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The Modernist comes to town

February 15, 2011 |  4:20 pm

Nathan Myhrvold, the food geek's food geek, seems like a naturally high-energy guy to begin with. But the news that his new cookbook “Modernist Cuisine” had cracked the Amazon Hot 100 Tuesday had him practically going into orbit. And why not? Who would have expected a six-volume, $625 cookbook to be so popular?

Even more amazing -- those are all on pre-order. There are currently only nine copies of the book available in the United States, Myhrvold says. The rest are being shipped from the printers in China ("on a very slow boat," he jokes).

To say the book is encyclopedic is something of an understatement. The first volume leaps from the history of cooking to microbiology, food safety, diet, fundamentals of heat and energy and then food and water, encompassing dozens of other topics along the way.

But maybe the thorniest topic is just what to call this type of cooking in the first place.

This is food that doesn't look like food, at least not as it has traditionally been prepared. It's the stuff of foams, liquid nitrogen ice creams, sous-vide, and hydrocolloids.

Originally it was tagged "molecular gastronomy," Myhrvold says, by the French writer Herve This. But since then, This has disowned the title and perhaps because it became a kind of shorthand pejorative for every bad foam that was ever served, so has just about everyone else.

Myhrvold favors "modernist" because of its use in other fields. "Almost every field of human aesthetic endeavor has had its modernist movement except cooking," he says over lunch at downtown's Rivera restaurant. Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, also sits on the board of directors of DreamWorks, and is in town for a meeting and, he gleefully announces, to catch the premiere of "Kung Fu Panda II."

"Part of this goes back to that basic argument about cooking: is it an art or a craft? When it comes to painting, that seems clear as long as you're in a museum setting, but when you're talking about folk art or primitive art, the distinction becomes blurred. 'Modernist Cuisine' is the first time cooking has really aimed to be purely art."

What does modernism mean when it comes to cooking? Pretty much the same thing as when it is applied to anything else, he argues. "It’s about exposing people's underlying biases and assumptions. It's about making you confront your assumptions of what an ingredient is and how it's supposed to taste and how it's supposed to be cooked … about what it should be.

"It's as much about what you bring to the table as what the chef brings to the table."
Of course, messing with people's minds by messing with their food stirs up some strong emotions. That's part of the modernist movement as well.

"I like it when people like this kind of cooking," he says, "but I find it more interesting when they don't. Some people really go non-linear very quickly. They get really angry about it. But they did the same thing with the Impressionist artists and now they're some of the most popular painters in the world."

-- Russ Parsons

(Photo of Nathan Myhrvold in his laboratory by Mike Kane, for the Times)