Nathan Myhrvold has a natural exuberance and generosity in his laughter, the food that he occasionally serves to the lucky few who make it to one of the rare dinners in his Modernist Lab, and in sharing his ideas or opinions of which he has many. In a nondescript office park in Bellevue, on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington, the doors to The Intellectual Ventures Lab open into Myhrvold's private imaginarium. Within this 87,000 square foot space, the Modernist Kitchen serves as the crucible where food ideas and techniques are tested and opinions floated.
The former Chief Technology Officer and Strategist of Microsoft is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, a private invention marketplace. This physicist, inventor, author, scientist, trailblazer, philanthropist, and self-confessed geek is undoubtedly very smart, considering he pursued a post-doctoral research fellowship under Steven Hawking.
A close friend of Bill Gates, his former boss, Myhrvold has a penchant for challenging experts in any field. A considerable fortune assists his large-scale hobbies that include researching dinosaurs, which led him a few years ago to challenge a scientific report on the growth rate of dinosaurs. Controversies about intellectual property and patent collecting business aside, he is probably more well-known for his forays into the science behind food and avant-garde cooking than for paleontology, oceanography, history, or nuclear science and a multitude of other disciplines that interest him.
Myhrvold the perfectionist added a culinary degree to his master’s degrees in space, geophysics, mathematical economics, and a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics. A sabbatical from Microsoft to attend Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne, a French cooking school in Burgundy, was preceded by a stage at a local Seattle restaurant as a requirement for admission.
You have to give him credit for never resorting to half measures. For many "food geeks" Myhrvold's encyclopedic "Modernist Cuisine" published in 2011 is the new go to cookbook/reference book for professional cooks. The six volume and 2400-or-so-pages-heavy tome requires physical as well as literary fortitude to stick with the elaborations of the pure science of cooking not forgetting the $625 price tag.
Myhrvold, whose can trace his own Nordic heritage all the way back to his great great grandfather Johan Adolfus Svendeson Myhrvold who migrated to Minnesota in 1878, recently hosted an intimate dinner at his lab to honor famed Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson. The unusual setting of the dinner in the middle of an active laboratory researching and elaborating on food techniques with its team of chefs and in-house sommelier set the tone for the twenty three course gustatory experience.
Prior to the dinner the small group was privy to an informational lecture along with stunning slides and interesting anecdotes of the teams visit to the Svalbard Seed vault in Norway. Visuals from the next book, Modernist Bread: The Art and Science, to be released next year accompanied interesting bits of information gleaned by his team during their exhaustive research.
Ferran Adria, Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz, and Anthony Bourdain have also graced the tables in the Modernist Lab. Myhrvold, who attributes his interest in food to Ferran Adria and his many visits to El Bulli, when asked about why he hosts these events said, "We want to tell people that we can cook" and a recent dinner there proved that they certainly can.
Why did you choose Modernist cuisine as the title of your book and what is modernist cooking?
Nathan Myhvold: It is cooking that is using modern ideas and modern techniques. It's not trying to be the past and that is the simplest definition of it. It's cooking that is just focused on saying we can do new things as opposed to the ideas that cooking
should be about the past and authenticity is the most important thing. Everything in cooking was invented at some point so it is not in the air and water but it is a human invention.
How long does anything remain modern or current because a split second later it's already the past?
That is a really important point. If you asked an art critic what modern art was they would have a similar idea or response. If you are in a museum of modern art you will see things from the 1920's which is not terribly modern but at the time it was really modern.