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Nathan Myhrvold on Modernist Cuisine, the Importance of Photography, and Books vs iPads

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Photo: Modernist Cuisine

Just before the publication of his epic megacookbook Modernist Cuisine (preorder on Amazon), Nathan Myhrvold has absolutely no idea how the public will receive the 2,400 page book. In part on of our interview with him, we talked about the importance of production value, the future of his research kitchen, and why he doesn't yet have plans for an online version.

Your company, Intellectual Ventures, takes on issues like malaria and hurricane control. Why add a cookbook to the mix?
I've been in love with cooking my whole life. At one point when I was working at Microsoft and I was one of the senior executives there, I actually took a leave of absence to go to chef school in France. After I left Microsoft and started my company Intellectual Ventures, I started cooking a lot more. And I got into what we're now calling modernist cuisine and researching sous vide cooking. I thought, oh, geez, this must all be figured out and I just have to learn what people have already figured out. And I discovered a lot of it had not been figured out very well! So somewhere along the line, people started saying well, gee, you ought to write a book about this. And so I thought, yeah, I really should write a book about it.

How did it go from a book to 2,400 pages?
I decided, well, once you talk about sous vide you have to talk about food safety. And once you know a little bit about that, you should talk about how heat moves through food. And then, well, you ought to talk about hydrocolloids and these other modernist things. And then you gotta put it in the context of history. And so I decided I would write a huge book. Which? I thought huge meant 600 pages. And I started an outline for a 600 page book. And by the time we finished writing it, it was a 2,400 page book! And pretty much it was all the same topics.

I'm curious as to how your see this book being used, and especially who you see using it.
Well, that's a fine question. We're doing the experiment right now, we'll see who does use it. My simple answer is that the book is made for people who really love food and are curious about it. Now, for professional chefs, the book covers a lot of knowledge about cooking it would be very hard to learn any other way. If you go out and you stage at elBulli and Alinea and the Fat Duck and wd~50 and a pile of other places, you'd get a chunk of it but not all of it.

So you're filling a gap.
There's been this revolution in technique in cooking, but the books and other means of learning about it have not kept up. Culinary schools have not kept up. So one of the reasons I did the book is I realized that this was a project that the world kind of needed. Someone had to write the big, definitive book that would explain all of this new stuff that comes into cooking. New stuff in the way of scientific knowledge about cooking or it's new techniques or recipes. And yet no one was likely to do that book for, I don't know, years and years and years. Maybe twenty years. Who knows.

If you look at old technique, you can find big, definitive books that'll give you step by step on how to make an omelette, how to truss a chicken or carve a duck. But there's essentially no technique younger than thirty years that's in those books. And given how conservative the book world is and how uncertain the market would be, no one was going to get there. So, you know, this can be my contribution to the world of cooking. And that I can make this thing happen sooner, faster, better than it would happen otherwise, and I'm hoping there's a lot of people who really like that.

On top of amassing all this information, why also make the book an art object?
Production values actually matter. If you told Thomas Keller he should use paper plates and plastic forks at the French Laundry he'd say, mmm, no, I don't think so. But strictly speaking it'd be the same food, right? So what would it matter if you used paper plates? Well, the answer is part of his overall message is a message of quality and refinement. And at least as most people see it, it would be a discordant element to have that level of quality and refinement on paper plates. Well, the odd thing is that when it comes to writing books, the same chef who will refuse to make any compromise in his food — or her food — will compromise on every page. Ah, we have to have cheap paper, ah, we can't afford photos or we can't do that.

You know we had that whole thing on making the world's best hamburger? Part of the idea of that is that food doesn't have to be fancy in its type, in its aesthetic to be good. But if you want to make the ultimate hamburger, it's a big involved process, just like making the ultimate Peking duck or the ultimate anything. So we decided we wanted to have a high quality book. We wanted to have nice paper. We wanted to have beautiful photos. We wanted to do something that had the same commitment to quality that you see at the French Laundry, elBulli, or the Fat Duck. Even though that commitment to quality is quite rare, frankly, it's less rare than it is in books. In books the quality thing just doesn't exist.

Hence paying a lot of attention to the photography in the book.
A lot of the information we're trying to get across would seem technical, or dull, or intimidating if it was just done in text. Whereas if you have beautiful, sexy photos, you can seduce people into getting interested in it because the picture tells a thousand words. And if we could show people a vision of food they've never seen before, it would help us sell them on the idea. It would help us make a topic that would seem intimidating and off-putting into something a little more accessible.

All of this attention to quality certainly drives up the price point. In terms of accessibility, are you concerned about that?
There's a cultural issue that people think of books as being cheap, and a lot of books do make a whole series of compromises to be cheap at all costs. I make the analogy that publishers want to make the book equivalent of restaurants you find in a shopping mall. Now, there's nothing wrong with restaurants in shopping malls, I'm not against them. But when a publisher thinks of a high quality book, they think of something like Ruth's Chris. Mostly what they think of is Cheesecake Factory. That's their idea of a quality book. In the restaurant world it's quite different. So you could be calling up Thomas Keller and saying, so, what's with this $250 tasting menu, Tom? Most people can't afford that.

In the food world, it's very funny to me that people will ask me the question about the book being expensive when the book costs less than dinner for two at many of what food lovers would hail as great restaurants. So why is it that this book that took three and a half years to do, and it'll take maybe that long to read, why does that knowledge have to be worth less than dinner for two? I don't see that.

What about culinary students?
I understand that for culinary students this is expensive for a book, but I bet most culinary students will go to one of those dinners that costs $600, and actually quite accurately view that as part of their education. To see what great food is like. It's very hard to learn to cook well if you can't eat well.

You know, someone who was talking about this at a workshop and said, "Well, no cookbook is worth that." And I said well I totally disagree. You think that my book is not worth this? In that case you're welcome not to buy it. But how could you say no book is worth this? Knowledge is such an important thing. It does not take very many improved meals to make my book worthwhile. But anyway, we're gonna run the experiment, and maybe you'll talk to me a year from now and I'll be sitting on a warehouse full of them. We'll see what the market thinks.

So would you consider doing what Heston Blumenthal did with his Big Fat Duck Cookbook and produce a cheaper version of the book with lower production value?
That's certainly an example where he had a high-end version of the book and then he did a low-end version of exactly the same book. Word for word, it's the same thing. In that case it's basically the printing that's different. And to some extent the layout, they don't have the same size photos and so forth. Certainly that's a possibility.

It's also — look, my book's never going to be a really cheap book. It's still 2,400 pages. Even if you print it on newsprint it's not going to be a $10 paperback.

Are there plans for an online version?
Well, no. There aren't. Of course we've considered it, but there's no plans. And frankly to do a quality job of putting it online would be a ton of work. The same thing would be true to put it on an iPad or some other kind of tablet. And frankly it's not clear to me that it would be less expensive. You know, the thing that's most exciting to me about having an online or interactive version is that you can make it interactive, you can show videos. We've taken a bunch of high speed videos and you can imagine videos of the step-by-step recipes. If we did that, or if we did lots of interactive charts and graphs, that's expensive to produce! And in fact it's more expensive to produce than print! Which is why the typical situation is if you go online and you buy a cooking DVD, the cooking DVD is going to be like $25 for an hour's worth of stuff, which a typical cookbook would cover in ten pages. So if you really did a full video version of, say, Julia Child's book, that'd be a thousand dollars!

Now I'm not saying that we're gonna do that, but if you really make a quality adaptation, it's going to be very expensive. And the idea that you reduce the printing costs — which is true, you would reduce the printing costs — you would also probably trade that for some higher development costs. It's not clear to me that putting it online or doing an electronic version — if you did a quality job — would be cheaper. And I'm not that interested in not doing a quality job. That would be out of keeping with the spirit of the project.

Why did you end up going with print in the first place?
Now, two years ago, we decided what our first platform would be. And we decided the best platform to take these ideas out into the world was a paper book. Any way you look at it, paper is better, frankly. Right now. You know, two years ago when we made this decision, there was no iPad. And even today, iPads are kind of little. And so if you want to have those big beautiful photos, and have lots of annotations, and you want to send this out to lots of food lovers, not all food lovers own an iPad yet. And so if you say how many of the target market of people we're really interested in reaching, what is the best way to reach them, the answer is a printed book.

What does the future hold for the Kitchen Lab, where the research for Modernist Cuisine was done?
We are continuing to do cooking experiments. We can't help it. We'll have to then decide what the best thing to do is in another three or four months when we come up for air from promoting the book.

Any last words before the world sees the book?
I gotta say one other thing that I am very curious about is what the world makes of the book. Various people have helped us review parts of it for accuracy, but they've seen like a chapter at a time. In fact, very few of them have seen the very final finished chapters, much less the finished work. I only saw the very first finished copy maybe a day or two before you saw yours. They came in and we sent you one and we only have like a handful. So I'm very curious as to what the world's reaction is going to be. There are people who are very excited about the book, but they've gotten excited because they've heard one percent of it. And there are other people who are semi-hostile to it without ever having experienced it either. So we're very curious as to what the world makes of it.

Tomorrow in part two of the interview, we talk to Myhrvold about barbecue, the myth of confit, and the truffle trick that justifies the price of the book.

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