In a test kitchen outside Seattle, Nathan Myhrvold and his team have been upending conventional ideas and elucidating bedrock truths about cooking.
The effort led to a monolithic volume of books dubbed “Modernist Cuisine” and launched Myhrvold’s rise as a different kind of culinary celebrity.
Now, Myhrvold is setting up shop in New Orleans, but he’s not opening a restaurant. Instead, he’s opening a fine art gallery for his food photography. Modernist Cuisine Gallery opens this week in the French Quarter, at 305 Royal St.
“We all look at food, but how much do we really see it?” Myhrvold asked. “Food has to be a regular part of people’s lives, but it’s very, very easy to become inured to it, to take it for granted, and miss the fascination that can come from this incredibly familiar thing.”
Myrhvold’s work, in photography, kitchen experiments and his growing series of books (“Modernist Bread” was released this fall), seeks to rekindle that fascination through modern scientific rigor and creative representation.
That’s something he knows a thing or two about.
Myhrvold holds a culinary degree, but he didn’t arrive at modernist cuisine through restaurants. Earlier in his career, he worked in theoretical physics at Cambridge University with Stephen Hawking. He later started a software company that was bought by Microsoft. He became chief technology officer for the tech giant, working with Bill Gates and amassing a fortune along the way.
After retiring from Microsoft, he started the investment firm Intellectual Ventures and also started pursuing some of his own ventures. One was his passion for food, which led to the development of his food lab and the books that followed.
“Modernist Cuisine,” self-published in 2011, is a multi-volume manifesto tipping the scales as 52 pounds (and ringing in at about $500). It folds in elements of physics and chemistry, microbiology, mechanical engineering and even shop class. Food, cookware, even an entire oven have been cut in half to reveal their inner workings.
The book covers sous vide machines and ultrasonic baths, gels and emulsifiers, but beyond the gadgets of molecular gastronomy it is more about applying a modern view and cutting edge tools to cooking techniques, the innovative and ancient alike.
For instance, it delves into the physics and chemistry of the hamburger, revealing the “sweet spot” for radiant heat and a counterintuitive finding that char-grill flavor doesn’t rely on charcoal or wood but rather flares of burning fat.
The books’ illustrations depict everyday processes in new ways, and these photos eventually led to a different focus, combining the artistic potential of Myhrvold’s custom-built cameras and his own inquisitive eye.
Myhrvold’s photos are to your Instagram snap of avocado toast as his “Modernist Cuisine” books are to your index card collection of family recipes. The latter is valuable because it’s yours; the former stands out for the technical process that went into it.
“My goal was to show people this view of food they’ve never seen before,” he said. “That’s difficult because there are so many pictures of food out there.”
Myhrvold’s photography was the subject of a traveling exhibit that stopped at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans in 2015, and it toured science museums around the country. Modernist Cuisine Gallery is a different tact, one Myhrvold said came about after enough people asked how they could buy prints from his books. The Royal Street gallery follows another outpost that opened in Las Vegas earlier this year.
“The sentence ‘I’m opening an art gallery in New Orleans’ is not a sentence I ever thought I’d say,” Myhrvold did say, with a giddy laugh. “But is food a subject that is worthy of art? I’d argue hell yes. Food is something we have such a special connection to. People who identify with food or identity with what’s in the photo, it’s a way of showing what they value.”
For Myhrvold, pursuing work that taps into something so central to people's lives has brought a different kind of reward too.
“When I was a physicist working with Stephen Hawking, we wrote scientific papers that other people would read,” he said. “But they were a lot fewer than the people who read my cookbook.”
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