December 27th, 2012
03:55 PM ET

Making 'the greatest cookbook achievement of all time'

Editor's note: Nathan Myhrvold is CEO of Intellectual Ventures, author of "Modernist Cuisine" and "Modernist Cuisine at Home."

By Nina Raja, CNN

CNN: For people who don't know anything about it, how would you define modern cuisine?

MYHRVOLD: Modern cuisine is the movement of chefs that are trying to create new kinds of food, new food experiences. And they don't care if they have to break some of the traditional rules of cooking to do so.

CNN: There are so many cookbooks out there, what's different about your larger, 6-volume "Modernist Cuisine" book and your new 456-page publication "Modernist Cuisine at Home"?

MYHRVOLD: Well, you know, we set out to make a book that would explain how cooking worked and all of the techniques that modern chefs use, sort of the cutting edge of what the cooking world is.

Now a lot of home folks bought the book and use it and cook from it, but it's a little daunting to buy a six volume, 50-pound, 456-page book. And, of course, a number of the recipes are recipes that are just hard to do, that in fact, almost every chef in New York would find hard to do, much less somebody at home.

So we thought there was room to create a smaller book, a little bit less imposing, a little bit cheaper, where all of the recipes were designed to be done in a home kitchen by home cooks.

CNN: Can you briefly tell us how you got from working at Microsoft to working with food?

MYHRVOLD: Well, I've always been interested in cooking. When I was nine years old, I told my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner, chased her out of the kitchen, and cooked the whole dinner. I'd do a better job today than I did then, but it still got me going. And so, my whole life, I've been interested and fascinated in cooking. While I worked at Microsoft, I took a leave of absence and went to chef school in France.

After leaving Microsoft, I got into more cooking and I realized that there really wasn't any big definitive book that covered all of modern cooking techniques. There are big definitive books that cover techniques of the past. And there were a few modern chefs that had written their own books, but they really couldn't do a big comprehensive project because they had restaurants to run.

So that's what set us down the path. Initially, it was just me working on the book alone, but then I decided I better hire a team, otherwise, I'd never get a book that size done.

CNN: According to Dave Arnold "Modernist Cuisine" is "The greatest cookbook achievement of all time."  Clearly the visuals in your books seem to be just as important as the recipes. What guided this innovative approach to the aesthetics?

MYHRVOLD: A life long love for me is photography. So I had this idea that if we made the book visually compelling, and really interesting and had great photographs, we would seduce people into getting excited about the science of cooking, whereas they might otherwise say, "Well, this is all about technical kinds of cooking. I don't care about it." It was like, "Wow, look at that picture. Look at this."

If you care about what you do, you try to really do it to the best. And so, I set out a goal that we would show people a view of food that they had just never seen before. And it was sort of a daunting possibility because people have been looking at pictures of food for hundreds of years.

The macro shot and cutaway photo - literally cutting pans in half to show you what's happening - really helped us give this aesthetic quality that grabs you in a totally different way than me telling you about how the physics of heat transfer affects food.

CNN: Are there other projects you are working on?

MYHRVOLD: I do research on dinosaurs. And it so happens that I've submitted a big paper on scientific growth rates to a scientific journal. And I also do research on climate modeling. So I publish a bunch of scientific papers on those topics.

My company, Intellectual Ventures, is involved in invention. So I invent all kinds of things, from nuclear power plants to new ways of eating French fries.

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Filed under: Books • Food • Innovation • The Next List • Video
soundoff (6 Responses)
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  4. Ugh

    "So I had this idea that if we made the book visually compelling, and really interesting and had great photographs, we would seduce people into getting excited about the science of cooking . . ." Funny how the numerous photos from it that I've seen are hideously unappetizing and seem to appeal only to the exact same nerds who are already so gosh-golly impressed by this guy's work. Especially the burger, with its nightmare of oozing, drippy sauce and its freakishly unnatural-looking tomato that looks like it was sliced by someone suffering badly from OCD. Worst of all it appears to be about to land in a little puddle of diarrhea. I wish I could get it out of my mind but I can't un-see it. I don't like the cross-section style they used for other photos, either. Neurotic, control-freak nerd food. The idea that he thinks it's stylish and appealing says it all. There's one thing real nerds of all types have in common and that's solipsism. As someone who is very interested in food and the aesthetics of food I am really hoping not to hear any more about this guy and his ugly, soulless food in 2013.

    December 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • un ugh

      I suggest you taste the recipes from the cook book.
      afterwards your comments would be valid

      December 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
      • Ugh

        What I was addressing was Mr. Myhrvold's claim that his book is "visually compelling" and "seduc[tive]." I thought that was pretty clear, seeing as the very first thing in my comment is a quote directly from him on that subject. Whether or not his book actually is those things is a matter of opinion, and my opinion is every bit as "valid" as yours. Out of curiosity, though, how many of those recipes have you actually tried?

        December 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm |

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