Nathan Myhrvold discusses Modernist Cuisine on UWTV’s Media Space

Just a few days after the first shipment of Modernist Cuisine passed through the Port of Seattle, author Nathan Myhrvold sat down with UWTV’s Media Space to discuss the book’s mission, its impact, and why he created a striped omelet. You can find a detailed account of the event on UWTV’s website or watch the video of the interview below:

Nathan said Modernist Cuisine was driven by a confluence of need, opportunity, and available talent. He explained how the need for a comprehensive book covering recent innovations in cooking led him to build The Cooking Lab and assemble the team that made the project possible. At 1.1 million words and 2,438 pages, Modernist Cuisine makes advanced Modernist cooking techniques and information accessible to the average person.

While he didn’t have time to answer questions from Twitter during the interview, Nathan’s answers to some of those questions are presented below:

Amyrolph: What’s your favorite recipe [from the book]?
Nathan: Given the number of recipes and variations in the book, it is impossible for me to pick just one. I am, however, a well-known barbecue lover, so those recipes will always rank high in my book!

Ryanositis: Great photography for your new book! How did you get some of those cutaway shots?
Nathan: At The Cooking Lab, we have access to nifty toys like high-speed video equipment and a full machine shop. The cutaway shots you see in the book are actual cutaways: that is, we actually did cut things in half to take the pictures! As I’m fond of saying, we now have two halves of the best stocked kitchen in the world!

Larry_B: Is there a subset of equipment or supplies that are reasonable for home cooks?
Nathan: Yes. Chapter 10 on The Modernist Kitchen includes three tables that list, in rank order of usefulness, cooking equipment we recommend that is beyond the ordinary gear that pretty much all home cooks have. The first table details “Must-Have Tools for the Modernist Kitchen,” the second table is “Inexpensive but Invaluable Modernist Tools,” and the third lists “Classic Tools for Modernist Cooks.” Perhaps more important, the book explains what we looked for in the equipment and why, so the reader can make better choices when deciding if and what to buy.

Amyrainey: How have you managed the online movement that’s formed around Modernist Cuisine? How do you plan to leverage this enthusiasm?
Nathan: I’m not sure we’re managing it so much as participating in it and nurturing it. Modernist Cuisine came about largely as a result of my involvement in online forums, so we made a commitment to remain engaged online throughout the project and beyond. We are very active and engaged on our blog at and on Facebook and Twitter, where we invite your comments!

SunaG: Is molecular gastronomy just fancy processed food?
Nathan: This is a topic I have covered extensively on the blog, but the short answer is that it depends on your definition of processed and fancy. All food is processed in one way or another: from picking it off the vine or digging it out of the ground to butchering and cooking. Contrary to popular belief, making even the simplest bread is a highly complex process. Everyone is free to assign arbitrary values to the type and amount of processing they prefer. I would simply suggest that these values are, in fact, arbitrary.

Autumnlerner: What are your thoughts on the raw food movement and Modernist cuisine? Compatible?
Nathan: Again, this depends largely on your definition of raw. The book covers everything from foods that are prepared and served cold to dishes that undergo multiple cooking stages to achieve a range of doneness within a single food. But to address your question, the Modernist and raw food movements are entirely compatible as long as people can eat what they want. And at various points in the book we do explain a variety of techniques, such as marination, that can achieve cooked textures without the application of heat.

Dakini_3: Can Modernist cuisine be vegetarian and sustainable?
Nathan: Sure. Modernist techniques can be used to create foods with so many flavors and textures that any single ingredient can be completely avoided without sacrificing taste. In fact one of the advantages of using modern ingredients is the new paths it provides to familiar culinary destinations. For example we have recipes in the book for a vegan pistachio gelato and for “meat” made of watermelon, as well as fantastic recipes for homemade tofus.

The issue of sustainability has more to do with how and where the ingredients you select are produced than with how they are prepared. We encourage cooks to make sustainable decisions before they even enter the kitchen.

Mrsmoy: How can Modernist cooking be applied to hunger relief (if at all)?
Nathan: This is an interesting question to which I don’t have a ready answer. There does seem to be some potential for improving the safety, nutrition, and storage life of the available food, but this aspect would benefit from the attention of expert chefs who are familiar with Modernist techniques and ingredients.

Joepavey: What’s the biggest science cooking disaster you’ve had?
Nathan: Well, it wasn’t a big disaster for me personally because I wasn’t the victim, but getting the shot of food being flung above the wok was a painful experience for Max! Let’s just say a fire extinguisher was involved.

Larry_B: What about food safety and typical sous vide temperatures?
Nathan: This is another issue that we cover at length in the book and on the blog, in part because some of our findings conflict with conventional wisdom and even some FDA recommendations. The short answer is that sous vide cooking is completely safe if done properly. For the (much) longer answer, you’ll have to buy the book. Scientific American recently published a lengthy excerpt from our chapter on Food Safety Rules that explains some of the reasons we find certain FDA and USDA recommendations to be problematic.

Yes, You Are Overcooking Your Food

Scientific American

Scientific American magazine has published a lengthy excerpt of from the Food Safety Rules chapter of Modernist Cuisine. Ever wonder where all those official guidelines for cooking pork, chicken, and other foods came from? Do they reflect rigorous scientific research, or just the codification of cultural preferences? Get the full scoop here, and learn why you really don’t need to cook your chicken breasts and pork chops to oblivion in order to make them safe to eat.

Scientific American also has created a fascinating slideshow of some of the more amazing photos in the book. It’s titled “A New View of Food and Cooking.”

Chicken breasts cooked to (L to R) 52 C, 55 C, 60 C, and 80 CChicken breasts cooked(left to right) to 52 C / 126 F, 55 C / 131 F, 60 C / 140 F,
and 80 C / 176 F. Notice how the meat shrinks and dries out at higher cooking temperatures.

We Go Back to Press, But How Many to Print?

Sales of the book have accelerated so much that we’re about to sell out of the first printing of Modernist Cuisine. As we prepare to order a second printing, we face a big question: how many more copies should we print?

Several crucial parameters go into this calculation. After we order the printing, it takes about four months to manufacture and ship them, so ordering now gets books from the second printing to us in June. That is not as early as we would like, but that’s how it goes.

At a minimum, we should order enough books to handle four months’ worth of sales; otherwise we would need to order a third printing the moment the second arrives. We need more than this, however, because customers will place new orders between mid-March and mid-June. Taking that into account, we ought to order at least as many as we expect to sell in seven months.

But seven months’ worth of books would run out in October 2011. We would have to rely on a third printing to cover the holiday season. That seems like a risky proposition. If we make a mistake, we could run short of books just when more and more people want them. Complicating matters further, in order for the third printing to arrive in October, we would have to order it in June. Although we’ll know more about the level of demand for Modernist Cuisine in June, we won’t know as much as we would like.

Together, all these factors create a pretty strong motivation for us to order enough books in the second printing to meet demand all the way through the holiday season and into January 2012. Doing that means ordering 10 months’ worth of books, and taking into account that those 10 months include holiday gift giving.

How many books is 10 months worth? That is the big question.

We have always believed that word-of-mouth communication would be critical to sales of Modernist Cuisine. The book is hard to describe, and it is a big enough purchasing decision that many people will need to hear from a friend or see the book in a friend’s kitchen before they buy it. It is hard to tell how well people like the book until people have experience with the book.

That process is just starting. So far, we only have experience with pre-orders. A few hundred copies of MC have been in people’s hands for perhaps a week. That is not enough copies (and not enough time) to get a good handle on how strongly the word-of-mouth buzz will build. We’re trying to get the first printing out as quickly as possible, and by the end of April we’ll see what happens when 6,000 books get into the market.

Unfortunately, a reputation takes time to spread by word of mouth. Customers may need to spend weeks dipping into MC enough to start recommending it to friends and acquaintances. It also takes time for word-of-mouth interest to translate into orders. The first printing will give us a good read on whether the person-to-person buzz around the book is going to be powerful or not, but it is unlikely that we’ll get that read until some point in May or June.

A countervailing factor is that the book is currently back-ordered. Some people don’t want to wait; rather than getting in line, they say “I’ll order when the book is in better supply.” That won’t happen anytime soon, so the volume of orders we see in April and May might not reflect the true demand.

When we faced the same decision for the first printing, we had exactly zero experience. Several publishing companies told me to print 2,000 copies. I wanted to make 10,000, but what at the time seemed to be wiser heads on the MC team prevailed, and we compromised at 6,000 copies. It seemed inconceivable that we could run out of 6,000 copies before we could get a second printing done, so it seemed safe.

In retrospect we clearly should have printed more, but hindsight is like that. It’s unfortunate that 4,000 people will have to wait a couple months longer than if I had followed my initial instinct, but it now seems that a second printing was inevitable regardless. Even more crucially, I would have no more data now to make that inevitable decision on the size of the second printing.

Over the course of the last couple weeks our ideas about how many copies to order for a second printing have increased as sales of the book have soared. Earlier this week, the book hit number 45 on Amazon’s ranked list of all books by sales; it reached number 6 in the cookbook category. But we still don’t have much of an idea of how this translates into sales across the year.

As one example, one could postulate that there are a fixed set of people who want the book, so they will order at a high rate, but once they all have their copies, orders will quickly dry up. I hope that isn’t true, but it is certainly possible. But even if it is true, what is that number? If the total possible market is 10,000, then I really have to worry about it. If the number is 100,000, that is a different story.

An even simpler model is to assume that the current rapid sales rate is driven by the publicity and media coverage surrounding the book. That effect is certainly real, and it is highly likely that the media interest will start to fade in another month or so. So maybe we shouldn’t order that many. On the other hand, while we know that press and broadcast coverage will diminish with time, we also know that it will be supplanted by word of mouth. I don’t know how to quantify the strength of that replacement.

Here’s another imponderable: how big a holiday sales spike should we expect? Normally, cookbooks are timed to come out in September or October precisely so they get a big boost from holiday gift sales. In our case, we started to ship nine months before the holiday season, so a lot of people who would be perfect candidates to get MC as a gift may well buy it for themselves, or get it for their birthday. So maybe we won’t get a big holiday boost. Or maybe we will get one, but it will be offset by a decline in late summer.

Some people on our team started out suggesting a second printing of 10,000 to 15,000. Now they are suggesting 20,000, whereas my instinct is that 25,000 is the right number. That’s probably what we will order, but I wonder whether I am thinking too small (again!).

One final factor is that book printing is a scale game: the more you print, the cheaper the cost per copy. The reason is that setting up the print run carries a high cost, which gets amortized across all the books in the run. Unfortunately, this effect is strongest at small print runs; once you get out to 20,000 copies, the incremental price drop becomes small for the next 5,000.

If anybody has thoughtful suggestions about many copies we should print, I’d be happy to take them. Just post them as comments here.

Waiting for Our Ship to Come In

It is an exciting time for Modernist Cuisine! Three ships left China last week carrying a total of almost 2,000 copies and headed for various ports. Each week, more boats will leave with more copies. By March 21, the last part of the first printing will have left China. So we are literally waiting for our ships to come in.

A natural question to ask is: when do those copies reach actual customers? The answer is complicated. It takes a ridiculous amount of time (from where I stand, anyway) to ship the books from their port of entry in the U.S. or Europe to the distribution centers that companies like Ingram and Amazon use to ship products to end customers and bookstores. Part of the problem is that those distribution centers have been located to minimize shipping time from the center to the customer. That sounds great, except that in this case we want to minimize the time from China to the customer.

If a book is in stock, then optimizing the time from the distribution center to the customer makes perfect sense. If a bookstore orders from Ingram, or a customer orders from Amazon, then they want their books quickly. Usually, the books are sitting in a warehouse, typically one situated in an area with good connections for UPS and FedEx, but also cheap real estate, so the cost of holding the books at the warehouse is not too high. Major cities have lots of customers, but hardly anybody places a distribution center in a major city; land is just too expensive. Fortunately, UPS, FedEx, and other shipping companies do a fantastic job of shipping within the U.S., so this system works.

Unfortunately for us, however, the distribution centers are typically located far from the coastal ports where boats from China dock. Shipping a load of 1,000 books from, say, Seattle to Indiana is a very slow process—the books go by train and then truck, on a journey that takes as many as 10 days to complete. That is much longer than the two or three days that UPS or FedEx typically require to ship books to customers.

So, why not use UPS and FedEx to ship to the distribution center? Well, it’s just too expensive. In fact, shipping this way would cost more than twice as much because companies like Ingram and Amazon have deals with UPS and FedEx that are vastly cheaper than a small company like ours can get. That is understandable, given the tremendous volume of goods that these giants move. In addition, the distribution centers have complicated logistics systems that make it easy for them to ship things. We don’t have anything like that at The Cooking Lab, especially in the port cities that we have been using.

Another solution is to send the books to closer ports—to New York, for example, rather than to Seattle or Los Angeles. Water is very slippery stuff, so it does not take much energy to move across the ocean. As a result, most of the cost of shipping by boat is in loading and off-loading. A few years ago, I compared the price of shipping a container from China to Seattle to the price of shipping the same container from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle. At that time, the cost was $2,500 from China and $2,000 from Vancouver—even though Vancouver is only 150 miles away from Seattle.

The drawback to the many-ports approach is that boats are slow. Typically, they travel at a mere 23 knots (nautical miles per hour). That is the “made good” speed averaged over the trip, and it corresponds to 26 miles per hour (42 km/hour). The distances are vast. China to Seattle is 5,761 nautical miles, which takes 10 days and 10 hours at 23 knots. China to New York, on the other hand, is 11,061 nautical miles, or almost exactly twice as far. This voyage takes 20 days at 23 knots. Of course, the 23 knot figure is an average. Part of our first shipment did in fact go to New York, and it took a full 30 days, whereas our Seattle and Los Angeles shipments have been more like 11 days, in line with the estimate above.

In addition, there are always snafus. We had a situation where 150 copies of the book got misplaced at a distribution center for several weeks while we and the parties involved tried to find them. Those copies have now shipped, but they got delayed in the system for about three weeks. Yes, that is frustrating, but that sort of Catch-22 situation does happen in the real world.

So, the bottom line is that we are hoping that roughly 2,000 copies will ship to customers by late March, although that may slip into April. All of the rest of the copies should ship during April, but please note that I am saying should, not guaranteeing that they actually will.

There has been a lot of chatter online about Amazon changing shipping dates in their emails to customers. With all due respect to my friends there, I would not take the exact dates very seriously because neither they, nor we, know all of the variables.

Finally, I need to say again that the current shipping situation is due to unforeseen issues with production of the book. The original plan was that the first shipment would also be the last shipment, and we’d get 6,000 copies all at once. It didn’t work out that way, so we decided instead to ship as many books as we could, as soon as we could. I’m sorry that we’ve left people waiting for their copies, but in our defense, this is the first 2,400 page cookbook we’ve ever written. Come to think of it, it is the first cookbook of this scope that the printer has ever done, or for that matter, anybody has ever done. Some teething problems are inevitable when you push the edge of the envelope.

The production issues have all been resolved, but unfortunately there have been some delays. The good news is that everybody who orders, up through today, should get their books in April, or worst case scenario, in early May.

That brings up another issue. We are set to finalize the second printing, but that will not yield books until June. Very soon, people who order the book are going to wind up getting the second printing, not the first, which means that their copies will not arrive until June. It is entirely possible that we will experience some delays until enough of the second printing arrives to soak up the back orders that will arrive between the point that the first printing is sold out (any day now) and when the second printing arrives. Anyone ordering the book in the second half of March will probably have to wait until June to get the book. So I would not be surprised if Modernist Cuisine is on back order status until some point in July.

We hope to improve on this situation, so please don’t panic, but our philosophy of being transparent and open about shipping issues means that I do have to point out that they are a possibility.

The ultimate cheeseburger goes interactive

The ultimate cheeseburgerIf you’ve read much about Modernist Cuisine in the press, you’ve probably seen our “levitating cheeseburger” photo, which opens the plated-dish recipe for our ultimate cheeseburger in Volume 5. The Wall Street Journal has created a fun interactive version of the photo. Check it out.

Modernist Cuisine is now shipping from booksellers

This set will look great on any bookshelfWe are happy to announce that Modernist Cuisine has begun shipping to customers well ahead of its announced release date of March 14. The book is available for order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kitchen Arts & Letters, and other booksellers, who will send the first copies to those who preordered. Because of the unexpectedly high volume of preorders, stocks of the book will be very limited for a while. New shipments are on their way from the press and will arrive in March and April.

Houston, We Have Lift-Off!

Space Shuttle Discovery blasts offAfter yesterday’s successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission, comparisons to the pending launch of Modernist Cuisine are irresistible (to us anyway).

Discovery began its final mission having already achieved unprecedented success. According to NASA, over Discovery’s 38 spaceflights, it has carried 246 crew members around Earth 5,628 times over a period of 351 days spent in orbit. First launched in 1984, Discovery has a total of 142,917,535 miles on the odometer.

Similarly, Modernist Cuisine approaches its March 14th launch window having already achieved several milestones. Modernist Cuisine has already been widely lauded by reviewers and will enter the Cookbook Hall of Fame at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards on March 3, 2011.

Pre-orders from all of the retailers who will carry the book have rocketed well past the 3,000 copy mark, more than half of the book’s total first print run. Last week, Modernist Cuisine entered the top 100-selling books on [Update: On March 9, the book entered the ranks of the top 50.] As the following chart illustrates, the book’s pre-release sales pace has soared into the stratosphere.

Amazon Sales Rank Chart; vertical axis is in powers of 10
Amazon sales rank chart; vertical axis is in powers of 10

(Note that the vertical axis of this chart is logarithmic, so each division in the vertical scale corresponds to a ten-fold improvement in the sales rank.)

Like Discovery, just getting Modernist Cuisine to the launchpad has been a huge undertaking. The six-volume, 2,438-page set weighs 39 pounds, contains 3,126 photos, and took five years and a team of more than 50 to create. Granted, what we did isn’t rocket science. But we’re proud of it nonetheless.

The first copies of Modernist Cuisine have now landed safely on U.S. shores and are making their way to bookstores and customers. We wish the crews of Discovery and the ISS a similarly successful journey and safe return.

A Preview of Our Chapter on Culinary History

First page of the article in GastronomicaThe Winter 2011 edition of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture, contains an article I wrote titled, “The Art in Gastronomy: A Modernist Perspective.” The 6,000 word, 10-page article is a much-expanded version of a section of Chapter 1 in Modernist Cuisine, in which I explain why the current revolution in cooking is appropriately called “Modernist,” as it is in many ways broadly similar to Modernist revolutions in painting, architecture, literature, and other arts.

The argument is rather involved (that’s why it takes 6,000 words), but the gist of it can be explained relatively simply. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most aspects of culture and art were rocked by revolutions in which small groups of young artists joined avant-garde movements that were creating new aesthetics by breaking the old rules. The French Impressionists were perhaps the most famous example. These painters rebelled against the realistic style of painting that was in vogue in their day. Their paintings were initially ridiculed and mocked, but the works ultimately became some of the most widely loved art in the world. Similar revolutions occurred in almost every field of human cultural achievement—with the notable exception of cooking.

The revolution in cooking that began in the mid-1980s is just such a movement. Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and a number of other chefs formed an avant-garde that refused to follow many of the old rules and in doing so, created food that challenges us as profoundly as any other kind of art does. They have embraced new cooking technologies, such as sous vide, and new ingredients, like xanthan gum, and their creative use of these tools has expanded the realm of what is possible in the kitchen. At the same time, Harold McGee and others started a trend in popular books of telling both restaurant and home chefs about the science of cooking. These threads collectively created a revolution that has clear links to Modernism and its ideals.

I mention this for two reasons. First, the article featured in Gastronomica is a bit longer and thus more complete than the treatment of the topic in Modernist Cuisine. So if you like Chapter 1 on Culinary History but want more detail, this article is one place to look.

Second, if you don’t yet have a copy of Modernist Cuisine (and at this stage nobody does!), this article is a quick way to get at least this part of the book. That said, it is a rather abstract topic—don’t expect to see any recipes or techniques in the article.

Gastronomica is available by subscription and also by the copy at larger newsstands and bookstores.

A Close Look at Eight Pages from the Book

The Modernist Cuisine team worked with the eGullet Society for Culinary Art and Letters to produce an extensive Q&A feature that includes eight previously unreleased pages excerpted from three different volumes of the book. The feature was published today at We’ll continue answering reader questions on that forum thread throughout this week.

Torch Tastes

In response to my recent post on “doneness,” reader Rusty Shackleford posted the following question: “When using my blow torch, sometimes I notice unpleasant propane tastes. Anything you can tell me about general blow torch cooking?”
Blowtorch Searing Short-Rib
This brought to mind a similar question that I was recently asked about the use of other flammable gases in cooking. As is often the case at The Cooking Lab, one question leads to another and before I knew it, my short answer had grown beyond the scope of the original question. We cover the topic more extensively in the book, but here is a brief description of how the use of a blow torch and the type of gas therein can affect the flavor.

Natural gas (methane) is a common fuel for ranges and stovetops, but most torches used for cooking are fueled by propane or butane. Fuels like oxyacetylene and MAPP gas, however, typically burn hotter and thus can impart a larger amount of heat to the food for a faster sear.

The type of gas that you choose isn’t as important as the completeness of its combustion. Propane, butane, MAPP, and acetylene are all great so long as you adjust the flame of the torch so that it is a fully oxidizing flame. This is a flame that is produced with an excess of oxygen, either from the surrounding air or supplemented with compressed oxygen. You can tell that you have an oxidizing flame when the torch is burning dark blue, is relatively short in length, and hisses and roars. Frequently, people have too large of a flame that is burning yellow at the tip. This is a reducing flame, also referred to as a carburizing flame because there are uncombusted hydrocarbons from the fuel in the flame that will end up in the food, imparting an unpleasant taste. In my experience, butane torches are especially prone to this, but it can happen with any torch that hasn’t been properly adjusted before aiming it at the food.

Too often, people aim the blow torch at the food before they have it appropriately adjusted. Not only do they often end up torching the food with a dirty flame, but there is also some raw fuel being blown onto the food before it ignites. Like an old, carbureted car (and for the same reason), it is best to light the torch and adjust the fuel-to-oxidizer ratio before getting underway.

Long story short, always light your torch facing away from the food. Then adjust the torch to produce a short, hissing dark blue flame and you won’t have a problem.