why you do things or how they work."
So in 2007, Myhrvold created the Cooking Lab, a private company housed within IV, devoted almost entirely to the production—and documentation—of modernist cuisine. He employed dozens of cooks, writers, editors, photographers, and designers and deployed them in what might be the most sophisticated kitchen on the planet. "It won't win any design awards," says Myhrvold, "but in terms of equipment and science, in terms of having to cook anything in the world, yes, it is the best kitchen."
Amid ultrasonic welders, an autoclave designed to sterilize medical equipment, a 100-ton hydraulic press, a rotary evaporator, and hundreds of other gadgets, he and his fellow geeks spent a couple years pushing food science to an extreme only an eccentric billionaire could achieve. "It's not like we were constrained by anything but the calendar," says editor Wayt Gibbs, a former Scientific American writer whom Myhrvold lured to the project.
As it turned out, even the calendar didn't prove much of a constraint: The publication date was delayed several times, and the page count grew from 300 to a staggering, and almost farcical, 2,400. Despite the delays, Myhrvold relished the process. After spending his mornings working at IV on, say, an ultracheap pasteurizer for African dairy farmers or a flat-panel antenna using "meta-materials," Myhrvold would spend his afternoons in the Cooking Lab. On any given day, he might saw a pressure cooker in half to take a cutaway photograph or shoot pictures of potatoes that were coated in edible clay to resemble stones. "The topic changes, but the skill set doesn't," Myhrvold says of his daily transition from inventor to cookbook auteur. "Part of the cookbook has been about reviewing photographs and tasting recipes. Did it taste good enough to go in the book? Obviously, I don't taste things at the flat-panel antenna meeting, so that's different."
Holding the galley pages of his magnum opus, Myhrvold becomes almost giddy as he describes the recipes, the tables, the charts, the history sections, and the photography. (Myhrvold took most of the pictures himself.) He estimates that at one point he had 36 people on his payroll, and while he refuses to put a figure on how much he's spent, he acknowledges it's "millions of dollars." While once describing Modernist Cuisine to the staff of a prominent food magazine who didn't quite grasp his pedigree, the editor looked at him quizzically and asked who was subsidizing the project—it must have cost a "million dollars," she said. "I wish it only cost a million," Myhrvold replied with a laugh while the room went quiet. As he recalls, "She looked at me, sort of like, 'who the f—- are you?' "
Modernist Cuisine may end up being the most elaborate and complex book ever written—about anything. Like Myhrvold himself, it manages to be exuberant, whimsical, and wildly inventive yet deadly serious. The first five volumes—History and Fundamentals, Techniques and Equipment, Meat and Seafood, Plant Foods, and Plated Dish Recipes—are as complete an exegesis of contemporary cooking as is technologically, financially, and humanly imaginable. The sixth volume—Kitchen Manual—is a 300-page laminated tome designed to withstand a sloppy saucier.
The complete work offers readers a view into Myhrvold's kitchen—and his brain. Modernist Cuisine includes recipes for an array of dishes many home cooks may never fathom, such as one that makes watermelon look like meat or another that turns yucca root into something resembling coal. It also provides unique reinterpretations of classics. (Readers can behold a recipe for macaroni and cheese based on wheat beer, sodium nitrate, and iota carrageenan, a gelatin from red seaweed.) There are also recipes for everything in between, from mandarin orange fruit leather to crispy spinach paper and crystallized rose petals. Each page is filled with lavish photographs, punctilious instructions, and a focus on obscure ingredient histories. The images are interspersed with charts and tables befitting an advanced calculus textbook—which was, Myhrvold concedes, sort of inevitable. "Maybe the science overwhelmed the gastronomy," he says with a shrug.
Modernist Cuisine humbly aspires to be to food what Diderot's Encyclopédia was to the natural sciences in the 18th century. While some may call it the bible of the kitchen, the cookbook is actually longer than the Bible. (It's also longer than the former bible of the kitchen, Larousse Gastronomique, which weighs in at a mere 1,360 pages.) It remains unclear, however, whether there is an audience flush enough to support a six-volume, $625 guide to carbonating a whole piece of fruit. Although Modernist Cuisine was born as a passion project, Myhrvold is convinced he can make money from it—eventually. "I would argue this will turn a profit," he says. "I just don't know when."