Imagine green pearls rolling around your plate. You bite one -- the outside is crisp and cool, the inside is warm, lush basil sauce. This is modernist cuisine, the approach to cooking that has chefs rethinking everything they know. The term "Renaissance man" is thrown around a lot, but Nathan Myhrvold is the real thing -- and he is the man behind modernist cuisine.
When Myhrvold was a little kid, he was given a plastic camera; he is now an award-winning photographer. That same little kid loved dinosaurs; now he presents papers on them at universities. He was Microsoft's first chief technology officer; today he is creating a nuclear reactor with Bill Gates. Plus, he has degrees in physics, mathematics and space science.
You can imagine that when a man like Myhrvold turns his hand to cooking, nothing is going to be ordinary. After a lot of research, in 2008 Myhrvold delivered the six-volume Modernist Cuisine with amazing photos. It was an instant best-seller and mind-blower with food pros. Next was Modernist Cuisine at Home. Now he has published, at nearly 13 pounds and almost the size of a coffee table, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine. A gallery of our favorite photos is below.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I'd like to ask about your path. You've done all of these things plus work with the physicist Stephen Hawking. How did food come into this?
Nathan Myhrvold: I grew up almost next door to a library. When I was 9 years old, I discovered the cookbook section and I started reading cookbooks. I came and announced to my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner all by myself. I had to go to the store by myself and cook it all. I got all these cookbooks and I read all of them. I got Escoffier -- it turned out that wasn't very helpful for Thanksgiving dinner. I cooked the dinner. From that time forward, I was very interested in food.
Around that time, I also got my first camera. I was fascinated with photography. Ansel Adams came to speak at the University of California, Los Angeles -- I grew up in Los Angeles. My mother got me a ticket, so I went and I got to hear Ansel Adams talk. I was fascinated with photography. My book projects have managed to combine these two long-term passions -- food and photography.
Then when I was working at Microsoft, I asked Bill Gates for a leave of absence so I could go to chef school in France. He let me do it. Of course a chef school wouldn't take me unless I had work experience, so I actually worked one day a week for a couple years at a French restaurant in Seattle. I'd go in around noon, prep for dinner, cook through dinner and then go home.
LRK: You now are working in something you've coined "modernist cuisine." A lot of people call it by other names. But this is, essentially, a new approach to food science and looking at methods of cooking that we turn inside out and upside down. How did the science piece get in there?
NM: Another long-term mash with science. When I was 2 years old, according to my mother, I told her I was going to be a scientist. While growing up, I was really good at school, I was really good at science things, and that's why I wound up being a physicist and working with Stephen Hawking. The food path of my life and the science path were really pretty different.
But then in the 1980s, a guy named Harold McGee published a book called On Food and Cooking, which really was showing how science was relevant to cooking. After I retired from Microsoft in 1999, I got more and more into cooking. I realized that there were a bunch of people like Ferran Adrià of Spain, Heston Blumenthal in the U.K., and others who were trying to apply ideas from science to create new kinds of dishes.
I thought, Hey, this is great. I need to learn this. Surely there is some big book that explains it all. I'll get that book and this will be great.
Only I couldn't find that big book. In fact, there was no easy way to learn about modern culinary techniques. By "modern," I mean techniques invented in the last 20 years. All of the really interesting stuff that had been invented by chefs in the '80s and '90s and then into the 21st century was really hard to pick up.
I started picking it up and learning from the chefs who were doing it. I eventually decided, because I couldn't buy that big book that explained it, maybe I should write it. I embarked on a process that ultimately led to my first cookbook.
Recipe: Pressure-Caramelized Sweet Potato Soup (Photo: Modernist Cuisine)
This latest book takes some pictures that were from previous books, but also an awful lot of new pictures that didn't occur in those books. Then it puts them on really big paper with really nice, high-quality printing to show the photographs without the distraction of the text and the distraction of the pedagogical aspects that those other books really had.
LRK: Do you have advice for amateur food photographers?
NM: Photography is about recording light. You've got to have a lighting situation that produces really pleasant light. Usually that doesn't occur from having a single, harsh light on things.
The single best way to take pictures of your food is to first get it in light that's appealing. Usually, that means turning off the flash for your camera or your phone. The flash will overwhelm the existing light usually, and that will create a very harsh thing, like a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look on the food. Whereas light often coming from one side that's a little bit more natural and diffuse works wonders.
(Photo: Modernist Cuisine)
It turns out that human eyes are very good at doing the ratio of very dark to very bright things. We can see very, very large differences in light to dark. A camera, not so much. As a result you either wind up having the highlights all blown out and white, or the highlights are OK and the shadows are inky black and you can't see any detail in them.
You always need more even lighting for a camera than you do for your naked eye. If you don't have a window, shine a bright light against a white wall. That works very well.
LRK: That will bounce to the object.
NM: Exactly. What you're creating is a diffuse, gentle light source. For most food, that's really what you want.
LRK: What goes on in your kitchen around the holidays?
NM: Food is part of holiday celebrations. It really isn't a holiday if you're not celebrating with food of some sort. Then you have to make the decision do you do things that are traditionally oriented -- do you have turkey, for example -- or do you go a non-traditional way?
I like to mix it up. I love turkey thighs cooked in the style of a duck confit. You cook them at a low temperature for a period of time with a little bit of fat or oil and it creates this amazing texture. It's always worth exploring things beyond what the original ideas are. Almost any great entree can be adapted to the holidays.
To me, I think it's more the spirit of how you share the food and the process that goes around it, the feeling of abundance and sharing, than it is the specific dishes.
Here's a small sampling of what's in the book.
Octopus and Ink (Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith)
Wok Stir-Fry (Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith)
Burgers on a Grill (Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith)
Water-Vapor Oven (Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith)
Levitating Grilled Cheese Sandwich (Photo: Melissa Lehuta)
Pulverizing Pain d'Epices Powder (Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith)
Popcorn Liftoff (Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith)