They are some of the most stunning and beautifully photographed cookbooks ever — and also the heaviest. At 1 million-plus words, think of the first book as six volumes in one weighing 50 pounds that takes two delivery men to get it to your front door. They also each take three to four years to write and photograph.
Author and photographer Nathan Myhrvold admits that he’s a “mad scientist, but a jolly one” for risking his fortune. “I’ll plead guilty as charged to that.” His passion for cooking and photography began when he was a boy. By 9, he’d already cooked the Thanksgiving feast and transformed the household bathroom into a darkroom.
Nathan worked directly for billionaire computer-software king Bill Gates as chief technology officer at Microsoft, but when he wasn’t creating technological breakthroughs, he joined a team that won the Memphis World Championship Barbecue contest and worked after-hours in the restaurant Rover’s in Seattle.
“I’m a workaholic,” Nathan confessed to me. “I’m obsessed with food photography and publishing, but I also keep busy with other things such as research on dinosaurs and asteroids, plus I have a tech company of which I’m the CEO.”
Now he’s bringing the extraordinary 15 volumes of “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” and “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” along with poster prints of the photographs, to a gallery that he’ll open in mid-May at The Forum Shops of Caesars Palace. “We make them big, that’s for sure,” he said laughing.
Without doubt, they are unequaled masterpieces. “While I was at Microsoft, I was super busy, of course, but I did do lots of cooking. I actually talked Bill Gates into giving me a leave of absence to go to chef school in France.
“The chef school wouldn’t take me unless I had professional work experience, so I worked one night a week in a French restaurant in Seattle for two years. Then I took a leave of absence and went to chef school. Ultimately, I retired from Microsoft in part because I didn’t have enough time to cook. I think this goes in the category of things that makes sense only to me.
“I was always interested in cooking. When I was 9 years old, I decided that I would cook Thanksgiving dinner all by myself and did. Mom let me. I was a very serious, self-taught cook for the longest time, then when I was at Microsoft, I realized, ‘Hey, I should actually learn how to cook in a more professional way because, you know, why not?’
“So I went to chef school. After Microsoft, I knew that there were a lot of people who were working in the science of cooking, and I had a background in science. I naively thought that there must be a big book I could buy that would explain it all.
“Well, ultimately, I discovered that there wasn’t such a book, so I decided to write and photograph it. Photography was another thing I was into since I was a little kid, and I was super serious about it. I had professional cameras by 14. I did my own developing. Back in my day, we had film. The book gave me a good opportunity to put the two things together.”
But Nathan tackled it from a completely new and different perspective. He cut everything in half — the vegetables and pots and pans. He explained: “I started taking pictures for the book and cutting things in half so I could show what was going on inside food while it was cooking. And it worked out.”
‘IT DOES BECOME A MESS’
I had to ask him the $64,000 question: “How the heck do you cut a saucepan in half without the food and hot water spilling all over your cameras?” “You do cut the pan before you put the food in,” he told me as if I understood that explanation. “And the other thing is we have this motto that it only has to work for one-thousandth of a second.
“So there are a lot of our shots where if you think, ‘Well, how does it avoid getting all over the floor?’ Oh, it goes all over the floor. It does become a mess. We use different techniques depending on the situation. If it’s water, you have to hold the water back. In that case, we cut a Pyrex heat-resistant glass that we stick on to the pot.
“You can see it. We light it so you don’t see the glass. At the edges where the glass connects, you could see it, but the good thing about cutting a pan in half is you have two halves. So you photograph the half that has no glass, and that gets you a picture of the edge of the pan. We do copy in those bits. But in almost all cases, we’re really cooking the thing while we’re doing it.
‘SOAKED IN CHAMPAGNE’
“I was taking pictures of sabering champagne bottles. We sabered champagne all weekend. We had one bottle explode on us. We had a lot of cuts. Three of us were soaked in champagne. We were thinking that if we got stopped driving home, we would never explain it to the Highway Patrol officers.”
With 15 volumes published in various languages going on sale with the poster photographs at The Forum Shops in May, you would think that Nathan has his hands full. No! He’s already at work on another five volumes all about bread and only bread. “Modernist Bread” with 2,500 pages goes on sale in the fall. He told me:
“The big focus of the gallery is going to be photographs. Photographs that we used to try to tell the story really have been popular with people. It’s a style of food photography that you just don’t see other places. We get lots of requests for, ‘Could we buy prints?’
“So we did a bunch of work on it. The big deal at the gallery is we’re going to be selling prints of food. It’ll be the only art gallery in the world dedicated to pictures of food, which either might be a really good idea or might be a really bad idea, but we’re going to find out.”
BUY 30 PRINTS AT $1,000 EACH, AND BOOKS ARE FREE
I was curious as to how Nathan would deal with a customer walking in with an American Express black card and wanting to take every photo and book available for sale in the gallery and what the cost would be. “I don’t know — that’s a good question,” he answered. “Our prints, the photos are limited edition. I think they’ll start at about $1,000. But that’s for the smallest size.
“One of the things we’ve done is we’ve used the latest digital technology, so we can make these prints really big. It would depend on how big they want the prints. We haven’t figured out exactly how many prints will hang in the gallery at one time because it depends on the size. But it’ll probably be 20 to 30.
“If somebody came in and they wanted the smallest size of 30 prints, and they wanted all of the books, it’d be, well, hell, we’ll throw the books in if they buy 30 prints. So I don’t know, $30,000, something like that. Now if you buy the largest size of the prints, of course, it costs more to make one the size of a wall than to make a normal-sized one.”
For the regular customer, the six-volume big books are $625, and the smaller books are $140. I asked Nathan if he was in this for profit or simply the joy of cooking. He told me: “What I see about my books is initially when we were doing the book, we had no idea how big the market was.
“It was very likely to be the story about how to make a small fortune in the cookbook business by starting with a large fortune. But then it turned out the books had sold relatively well, and that takes us to the second phase, where the book business would be a profitable business if only I would stop doing them.
“The problem is as soon as the first book starts making money, or by the time it does, I’m already digging the hole for the next book. We’ve been working for almost four years on the bread book. A whole team of people have worked on this, so it’s a lot of investment up front.
“That makes the book business not really very profitable. All of this is motivated by wanting to share stuff with people, that is, share my love of cooking, my knowledge of cooking, share these beautiful pictures. At a certain point, you’d like to have it pay for itself. That helps you do it more.
“We’re opening the gallery because we’re hoping we find people who come to Las Vegas because it’s such a food destination and see beautiful pictures to take home. The books and probably the prints, we’ll have them delivered. If someone really wants to take it with them, we’ll have a few in the back.”
Microsoft has been a big Wall Street stock winner over the years. I bought shares many years ago for my grandkids to help pay their college tuition. Nathan said: “I still have Microsoft stock, and I’m glad they’ve kept it up because it does help me finance the book business and now the photo prints business.
“I like having things that can be very engaging and involving. It’s also a great aspect of cooking and photography if you get results right away. Not so for the book. We plan the book, and it takes us three years to do the book. When you take a picture, or when you make something, there might be a few hours of work, but then you get to eat it. Or you see a picture.
“We’ve had a huge range of people own the books, from chefs at Michelin three-star restaurants to ordinary people. What we like to say is our books are for people who are passionate and curious about cooking. If you’re not passionate, you’re not going to buy a $600 book.
“What I try to do is make a book that will engage you at every level that it can. It’ll have pictures that’ll make you hungry. It’ll have pictures that are fantastic to look at — it’ll explain how and why things work. It’ll have things in it that you would never expect to find in a cookbook.”