Life can have a funny way of coming full circle. This certainly appears to be the case for the founder of Modernist Cuisine, Nathan Myhrvold. At an early age, he quickly discovered he was drawn to cooking, science and photography.
“When I was 9 years old, I announced to my mother that I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” Nathan says.
To everyone’s surprise, she allowed his request, and Nathan did the work. He was inspired by a book that covered all things flambé, called The Pyromaniac’s Cookbook. And while there was just a small incident of nearly setting the dining table on fire, this moment sparked a flame that ignited his passion for the culinary arts.
“I got more books from the library and started to learn about cooking. I soon discovered Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire and pored over it, along with books by Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney and other authors of classic cookbooks about French cuisine.”
While most would think that Nathan was destined to become a chef, he quickly found two additional interests that became his primary focus: math and science.
These two subjects set Nathan’s life course on a new trajectory, and his dedication in school allowed for him to start college at age 14.
“Every topic related to math and science fascinated me, so by the time I was finished with school, I had a quite a collection of degrees: a Ph.D. in mathematical physics, a master’s degree in economics, another master’s degree in geophysics and space physics, and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics,” he says.
His life took many interesting twists and turns that eventually landed him at Microsoft, where he spent 13 years as chief technology officer.
Nathan’s passion for cooking remained a constant throughout his journey, however, and while working at Microsoft, he decided to make more time for cooking.
What started as a temporary leave of absence to enroll in culinary school eventually led to Nathan’s departure from the company in 1999.
He started his own small invention company and made use of his new free time to dive into modernist cooking techniques, photography and other interests.
Nathan’s return to his childhood passions brought about an interesting discovery that led to the birth of his first book as well as a cooking lab in Bellevue. He recognized a noticeable void in cooking literature when it came to sous vide cooking and took initiative to make a contribution of his own to the world of cooking.
“At the time, there was no book in English about the technique, and the only recent text on the subject was Joan Roca’s excellent Sous Vide Cuisine, which I struggled through in Spanish,” Nathan says. “There was clearly a need for a comprehensive book on sous vide in English, so I decided to write it.”
He started detailing a scientific explanation of the cooking process, the history of cooking, and the techniques, equipment and recipes involved in modernist cuisine. The book continued to expand the more Nathan worked on it.
“Food safety is intricately linked to sous vide; misunderstandings about the safety of the method have long prevented its widespread adoption,” he says. “So, with the help of several research assistants, I dug into the scientific literature and discovered that much of what chefs are told about food safety is wrong.”
The book took on a life of its own, and he eventually founded The Cooking Lab (home to Modernist Cuisine) in 2011. This is where Nathan built a team of scientists, research chefs and writers to carry out his vision of advancing culinary art through the creative application of scientific knowledge and experimental techniques.
Together, they published the five-volume 2,438-page book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
Their first book was quickly followed by another in 2012, Modernist Cuisine at Home. This work changed the format of the first to accommodate home cooks. In 2013, Nathan wrote The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.
Things did not slow down for the inventor, nor did his fascination with cooking. He hired Francisco Migoya in 2014 to work with him as head chef in assisting the Modernist Cuisine team with researching and writing the next book, Modernist Bread: The Art and Science. Francisco and the team spent more than three years researching the science, history and techniques of breadmaking.
The book was released in 2017 and offers a comprehensive look at the history, techniques, ingredients and equipment used to create yeast-leavened bread around the world. It includes more than 1,500 recipes that use new ingredients, techniques and insight for baking bread in both home and professional ovens.
In the same year, Nathan opened Modernist Cuisine Gallery in New Orleans and Las Vegas. The gallery was in birthed in response to multiple requests to purchase the photography seen in his books and feature large-scale, limited edition prints of his art. All of the artwork is available in custom frames and sizes.
Modernist Cuisine shows no signs of slowing down and is currently working on another book. More details on this project will be released to the public soon.
What started as a desire to cook his family a Thanksgiving dinner through the eyes of a young, inquisitive scientist has translated to a life of passion, expansive inventions, books, exquisite meals, photography and so much more.