By Rachel Belle
Would you buy a $650 cookbook?
A local brain has recently released one, and even I, lover of all things culinary, instinctively scoffed at the bank breaking price tag.
That is, until I got my hands on the 5-volume masterpiece. It’s a cookbook like no one has made before featuring molecular gastronomy. But how can you justify charging $650?
“It’s big, the paper is nice, the printing is excellent,” says Nathan Myhrvold, creator of Modernist Cuisine. It physically weighs over 40 pounds, it comes in this acrylic case. There’s a 6th volume that is printed on washable, waterproof, paper so you can take it in the kitchen and get it dirty and clean it up again.”
Myhrvold spent the past five years in his Bellevue lab/kitchen working on the book with a team of 18 full time cooks. But he may be better known for his contributions to the tech world. He used to work as the Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft and he now has 800 employees at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue. He graduated from high school at 14, got a Phd by age 23 and worked under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. Oh, and word has it he has a frikkin tyranasourus rex in his eastside home. I’m talking about dinosaur bones, people!
But back to the book…
“We think most cookbooks focus so much on ‘Here’s the recipe, do this do this do this’ and you get a result. And yeah sure, we’ve got the recipes, in fact we have 1,500 recipes in the book. But we wanna say why you’d do it! What’s some of the science behind it? What’s some of the history behind it?”
For example, the book explains how an oven works and where the word ‘watt’ comes from. There are math equations. And Graphs. And Charts. In a cookbook. Myhrvold says the book is for passionate and curious cooks, but do you also need to be science and math minded to enjoy it?
“I don’t think so. Many aspects of the book may seem off-putting because they’re technical. So we try to use dramatic photographs to show people what’s fantastic about it.”
The photos are truly amazing and unique, which you can see here, and it’s because of a special technique used by the photographer.
“We have cut pots and pans, even whole ovens in half, to give you the magic view of what you could see inside your oven, inside your pots, inside the food itself. “
I got to check out Dr Myhrvold’s lab/kitchen, where the spices are kept in test tubes and there is an entire wall of cooking supplies that looks more like it belongs in a pharmacy than a kitchen.
“Probably half the recipes in the book, 700, 750, anybody can do in a home kitchen. To get up to the next 25%, you’d have to buy some stuff, things you can buy at Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table. And maybe the last 10 or 20%…good luck! Because we decided not to dumb it down! And some of the techniques are things that you’d see at some of the finest restaurants on earth, that have teams of chefs and tons of equipment, and we wanted to show exactly how it’s done.”
Nathan says he cooks this way every day at home, but not everything is especially complicated. He says he’s perfected scrambled eggs, which he eats three days a week.
“The key trick is, if you’re making scrambled eggs with three eggs, throw one egg white away, so two egg whites and three egg yolks. Just by doing that, you greatly improve the flavor and the texture. I also cook it in my temperature controlled steam oven, so the temperature is perfect which makes the texture perfect.”
As for something more complicated:
“One of my favorites from the book is our pastrami recipe. We mix up a set of curing salts and spices. We typically use short ribs. You cure it for three days, then we smoke it for seven hours, then you cook it sous vide for another three days. So this isn’t a quick, ‘Oh hi, honey, I’m home! Let’s whip up some pastrami!’ But a week after you started, it’s just amazing.”
I ribbed Dr Myhrvold about his magical ability to make cooking as nerdy as possible. I compared him to Alton Brown, the science minded cook on the Food Network.
“Alton Brown’s TV shows or the Cooks Illustrated magazine are definitely kindred spirits to what we’re doing. The thing is, they tend to stop right when we get going, and we’d like to push it well beyond that.”
To hear a longer version of my interview with Nathan, click here.
A pretty cool video showing an example of how to make one of the recipes in the book: