“Modernist Cuisine” is six volumes long, runs 2,400 pages and weighs more than 18 kilograms (40 pounds). The cover price is $625 and it’s sold out on Amazon, where outside suppliers ask as much as $1,875.
The 6,000-copy print run was snapped up, and then the Seattle-based authors lost touch with the printers after the tsunami in Japan. Another 25,000 copies are now on the way from China. Some buyers have waited months for the book.
“If you love food and are curious about it, the photographs make this the ultimate food coffee-table book or, if your flat is small, the coffee table,” author Nathan Myhrvold says, and roars with laughter over lunch at Hibiscus in London.
Myhrvold wrote the work with two colleagues and the help of a 20-strong team at his cooking laboratory in Seattle. He was the first chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp., remaining an adviser to Bill Gates after leaving. Myhrvold combines a sharp intellect with a sense of mischief that leads to further mirth when I say most people can’t afford $625.
“You work for Bloomberg, right?” he says, and chortles at the thought that many people in the world of finance might be short of a dollar or two.
Myhrvold, 51, is chief executive officer and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, which creates and invests in inventions. He holds degrees in mathematics, geophysics and space physics from UCLA, and PhDs in mathematical economics and theoretical physics from Princeton University, the “Modernist Cuisine” website says. In post-doctoral work at Cambridge University, he worked on quantum theories of gravity with Stephen Hawking.
(Both his collaborators, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, have spent time at the Fat Duck, chef Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Bray, west of London.)
Myhrvold says “Modernist Cuisine” seeks to explain and promote contemporary techniques that have revolutionized cooking. Yet don’t people prefer the simple pleasures of a beautiful piece of ham and a glass of wine to the processed dishes of chefs such as Ferran Adria and Blumenthal?
“No,” he says bluntly, and then laughs again. “You like a simple piece of ham? Guess what? There’s no animal called ham. And this isn’t grape juice we’re drinking, thank god. Even in simple foods, we take for granted enormous amounts of skill and processing. Done properly, technique only enhances ingredients.
“Any dish, no matter how humble its origins, can be perfected. A hamburger is no less worthy than langoustine. If food is poetry, comfort food is a nursery rhyme.”
Oh yes? So how would he make a hamburger with fries?
The answer to that question takes several minutes. When baking the bun, he incorporates a protein called L-Cysteine to make it soft. He makes his own cheese slices (using Comte and Emmental) with an emulsifying salt so they melt perfectly. The meat (short rib and hanger steak) is ground with the grain aligned in long strands. The mayonnaise is a beef-suet mousseline, the ketchup prepared with mushrooms; the lettuce is infused with liquid smoke and the tomato is compressed.
He cooks the burger sous-vide -- meaning in a bag, in a water bath -- only he leaves the bag unsealed. When the burger is medium rare, he plunges it into liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds, freezing the outside, then drops it in a deep fryer.
“Our fries are even better than Heston’s,” he says. “We steam them first, then we put them into an ultrasonic bath, which is used to clean watch parts, jewelry and dentures. The ultrasonic waves beat the hell out of the outside and make it rough. Then when we fry it, it’s impossibly crispy.”
Myhrvold is chuckling with pleasure and I’m feeling lost. Am I ever going to learn anything from him that comes in handy when cooking at home? Then he gives me a tip on preparing eggs and I’m hooked.
“If I cooked eggs for you, you’d never go back,” he says. “If you’re making a three-egg omelet or three-egg scrambled eggs, throw one egg white away. So you make two whole eggs and one yolk. Throwing the white away makes such a difference in the texture, it’s just much better. It’s yellower. It’s more flavorful. It’s not as rubbery. It’s like night and day.”
“Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. $625 cover price in the U.S., 395 pounds in the U.K.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)