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Nathan Myhrvold on His New Book, Apps, and Piracy

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Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater

The team behind the gigantic and gigantically expensive megacookbook Modernist Cuisine are at it again, with the just-announced Modernist Cuisine at Home coming this Fall. Author Nathan Myhrvold talked to Eater about what's in the new book, how it's different from Modernist Cuisine, and why there's no digital version of either book (your monitors are too small).

This book is coming out pretty quickly after Modernist Cuisine. How long have you been working on this project?
I looked it up yesterday, actually, and I sent the first e-mail with the outline [for Modernist Cuisine at Home] on April 30th of last year. So just a year.

What's going to be in the book?
Well, the recipes are basically all new. Some of the recipes — maybe three of them — are based on recipes that are in Modernist Cuisine. Maybe a little more than three, but three major recipes that are based off things in Modernist Cuisine, for example the Macaroni and Cheese. But we simplified them and changed them. So basically the idea of this book was to say let's approach modernist cuisine — the topic — with a big constraint. Which is that we want to have things which are very relevant to a home cook.

Now there are two ways that you can make it relevant to a home cook. Maybe three. One is you can not require all of the fancy equipment. So in Modernist Cuisine, we had developed methods for everything. The best method for preparing something is to use a centrifuge? We said hey, use a centrifuge! Now, a lot of people don't have a centrifuge at home. I may be the only person in the world with a centrifuge at home. But we figured it was still interesting to folks and we might stimulate the use of centrifuges. So, okay, there are centrifuges in Modernist Cuisine but in Modernist Cuisine At Home we won't use centrifuges, and no other really weird equipment.

Now, you could always debate what really weird means. We have a lot of recipes for pressure cookers in Modernist Cuisine At Home and we are unapologetic. Grandma probably had a pressure cooker and you can too. That’s not exotic.

We covered sous vide in Modernist Cuisine At Home because a lot of people are using sous vide at home. But we also have an alternative method that doesn't involve sous vide almost all of the time. Or in a couple of cases, we have improvised sous vide. So we have a way of cooking salmon, that you can just cook it in a pot just in the sink. We have a way of cooking steaks that involves filling a big cooler up with hot water. And you need a digital thermometer but you don't actually need a water bath. That’s really cool for doing sous vide steaks while camping or at a tailgate party.

So no exotic equipment. We had a small debate on whether or not sous vide was exotic, we decided it wasn't.

We also had no really exotic ingredients. The few — again, we can always quibble on the margins — so we included xanthan gum because it was in every grocery store we looked at. We included a few things like that but by and large, it’s not about finding ingredients that you have to order some chemical company or that can only be found in this weird place on the Internet. It's stuff you could buy at almost any store.

The third way is that we tried to make the recipes more relevant to a home cook. So in Modernist Cuisine, we have example recipes from elBulli and Alinea
and Per Se and all kinds of the fanciest restaurants on Earth. Many of
those recipes — although they’re wonderful, fantastic recipes, I totally love them — they're not the kind of thing people make at home.

There are a lot of ways I could discuss them that would be value-label ways. They’re too frou-frou or high-end or high brow, and a lot of people described them that way to me when they were talking about the book. So we said, “Okay, let’s make sure that the topic of the recipes — although it's all great food — make sure that the topic of the recipes is a little bit more down-to-Earth. So: roast chicken, steak. We have a whole chapter at chicken wings. We have a chapter of mac and cheese. So it gives much more home style in terms of the level, the ambition of the recipes and what’s in them.

There was a roast chicken recipe in Modernist Cuisine, but that one required a combi oven. So in Modernist Cuisine At Home, we developed a technique that will work with a home oven.

This is a trend that a lot of chefs have gotten into — more and more people are doing these cookbooks for people at home. April Bloomfield, for example, just came out with a cookbook for home cooks as opposed to doing a restaurant cookbook. Why did you guys decide to go for the home cook? I know a lot of people were wondering if your next book was going to be a pastry book.
Well — we never have got pastry done in a year. One of the things was that we wanted to do a book that would be quicker out the door, rather than have another 5-year gestation period. So that was one motive.

The second motive is that you know, there are so many home cooks who have Modernist Cuisine. But we thought there was probably several times that many that wanted something like Modernist Cuisine, but they wanted something that was not quite so complicated, didn't have quite so much equipment, ingredients and maybe was a little bit more manageably priced.

We considered pastry, of course. I think we'll do a pastry book, although we haven't announced it yet. But we decided the first thing that we should do is probably a book at home. And as you point out, lots of chefs have done this just in the past year. Heston Blumenthal did a book called Heston Blumenthal at Home, Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] has a book Home-Cooking With Jean-Georges, it was something much like that.

So we thought that adapting these modernist cuisine ideas at home would be a cool thing to do.

So that said, there are sweets in this book and this is the first time you’ve written about that kind of thing. What sort of techniques can we expect from the dessert section?
Well, we thought having a book with no dessert for home cooks would be a little bit odd. And we had done a bunch of work on custards. We decided to make custards and cream pies, basically. One could argue that this is not a very comprehensive dessert section and you would be correct. But custard let us put in a couple of ice creams
and a whole pile of interesting custards and then we have a Pâte Brisée and we can make every custard into about ten pies.

So for people with a sweet tooth, this is a huge improvement from Modernist Cuisine. It is not a comprehensive treatment of all things pastry yet. Not by any stretch. But at least for people with a sweet tooth, we can feed them a little bit.

The recipes that you mentioned — things like Roast Chicken, Mac and Cheese — these are all very standard Americana. Do you look at other cuisines at all in the book?
It really is an American book. But, okay, there’s an interesting question: what is your position on carnitas? Is that American food?

Sure, I see what you're saying.
I would say yes because Tex-Mex and some aspects of Mexican food really have been so widely adopted in the US. And you could find carnitas on almost any menu in the US. I would argue. So that said, it does have a largely American outlook on it. Now, when we say that — we’ve got all these Asian sauces in our chicken wing chapter or whatever, but American food isn’t just traditional American food. If you take American food to include all kinds of fusion stuff, then yeah, we’re more American. Hence,
that’s the way it is. Sorry.

Our version of American is very broad. It's carnitas, it's Korean spice paste, we have a section in the ingredients chapter called Walk on the Wild Side. The basic ideas is we're exhorting chef to go to a market they don’t normally go to. No matter what ethnicity you are, there’s a store of that type in America. There are Arabic stores and Mexican stores and African stores and Asian stores, and every community has them, just about. And they have all kinds of weird-looking products, we told people they should go and just buy stuff and start trying it.

And a bunch of the recipes we do cover. But we don’t cover it comprehensively; we couldn’t cover all types of Thai foods or Vietnamese food, for example, but there’s a couple of recipes in the book that have a Thai or Vietnamese twist to them. We have a satay, for example.

Let’s talk about pizza. Once a year or so, someone comes out with a book that’s supposed to be the next big way to make pizzeria-style pizza at home. What's your pizza technique?
We have pizza in Modernist Cuisine, we had a small section on it and we decided to expand that to a whole chapter. So this is our best idea on how to make pizza at home. There’s a couple of different parts to that, one is how do you make the
dough? Jim Lahey has a pizza book that just came out. It’s very good. It came out really after we were done with Modernist Cuisine At Home. But we have an adaptation of his previous bread method which lots of people have been using for pizza.

Running contrary to the gluten-free trend, we think gluten is really great in pizza dough. Gluten is of course the protein in bread, what you develop with kneading
or with long fermentation. It’s what makes it crusty and so we actually add gluten to ours. And that turns out super well.

The other that you do besides working on the dough is how do you get a nice crisp crust. We have done a bunch of experiments on this using metal plates. We extended
those and did more, we also have an option for fried pizza, where you put some oil in there. There arelots of other people that have done those experiments also and our approach was the best that we’re able to develop in our kitchen.

There’s been some noise on the Internet about the fact that there's still not going to be a digital version of the book, or an app. Why was the decision made to not move forward with that in this new book?
Okay, that's two different topics. One topic is doing another version of Modernist Cuisine. We had this meeting a year ago where we all sat around and said does anybody want to work on Modernist Cuisine anymore right now? And we’re like, “No.” [Laughter]

It’s much more interesting doing a new thing than taking an old thing and adapting. We did a bunch of experiments looking at Modernist Cuisine as an app and they sucked. That’s the simplest answer. The book is done with this series of 2-page lay-out, and it’s pretty highly designed.

We’ve tried to come up with some quick and dirty ways to move that to an app,
or digital form and it didn’t work very well because the types that we used were too small. There all kinds of ways that we can’t use much more of what we already have. So what that means is to do an app version of Modernist Cuisine would be a huge amount of work and a huge pain in the ass, basically. And a huge amount of money, and really a different team. We would have to have a bunch of people that do interactive apps, which we don’t have. And of course we can hire them. But then it's just, do we want to go over ground we've already plowed again?

And finally, I have to say, one of the reason people ask about an app is they have a weird value perception. You know, if you priced a cooking DVD, you’ll discover that it’s usually — what do they normally charge with DVD or Blu-ray, you know, $10 - $15 - $20 for half an hour.

If we really made an interactive version of Modernist Cuisine, it would require at least hundreds of hours of video. It would require lots of animation, it would require a budget that was actually several times more than Modernist was all ready. Then people would expect the app to be $10.

So if we made a video production, video animation at the same level of quality we made Modernist Cuisine, it would be an app that nobody could afford. Because it would be priced more like pricing video. Video production is fundamentally more expensive than book production. A book has contents that would take you dozens of hours to go through and it's at one price point.

Meanwhile, the price point for video is more like $20 an hour. So people have this knee jerk reaction that if it's on paper, okay, Modernist Cuisine cost $500 because the paper's expensive. Well, it is expensive. But the production cost is also one of factors, so the idea of spending millions of dollars to get a version of Modernist Cuisine that would probably be priced higher than the paper version. We just didn't see that that was worth doing right now.

Frankly, I think there’s a problem with the market for apps and online content that’s all done so cheaply that everyone’s expectation is that things should be free, or close to free, 20 bucks.

Right. But you don’t think that it’s a little bit of a convenience factor? That people would want an app or a digital book version because then they would have a searchable text, that they could jump between the volumes and, you know, not have to lug the thing around?
Of course that aspect would be nice. But the trouble is, literally, what device are making this for?

My computer at home has two 30-inch monitors. Actually, at the office, too. Because when you layout those big as pages, you need to have big as monitors. And the version of Modernist Cuisine that runs on those big 30-inch displays, we could do that.

But how many people have two 30-inch monitors? Or even one 30-inch monitor? The
minute you start making it for a tablet, you know, the size of iPad for example, it’s so small that you then have to either totally change the layout and that causes a huge amount of rework and a huge amount of expense. It would be convenient in some ways but it would be inconvenient in other ways because of the size is so small.

And the other thing is I don’t think people are ready for an app that would cost that much. Let’s say that I figured out how to do it for free and I charged the same amount for the app as I did for the paper version. Or I subtract the cost of the paper. It would be the most expensive app by a giant factor.

Now, maybe I’m just thinking that — maybe I am being unambitious about what people would pay for apps but at the moment — why aren’t most books apps, or why aren’t books video, why don’t people do more video? And the reason is most people, most chefs or cookbook authors, could not afford video production cost to make all books on the video.

And if they can afford to make it, like what happens when they have a TV show, then the thing is actually pretty expensively priced compared to the same book that has vastly more content.

Okay, but people are still itching to have a digital book version. Have you guys had any issues with piracy, PDFs of the books being downloaded on the internet?
Yeah, we did. Every now and then someone has downloaded some pages of Modernist Cuisine off BitTorrent or some place like that. But by and large, I think we had one whole group of people that were all planning to buy a copy of Modernist Cuisine and make a high-quality PDF out of it and distribute it. And someone in the group sent us the email chain of all the other people in the group.

So we heard that and we said, “Hey guys, that’s not very cool”, and they decided not to do it.

So far so good on that front, then?
I think so.

· All Modernist Cuisine At Home Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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