The Motives of “Modernist” Mastermind Nathan Myhrvold

Many things have been written about Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Bread – the fact that he’s a side-splittingly funny guy isn’t common among them.  Yet, when we spoke about his Modernist motivations, what stood out to me was his quick wit and infectious laughter.

Nathan Myhrvold at a private event in The Cooking Lab, plating Centrifuged Pea Broth, a recipe from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (Image courtesy The Cooking Lab LLC)

The former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer comes from humble beginnings, he was raised by a single mom and they “didn’t have a lot of money.”  His higher education began at Santa Monica Community College – at age 14 – and wrapped up Princeton, with a PhD in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, at age 23.

Myhrvold went on to oodles of other accomplishments you can read all about elsewhere.  It wasn’t my focus to delve into the aspects of his career that have been well-covered by the likes of Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.  What I wanted to know was what motivated a man with his background to turn his keen eyes to the cutting-edge of cooking, and blaze his Modernist trail.

The five-volume book that shook the culinary world, Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (Image courtesy The Cooking Lab LLC)

“I realized that I’d gone to school learning lots of things, but not cooking, and I love cooking!  So I thought, well, why don’t I go learn the real deal since I love cooking just as much as all the other things I got degrees in, that was the idea!”

The idea took some time to realize, as he was then a Microsoft exec and couldn’t just drop that gig and run off to culinary school.  He also wanted to attend a program for professional cooks, which required paying his dues in a kitchen. His solution? Stage for two years, one day a week, with “a chef who I was already a good customer of.”

That chef was Thierry Rautureau, and everyone at restaurant Rover’s in Seattle knew who Nathan was.  I figured it must’ve been odd for him to be a kitchen commis, so I asked him how it felt, was it weird?

Well, I can say that’s been true in many parts of my life, I’m sure people are often thinking I’m weird, but they don’t always speak up and say so!  ~  Nathan Myhrvold

Eventually he asked his boss and good friend Bill Gates for time off to attend La Varenne in France, a six week program for professional cooks. “We lived in this old chateau in Chablis, got up at 7:00am, had coffee and croissant, then started cooking, and it went until 10:00 at night.”  I asked how this challenge compared to the other educational goals he’d set for himself.  While cooking isn’t physics (or is it?), it’s rigorous and more physically demanding than academia.

“I’m good at hard work. So, seriously, I was fine. It was of course physically challenging, but I was actually pretty well-prepared.  I learned a lot, but it wasn’t like Oh my god I’m in over my head!  Just the opposite, I got along great!”

Nathan returned to Microsoft, noting that he “never actually worked in a kitchen for money.”  I replied, “That’s ok, most people who work in a kitchen don’t do it for money!”

Well that’s what I was going to say!  If you’re doing this just to make money, you’ve made a terrible choice! You should only do it because you really love it, because it’s really hard and doesn’t pay very well at all!  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

Myhrvold retired from Microsoft in 1999 with enough personal wealth to pursue whatever new challenges he fancied.  Besides a new business venture, he turned to three life-long passions, food, photography, and dinosaurs.  Yes, dinosaurs, but I’ll keep my focus to food and photography.

Nathan Myrhvold’s photograph of broccoli cooking in a pot that’s been cut in half, from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, and The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (Photo by Nathan Myhrvold | The Cooking Lab LLC)

With the mind of a born scientist and the glee of a little kid who loved cooking so much he reportedly took over Thanksgiving meal when he was nine years old, his approach to food was anything but ordinary.

At that time molecular gastronomy was taking hold in Spain at el Bulli and catching on in the minds of other curious chefs, and Nathan was “vaguely aware that this sort of stuff was going on.” As his interest in this new realm increased, he “kinda naively thought, OK, I need to get a big book that’s going to teach me all this stuff!

Nathan’s foray into a whole new level of food science began with an interest in sous-vide and the hunt for that elusive book.  Like Alice venturing down the rabbit hole, he didn’t know what awaited him as he started posting on eGullet about sous-vide. It became apparent that “nobody really knew what they were talking about.”

Nathan Myhrvold’s photograph of Injera bread baking over coals from Modernist Bread, the image is also part of the collection of artwork at Modernist Cuisine Gallery (Nathan Myhrvold | The Cooking Lab LLC)

One quickly gets that Nathan likes to know what he’s talking about, so when someone on the forum suggested that he write that big book himself, he agreed.  “I thought about it and – I never could find that big book of all these scientific things – so, why not just write it myself?”  His blind gumption at that ah-ha moment made him laugh in retrospect.

“I thought, OH I’m going to write a HUGE book!  It’s going to be 500 pages long!”  We both cracked up, “And of course, that’s about the size of just one volume of Modernist Cuisine!”  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

One of the biggest set-aparts with Modernist Cuisine was the photography, arguably what made the book go viral. Nathan was the first to cut everything in half – from the food to the equipment – and show what was happening on the inside.  Logical really, if you’re interested in the molecular level of cooking, why not apply that in-depth thinking literally to your photography?

“Absolutely!” Nathan replied when I turned the conversation to his famed images.  “I wanted to make a book that was aiming to discuss the most advanced, modern techniques in cooking that would be challenging for even the most talented restaurant chefs, and it would be very off-putting to the degree that those things involve science.  I also wanted a book that would appeal to home cooks because technically, I was a home cook!”

Nathan Myhrvold shooting a blender that’s been cut in half, the image appeared in Modernist Cuisine at Home. The process of cutting equipment in half is to take an object apart completely, saw each individual piece of the machinery in half, then painstakingly put it all back together. (Image courtesy The Cooking Lab LLC)

The idea was that if I could take really beautiful pictures that would show people what’s going on, that would suck them into the whole science thing and they would be seduced into being interested. They’d think, WOW, it looks like THAT? Why IS that??  Then they’d want to read about the science!  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

He said this in a tone of voice you’d attribute to an enthusiastic roller-coaster engineer not wanting to scare people off his modern monster of a ride. I burst into laughter, “Well, it worked!”  He chimed in, “Yeah, it did!”

BBQ kettle grill and Hamburger Cutaway, from Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, and The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (Image courtesy The Cooking Lab LLC)

Nathan Myhrvold carved out this path because he simply couldn’t find the book he wanted, and while one can argue that with his personal wealth it wasn’t much of a risk, he nevertheless sailed off beyond the map, and that’s always risky.  I asked if he had some early notion of the impact he’d make, if he ever sat back and thought, Wow, look at this crazy thing I’m doing?  Or was it just one wild ride, the outcome to which didn’t matter as much as the process?

“Well, you put this in a very good way,” he replied thoughtfully.  “There’s two ways that people design projects or products, and one way is to find out what they want – ‘they’ are the market – so you do research and focus groups, and that’s a reasonable thing to do.  The other way is to say, I want to build something or write something that I love, and then, you hope someone else agrees!  All of the best things are done the second way,” He chuckled, then added, “It’s also true of all the worst things!”

You take a huge risk that the things you love and that you want are not the same things that everybody else loves and wants.  But to me, it made more sense to do this, even with that risk, than to dumb it down or try to make it like every other cookbook.  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

Myhrvold’s many ideas often come with controversy, he certainly doesn’t lack critics going all the way back to his days at Microsoft.  With Modernist Cuisine, he again faced criticism.

While we were writing the book, friends of mine who were top chefs would report that they’d heard grumblings from other folks saying, Well who the fuck are they?? Where’s his Michelin 3-star restaurant??  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

People also said that so much science “takes the soul out of cooking.”  His reply to that particular stab, “Overcooked food isn’t very soulful.”  Then there came the outcry that Modernist Cuisine was outrageously expensive, which of course ignored the fact that so was the process required to produce it.

Nathan Myhrvold has a fearless and uncompromising nature, and it isn’t simply a result of his having amassed so much wealth. Indeed, I’d argue that he never would’ve got where he is without that nature. So I asked if he sees a symbiosis between these two qualities.

“To me, they do go together!  I’ve not been afraid to take some contrarian stands if I thought they were justified.  I think it’s important to have the courage of your convictions, which is sort of a phrase that goes along with what you were saying about being uncompromising.”

I pointed out that being fearless and uncompromising often leads to failure, but that it seems he hasn’t shied away from anything on the basis of avoiding failure. When I interviewed Modernist Bread co-author Francisco Migoya, he said Nathan created a culture that allowed for failure.

Cut-away image of bread dough during the proofing process, from Modernist Bread by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya (Nathan Myhrvold | The Cooking Lab LLC)

Myhrvold seized the topic.  “Yeah, there’s a bunch of sayings like ‘Failure is not an option’ but when people say that, what they’re really intending to say is We’re going to be bold in trying something.”  

If failure is not an option, then it must be a really timid thing you’re trying! If you’re trying something brand new, then no, I’m sorry, but failure IS an option, and failure is going to happen. Life isn’t about avoiding failure, it’s about being smart so that your failures are recoverable, and then recovering from them gracefully.  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

Having straddled two wildly creative, bold industries – culinary and tech – I asked Nathan what parallels or differences he sees in the people who drive new ideas into an uncertain future.

Well it’s funny you ask, when I was still working at Microsoft and doing my stage at the restaurant, Bill (Gates) asked me that same question!  I said to him, Well, the big difference is that you don’t carry a knife!  ~ Nathan Myhrvold

As our conversation wound down, I jumped tracks and boarded a different train of thought.  I asked how he feels about the negative impact  the tech industry has had on hospitality workers, about the fact that all this wealth has created a housing crisis in cities like San Francisco and Seattle.  He didn’t dodge the discussion.

“Two points.  First is that we massively underpay restaurant workers.  Our whole society does.  When my friends who go to fancy restaurants say to me, ‘Oh that doesn’t apply to the places I eat,’ I laugh and say Oh yes it does! Those restaurants that you’re paying a lot for, don’t always pay their people very good wages.  It’s pretty absurd the way the system has evolved.”

He continued, “We’ve evolved a situation where the lowest paid workers that these tech millionaires and billionaires experience are actually in a restaurant, because most of their office buildings have gone to a better wage for office-cleaners, and even their domestic help are being paid more than someone in a restaurant.  So we have this crazy system and it’s something the restaurant industry is going to have to cope with.”

Speaking on solutions to this growing problem, especially in tech-rich cities, Myhrvold added, “It’s true that in places like Seattle and San Fran the rents are crazy high, but wherever you are, we’re going to have to start paying more for eating out. I don’t see any way around that.  Massively underpaying our restaurant workers isn’t the right thing for us to be doing as a society.”

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