Polymath, Renaissance man, food wizard, call him what you will, but one thing is undeniable, Nathan Myhrvold’s extensive list of accomplishments is enough to put the rest of us mere mortals to shame. Scientist, technologist, photographer, inventor, chef, writer, executive, Myhrvold, born August 3rd, 1959, had cooked the family Thanksgiving meal and built his own darkroom by the age of 13, and enrolled in university by the age of 14. After earning two degrees at UCLA studying mathematics, geophysics, and space physics, he earned a second master’s degree, in mathematical economics, and a Ph.D. in mathematical physics at Princeton. Next up, a post-doc at Cambridge researching cosmology and quantum theory with the late, great Stephen Hawking.
After Cambridge, Myhrvold founded his first business, a software company purchased by Microsoft in 1986 for $1.5 million. What followed was a 14 year tenure as a Microsoft executive, eventually taking on the role of Chief Technology Officer. While Myhrvold had been passionate about food and cooking since he was a boy, his life in the professional culinary world really began in this period as CTO, when he cooked on the winning team at the Memphis World Championship Barbecue contest, worked as a stagier for Chef Thierry Rautureau in Seattle, and took a leave of absence from Microsoft to get a culinary Grande Diplome from the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in France.
Never content to do just one thing, Myhrvold maintained his childhood love of photography and started publishing his food photography work professionally. He became a true culinary authority when, in 2011, he founded The Cooking Lab and published the highly-acclaimed culinary encyclopedia: Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Weighing in at roughly 50 pounds (22.6 kg), the five-volume, 2,438-page masterpiece involved the collaboration of two dozen people—cooks, scientists, photographers, graphic designers, and editors—working over the course of three years. The undertaking was so immense that there were no publishers willing to bear the financial costs of publishing, so Myhrvold self-published the entire work at his own expense.
Modernist Cuisine became an instant classic. Born from the meticulous experiments carried out at The Cooking Lab, the book blurs the line between the art and the science of cooking, detailing the scientific processes behind cooking techniques and, through gorgeous cutaway photography, revealing visually what’s happening inside foods as they undergo different processes (often cutting right through plates and pans with a bandsaw to get the impressive shots).
Myhrvold also used Modernist Cuisine to lay out his own culinary vision. Often compared to the term molecular gastronomy, a term which Myhrvold criticizes as meaningless, Modernist cuisine is about bringing scientific precision and experimentation to food, and rebelling against long-cherished beliefs and culinary myths to find out, for example, what scientific experimentation can tell us about how to make the perfect bread or the perfect pizza. These, in fact, make up the subjects of Modernist Cuisine ’s follow up books: Modernist Bread and Modernist Pizza.
For Modernist Bread , Myhrvold and his team used 40 tons of flour and baked 36,654 loaves of bread, each one involving different ingredients and processes, with 120 recipes used for baguettes alone. The book dispels myths and trends like using wood-fired ovens, which give very little control over temperature. While contemporary food culture may idolize all that is artisanal and heritage in baking, Myhrvold insists that the golden age of breadmaking is now, when we can innovate with new
techniques, unburdened by the authority of the past.
While some may criticize Modernist cuisine as taking the art out of cooking, for Myhrvold, science actually enhances creativity. In his words, “when people understand the science, that actually gets the creative juices going and gives them more freedom to explore new techniques and new applications of existing techniques. So by using Modernist techniques, you get more control, and that allows you to be more artistic, not less!”
Nathan Myhrvold is a physicist, food scientist, executive, chef, photographer, and inventor. He runs Intellectual Ventures and The Cooking Lab, and has authored numerous now-standard reference works, including the acclaimed Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. He also has hundreds of registered US patents and hundreds more under review.