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Nathan Myhrvold finds the beauty and science of cooking

An old-school canning cutaway from “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.” Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine LLC

It was risky for former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold to ask Bill Gates for a leave of absence in 1995 to attend Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in France, but Myhrvold has taken a few gambles to pursue his passion for cooking. He assembled the Cooking Lab team in Bellevue, Wash., which won the James Beard Best Cookbook of the Year award in 2012 for “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” a six-volume, 2,438-page set for $625. The team works in a 20,000-square-foot facility where a dozen full-time employees have cooked since 2006. Their latest book, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” ($120), contains no recipes, but spotlights 405 food photographs that bring the beauty and science of cooking together with vivid microscopic and cross-section views of steaming burgers in the flames of a grill and bright vegetables boiling during the canning process. The orchestrated images, which put you inside the oven with the Thanksgiving turkey, can make you wonder, how did they do that?

Q. Why did you come out with a book focused solely on food photography?


A. The photography in [“Modernist Cuisine”] was a striking feature of the book. I thought it was a good idea to make a cheaper, smaller version because I like taking pictures of food. We got so many questions about how we took the pictures that we included a big section at the back of this book, 38 pages, on how we do it.

Q. There has been a lot of interest in what you refer to as “cutaways,” which are cross-sections so we can see inside the pot.

A. I thought it would be more appealing if it seemed real, so we decided to use photography and cut things in half to show what happens inside food while it’s cooking. The original inspiration was truly pedagogical. It wasn’t about aesthetics. But it turns out that we made some pretty good-looking pictures.


Q. What is your cutaway technique?

A. We have a machine shop where we really cut all that stuff in half, and sometimes that makes a hell of a mess. But we had a principle that it only had to look good for a thousandth of a second. The photos where stuff is flying through the air — that is exactly what happened. If it all goes to hell the moment after the photo is taken that is OK. We got our shot.

Q. Is the food at the end of the shoot edible?

A. In the majority of cases it was eaten right after. ’Cause why not? Obviously, there are some cases where we did have to do some fakery. When we have a pot that is cut in half and there is liquid in it, we did that by gluing heat-resistant glass to the pot. Afterward, we did go in and Photoshop out evidence of the glue. I am not against a certain amount of fakery but the food that you see is food.

“I thought it would be more appealing if it seemed real, so we decided to . . . cut things in half to show what happens inside food while it’s cooking,” said Nathan Myhrvold, on setting up “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.”Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine, LLC/Modernist Cuisine, LLC

Q. Are the books profitable?

A. If I stopped making new books then they may well be profitable. The next crazy book always winds up taking the capital that would be coming back from the other books.

Q. You have an expensive hobby.

A. I don’t think there is any need to be apologetic about the fact that I have a passion for this and I also have been very successful. Between the different versions of our books, we have sold more than 100,000.


Q. In the introduction to your current book, in which some photographs were shot so tight you can see the jagged, coarse surface of pasta, you write that your main goal was to make everything look good.

A. If . . . a book seemed too technical, we wouldn’t be able to share it with a bunch of people. But if we made it attractive we could seduce them.

Q. People have referred to your photos as “food porn.” How do you feel about that?

A. If they mean it’s not your old school food photography, that is true. You can make an argument that real pornography objectifies women. I don’t feel bad objectifying food.

Q. What has Bill Gates said?

A. He loves [“Modernist Cuisine”]. He said it’s the only cookbook he has ever opened. I believe him.

Nathan Myhrvold will be speaking at Harvard University’s Science and Cooking 2013 Lecture Series on Nov. 25 and 26. For more information, go to

Interview is condensed and edited. Alexa McMahon can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @alexamcmahon.