From a quiet street in a quiet suburb of Seattle, Nathan Myhrvold (who was a speaker at the 2010 International Food Blogger Conference) has made history. His cookbook, if you can call it that, will come out on March 7, 2011 and already fellow chefs are calling it the most important cookbook in a generation. On a recent weekend day, famed chefs David Chang, Michael Voltaggio, Food and Wine's Dana Cowin, and the Zagats (yeah those Zagats) came to Seattle for a meal with Nathan Myhrvold. So, what's the big deal with Myhrvold''s Modernist Cuisine: The Art & Science of Cooking? Here's a quick primer:
What are the details about the book? It comes out on March 7, though it may not be an easy acquisition. With a price tag of $625, a weight of over 40 pounds, 6 volumes and more than 2,400 pages, it is certainly not for the casual chef. Since he announced his intention to write the book in 2008, Myhrvold and his team of chefs, editors, and researchers have assembled their research into this masterpiece. It's currently on sale for $467.62 at Amazon.
Who is this man, Myhrvold? Where to start. He is accomplished in a variety of fields. Before he began work on this cookbook, he worked at Microsoft for 13 years, eventually serving as Chief Technology Officer and creating Microsoft Research. He has applied for more than 500 patents. In his spare time, he is a prize-winning nature photographer, enjoys paleontology, finished first and second at the World Barbecue Championship, studied classic French cooking in France and moonlighted at a Seattle restaurant during his time at Microsoft. Education-wise he had his PhD by age 23 and participated in a graduate program under the guidance of Stephen Harding. Are you impressed yet?
How did this all start? Rather mundanely, actually. Myhrvold posted a comment on the eGullet.com message board back in 2004. He wanted to try the technique of sous vide— cooking meat a low temperature in a vacuum-sealed bag. There was no information available, so Myhrvold decided to answer his own question. Months of experimentation resulted, and he wrote back on the message board. That's when people began asking him to write a book.
What are celebrity chefs saying? I can't find anything negative. Here's a sampling of some of the responses: “A fascinating overview of the techniques of modern gastronomy." (Heston Blumenthal) "Amazing! Unparalleled in its breadth and depth.” (Wylie Dufresne) “The cookbook to end all cookbooks.” (David Chang)... etc.
Any tips I can use right away? Obviously, you should read the book. However, The Wall Street Journal published a couple of practical tips right away. For example, if you want to make chicken stock but don't have hours to wait... Myhrvold suggests pulsating all of the vegetables you were going to use and some boneless chicken as well. Cut chicken wings into little pieces and brown them. Then, add the vegetables and simmer the broth for about an hour. The result will be the same as the one that takes 8 hours to make.
Any criticisms? There are a few. Seattle-based Becky Selengut, who blogs at chefreinvented.com, told The New York Times,"I’m wary of intense manipulation of foods when it involves chemicals, expensive tools and gadgets that only .002 percent of the population has access to." I couldn't agree more. In another interview, Myhrvold admitted that well-equipped cooks could replicate 80 percent of his recipes at home. Well equipped likely includes things like sous vide machines and liquid nitrogen— equipment many people can't afford. While everyone seems to universally agree that the food is delicious, there seems to be a lot of waste in making it and the average cook cannot make many of the dishes. After reading about the book it begins to sound like, "Well, I did this because I could." Ironically, according to an article published in this month's Wired, the molecular gastronomy trend may be petering out in restaurants. Obviously, this book marks an important contribution to the field of molecular gastronomy, which is undeniably cool and interesting. How much of the world will benefit from it remains to be seen.