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Originally published Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Taste

'Modernist Cuisine' dissects the art, science of the new cooking

Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, applied his intellect, curiosity, deep passion for cooking and considerably deep pockets to produce the definitive work on the new cooking, "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking." He assembled a large team of professionals and contributors in creating the $625, five-volume tome, which includes 381 "example recipes," 180 "parametric recipes" (essentially graphs that each have about 10 recipes included) and 68 original "plated dish" entries.

WHAT HAPPENS to food when you cook it? The question appears simple enough, but it prompts another question, "What is food?" And for that matter, "What is cooking?"

The myriad substances we call food range from the flesh of various creatures to flowers and fruits as well as a certain number of peculiar fungi and yeasts thrown in for good measure. And the techniques we employ to make those substances more appealing or nourishing range from steaming and frying to brining and applying chemicals, processes that realign the physical structure of the materials with which we began.

So addressing the simple question of what happens to food when you cook it turns out to be a formidable task indeed, one that might take a brilliant physicist and a team of professional chefs equipped with all the latest equipment and a scientific laboratory to answer. Fortunately, such a team and such a place exist; and as of March, a most provocative answer to the big question will be available in the form of a five-volume book entitled "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking."

The author, Nathan Myhrvold, is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and founder of Intellectual Ventures, "a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions."

Myhrvold, who spent his childhood in Santa Monica, Calif., graduated from high school at age 14, earned a master's degree in mathematics, geophysics and space physics from UCLA, then a master's in mathematical economics from Princeton. He completed a doctorate degree by age 23. Since then, he has contributed to understanding global climate change, hurricane and dinosaur research, and eradicating malaria in mosquitoes. He co-authored Bill Gates' book "The Road Ahead," and now, as an inventor, has nearly 250 patents issued or pending — including several related to food technology.

To produce "Modernist Cuisine," Myhrvold hired 15 people, including five professional chefs, a full-time photographer, an art director and various contributing writers and editors. The kitchen crew was led by his co-author, Chris Young, who served as opening chef of the experimental kitchen at Great Britain's The Fat Duck under Heston Blumenthal and helped develop some of that world-class restaurant's most innovative dishes. Young earned degrees in mathematics and biochemistry at the University of Washington and left behind his doctoral work to cook with William Belickis at Seattle's original Mistral restaurant.

Young's right-hand man in the kitchen is chef Maxime Bilet, who graduated with highest honors from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. He was head chef at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar before he moved to London to train at The Fat Duck, where he met Young. Anjana Shanker, another team member, was sous chef at Scott Carsberg's (now-closed) restaurant, Lampreia, in Seattle.

While he was at Microsoft, Myhrvold took a leave of absence to undergo an intensive six-week professional culinary program with Anne Willan at L'Ecole de la Varenne. When he applied to La Varenne, Willan was dubious. "So I turned in my full resume listing my position as chief technology officer at Microsoft. She called me back and said they had lots of other programs that might be more appropriate, but I said no, I want to do the professional thing."

Willan sent a representative, Seattle cookbook author and culinary instructor Cynthia Nims, to interview this unusual candidate, and she recommended that Myhrvold gain some real-world experience in a professional kitchen. So he turned to Thierry Rautureau at Rover's restaurant in Seattle, where he worked one 10-hour day a week for about two years.

Intellectual Ventures, where the book was produced, occupies a 20,000-square-foot laboratory in Bellevue with an additional 7,000-square-foot storage space across the street. Besides state-of-the-art ovens, cooktops and refrigeration equipment, the preposterously well-equipped culinary lab boasts combi-ovens, freeze-driers, centrifuge machines, storage equipment for liquid nitrogen, homogenizers and a spray drier.

There's a biology lab, too, and a chemistry lab, labs for photonics, electronics, "small things" and more. There's a photography studio and a machine shop. Additional equipment is stored in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Kent.

"We wanted to show people food in a way they hadn't seen before," explains Myhrvold, as he displays slides of the books' pages, many of them complex images that show cooking equipment cut in half with food inside or on top in the process of undergoing the changes associated with being cooked. The book contains 180 "parametric recipes," which are essentially charts that provide details for adapting basic techniques to specific ingredients. These graph-like recipes contain an average of 10 "formulaic recipes."

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"Example recipes" (381 of them) were inspired by classic or previously published recipes, or adapted from recipes contributed by working chefs specifically for the project. And 48 original "plated dish" entries include an average of five recipes each for sauces, garnishes and sides.

List price for the finished work is $625, and social-media sites have been buzzing for weeks with murmurs from those who would scoff at the cost. But Myhrvold's work is unprecedented in its scope and scale. It has been a phenomenally expensive undertaking, and while it's not for everyone, it does fill a certain niche like nothing ever has.

"This book," says Myhrvold, "is something that I was in a position to do, and it wouldn't have happened in any other way for a very long time. You know, eventually there would have been books written about the new cooking, but who knows how long it would take that to occur?"

Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, consultant and author. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com.

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