Questions for Nathan Myhrvold

May 6, 2013, 12:16 PM UTC

Galileo, da Vinci, Jefferson — that’s the league of polymaths Nathan Myhrvold, 53, plays in. He had a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton at 23; he did postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking; he made a fortune as the founder of Microsoft Research, the company’s R&D labs; he’s a paleontologist and master chef (the two are unrelated). These days, most of his efforts are aimed at “Modernist Cuisine,” an idea and a movement he created that marries technology and cooking — Julia Child Meets Mr. Wizard. Myhrvold’s 2011 signature six-volume, 2,438-page, gorgeously photographed book by the same title — weighing in at 40 pounds and $625 — is considered a masterwork of gastronomy and science. David A. Kaplan talked to him about the future of food, cooking for Bill Gates, and cheesecake. Edited excerpts:

Q: What’s your business about?

A: Our team is focused on a combination of making new discoveries in food and explaining the old discoveries better or in a different way.

Have the books made money?

I like to think of it as a business — a business in which we’ve taken enormous risks. So when we first did Modernist Cuisine, I think most people in cookbook publishing would have said, “This is insane.” We’ve broken even on the first book, and the more accessible version, Modernist Cuisine at Home, sold 40,000 copies between October and early January.

Was Modernist Cuisine always the title you had in mind?

There were a bunch of one-word titles, like Taste. That was too short and didn’t really push the topic. We also thought of Cuisine Modernista, 21st Century Cuisine, and The Future of Cuisine Is Now. Maybe there’s a better name. But, you know, I’ve gotten pretty used to calling myself Nathan. And I’m sure I would have a fine life if Mom had called me something else.

It’s not just about books, right?

We do other things, like consulting for food companies that ask, “Hey, is it possible to do X?” We also collaborate on a project called Global Goods with Intellectual Ventures, my larger [patent-holding] company. Global Goods is a project that focuses on inventing things for the developing world.

Companies like Williams & Sonoma or Bed, Bath & Beyond?

Several companies want us to help them think about the future of the kitchen, and what cool features they could put in appliances. One thing about cooks is they love gadgets. Golfers love golf clubs. “Gadget” sounds like I’m minimizing it. The right equipment can make a cook’s life enormously easier. And I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for technology to do that. In the book, we explore all kinds of exotic equipment, most of which is too expensive for the home. But you could imagine new versions of those things, which are better-designed for the home.

For example?

A lot of what we do involves cooking at low temperatures. That’s fundamentally enabled by the fact you can make a digital thermostat that controls temperature really, really well. But not everybody can buy a $10,000 professional oven or a professional water bath for doing sous vide. There should be toaster ovens and other appliances, both small and large, that use controlled temperature technology.

No Nathan Myhrvold appliance line?

[Laughter] Maybe. Who knows? Fascinating question is whether that would boost or decrease sales.

George Foreman!

He made a lot of money on that grill. Hey, George has his market, and my hat’s off to him … If there were ways that we could help bring something to market or promote something, we’d love to do it.

What made you interested in food — the aesthetic or the science?

I fell in love with the food before there was technology. I love to cook, and I love to eat — both. And it happens that science-and-technology is something I’m good at. What motivated me to write the book was there was a tremendous amount that was known about cooking that wasn’t well-shared or -explained. There were techniques that chefs understood, but you’d have to spend your lifetime apprenticing in each of their kitchens. Or there are things that were known in science that no one had ever told chefs. So it seemed to me there was opportunity to collect this information about modern techniques of cooking … I say modern because if we want books about traditional French cooking or Italian or Chinese, no problem.

Did you get to indulge your foodie interests while at Microsoft?

In 1995 I actually went to this intense professional chef school in Burgundy for six weeks. Bill wouldn’t let me have more time off. I am the only executive in Microsoft that ever took time off to go to cooking school.

Did Bill get it?

He asked, “So I’m trying to understand this, Nathan. Is it because you like to eat it, or because you like to make it?” I said, “Why choose?” [Laughter]

My hunch is his interest would be in the utilitarian: Is this something that’s going to help feed the hungry?

That’s not quite fair. Yes, he’s focused on the mission of his foundation, so he’s very interested in how these things can help the world. But he likes eating my food! And he tells me he found the cookbook fascinating. I’m not sure he’s read the recipes, but the volume that’s all about history and science, he’s read the whole thing. He says, “You know, this is the only cookbook I’ve ever opened up.”

And when you invite him over for a meal, he’s happy to come.

Oh, yes, absolutely. I just cooked dinner for him and some others at my lab. It was for an annual event of a biotech institute that’s run by this mutual friend of his and mine.

The menu?

Small. About 15 courses. A big menu for us is 30 to 50. I believe in rapid pacing. We have small courses, and we keep them coming. So we’ll do 30 courses in 2½ to 3 hours.

Your interest in food goes way back. How so?

I love to eat. I also love to read. And we grew up almost next door to a library, in Santa Monica, California. So I would read, read, read. When I was nine, I discovered the cookbook section. And I thought it was so cool that I could actually make the stuff I’d eaten. So I checked out a bunch of cookbooks, and I told my mom I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner by myself. And it kind of worked. From that point I was very serious about cooking.

Yet you went on to Stephen Hawking and Microsoft and all the rest. Why wasn’t it a straight line to where you are now?

Almost nothing in my life has been a straight line. I was very good in math and science, and I love math and science.

Do you think anybody quietly pointed you in the direction of commerce rather than cooking?

No, academic stuff wound up capturing my interests. Working with Stephen Hawking, we were doing fundamental cosmology. It’s nothing that’s applied at all.

Not a big market for that?

Nope! The universe we already have works pretty well, so there haven’t been a lot of customers looking for a new one. I fell into computer science by accident. In graduate school I typed my thesis on a very early personal computer — a very screwed-up personal computer. That motivated me to do something a little better … I became the chief technology officer at Microsoft but never had a class in computer science my whole life.

You’ve hung out with smart techies and world-class foodies. Which is the more interesting crowd?

I love the variety. When people have a passion for a topic — scientists, technologists, chefs — there are commonalities. They focus their lives on a specific thing. And it’s great to be able to see that and to be able to interact with it.

So you love all your children equally?

Of course one problem is that most of these people are monomaniacs. That means they fail the test of being great conversationalists. If you are totally focused on cooking, you may not be that interesting to have to dinner any more than if you’re totally focused on the Higgs boson. I have serial monomania.

Who does your wife like hanging out with more?

Well, she rolls her eyes and says, “Are you just going to do nothing but talk about ovens again?”

What’s she trained in?

Romance languages.


She is the world’s foremost expert on Agustín Moreto y Cavana, a 17th-century Spanish playwright who was more popular in his day than Shakespeare. But Spain’s position in the world changed. So he totally lost out on the fame thing.

Every field has a Holy Grail. Some in gastronomy say it’s how to cook the perfect scrambled egg. Do you have a quest?

We wrote this huge book, but there are lots of aspects of food that are still not well understood. Chemistry and physics are great for understanding simple materials. Food is a very complicated material.

Is that why there’s so much current discussion of the possibility of inventing new kinds of food?

Partly. One reason to invent new kinds of food is to get people proper nutrition without costs — costs in money, calories, fat, carbon emissions, take your pick. Eating is such a central problem for mankind that there will be invention in the basics of what we eat. By the way, this has already happened in the past. Everyone on earth eats food that isn’t native to where they’re from. In Italy, they eat polenta and tomatoes. They’re both from South America. In China, Szechuan food has lots of chilies. Guess what? Those are also from South America. And if you go around the world, almost everyone eats an ersatz diet.

How much does food innovation for practical reasons drive you? Would you eat fake chicken?

Food isn’t just a utilitarian thing. It’s also a great pleasure. Nobody really cares what the gasoline they put into their car tastes like. We do care what our food tastes like. And food is as legitimate a form of cultural expression as literature or painting or sculpture or music. But if it was only the aesthetic, then we wouldn’t spend any time trying to work on projects for the poor. But if it was only utilitarian, it would only be about nutritious sawdust, not about stuff that’s delicious.

Was there anything you consciously omitted from the book?

Oh, sure — a man who writes a 2,438-page book clearly isn’t that good at saying no. But even we said no in some places, like to desserts. I figured that was too much, too different a set of techniques.

By the way, I make a fine cheesecake. It’s so dense all light disappears into it.

I would be thrilled to taste your cheesecake.

So if I cook for you, will you cook for me?


A shorter version of this interview appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of Fortune.