Tech Visionary and Master Chef Nathan Myhrvold on the Art and Science of Food
Nathan Myhrvold is no ordinary chef. With two master’s degrees (one in mathematical economics, the other in geophysics and space physics) and a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics, he is also a technologist who did postdoctoral research with Stephen Hawking. From 1986 to 1999, Myhrvold was the chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft, where he worked closely with Bill Gates on future planning and developing the company’s software. (During this time, he also co-authored Gates’s 1995 best-seller, The Road Ahead; in 1999, at age 40, he retired from the company.) Now, as the CEO of the firm Intellectual Ventures, which he co-founded in 2000, he develops and licenses intellectual property. The company owns upwards of 30,000 assets, nearly 900 of which were invented by Myrhvold himself. So where does cooking come in? Long a gastronomer and foodie (before the latter term was even a thing), Myhrvold began to pursue his passion for cuisine early on. During his Microsoft years (with Gates’s blessing), he took time off to attend the La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, and later even apprenticed part-time at Rover’s restaurant in Seattle. For a time, he was the “chief gastronomic officer” of the Zagat Survey.
It wasn’t until about a decade ago, though, that things really took off for Myhrvold on the food front. In 2011, he established a full-fledged publishing platform with the release of his six-volume Modernist Cuisine, an encyclopedic whirlwind into the science of contemporary cooking. A behemoth of a book, at 2,438 pages, it took about three years to produce, with several dozen people involved. Subsequent iterations have followed: Modernist Cuisine at Home (2012), The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (2013), and Modernist Bread (2017). A Modernist Pizza book is currently in the works. The series has become a cult favorite, highly respected by many of the world’s top chefs, including Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal. Especially remarkable about the project—aside from the inventive recipes—is the hyperrealist, meticulously executed photography. Many of the pictures are made through a “cutaway” technique involving machinery that slices pots, pans, and ovens in half to offer a literal inside look into the processes behind the dishes—a pork roast atop embers, say, or broccoli steaming in a pot. It is through these images that Myhrvold’s many talents and interests in science, food, and art collide, and to potent effect.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Spencer speaks with Myhrvold about his journey into sous vide cooking, the problems he sees with the Slow Food movement, why food photography has never been considered a high art, and more.
Myhrvold discusses his background in food and how he came to create the Modernist Cuisine series of cookbooks.
Myhrvold talks about why, though admires what the Slow Food movement stands for, he believes it looks too much to the past. He also discusses his next cookbook project: Modernist Pizza.
Myhrvold shares his pioneering approach to food photography, and discusses why food photography, aside from works by Edward Weston and Irving Penn and unlike still life paintings, has never really been considered high art.
Myhrvold recalls his early studies and his time at Microsoft, and describes some of the inventive, groundbreaking work he’s involved in with Intellectual Ventures.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today on the podcast we have Nathan Myhrvold. He is the CEO and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, an inventor who, to date, has been awarded hundreds of patents and has hundreds of patents pending. He was chief strategist and technology officer of Microsoft, where he worked for fourteen years. He is a chef and the creator and co-author of the award-winning cookbook Modernist Cuisine. He is a photographer. Let’s not stop there. He’s also an environmentalist, an amateur paleontologist, a cosmologist, a zoologist, a fly fisherman, a fossil and book collector… What am I missing?
NATHAN MYHRVOLD: You’ve got a pretty good list. [Laughs]
SB: I know you also do some formula car racing.
NM: I’ve done that, yeah.
SB: Bungee jumper.
NM: On occasion.
SB: And a mountain climber.
NM: Yeah. Yeah, you want to keep the falling to the skydiving part of the bungee, where there’s a cord on you. If you fall when you’re mountain climbing, it isn’t as nice.
SB: Yeah. Not as good, not as good. So how do you think about time? I wanted to start there because, obviously, you’ve managed to live so many different lives in a relatively short period of time.
NM: Well, the world tends to reward specialization. And I sometimes think, God, if I only could’ve buckled down and been interested in one thing, I might’ve amounted to something. But I can focus. I can focus super-well on something. But I am interested in lots of stuff. And while I worked at Microsoft, I spent ninety percent of my time on one thing, on this job. And it was a magical period of time because the computers were going from something that was a very fringe thing to central to everybody. But ultimately I thought I ought to spend time doing other stuff, so I do.
SB: Yeah. One of those things, most notably—and so central in your life now—is cooking. You trained as a chef at a famous cooking school in Burgundy.
NM: I did. I got a leave of absence from Microsoft. Bill [Gates] gave me a leave of absence specifically to go to cooking school. It was the only such request he’d ever granted. [Laughs]
SB: What was that conversation like? Did you go to Bill and say, “I’d like to go to cooking school in Burgundy”? [Laughs]
NM: And he’s like, “Why?” And he says, “Look. I can understand the eating. But you like to make it?” I said, “Yeah, actually I do like to make it. And I want to learn how to make it better.” Anyway, he said yes.
SB: I know at a certain point and time you also became the chief gastronomic officer of Zagat.
SB: What did that entail?
NM: Well, I’ve known Nina and Tim Zagat forever. At some point, I got more formally involved with their company. And they said, “Well, what title would you want?” And I said, “I’d like to be chief gastronomic officer.” So they said yes.
SB: And you did what day to day, or week to week?
NM: I would advise them on gastronomic matters, usually over very long dinners at interesting restaurants.
SB: You said that cooking is sort of like a science experiment we can all do on a regular basis. Was science your inroads to food?
NM: Well, I was into food from a very, very early age. So, to be honest, I was hooked on food long before I understood enough science for that to help. But science certainly informs the way I look at food now. Human beings are storytelling animals. And we love the origin story of something: “How’d that happen?” We love explanations. Now, the only trouble is, a lot of explanations aren’t true. And science is the process of saying, “Hey, as we make up explanations, let’s test them.” That has been a useful attitude to use for cooking because I’ve found that a lot of classic things that people believe are central to cooking are false. They’re just like, “Oops, I have the wrong idea.”
SB: Such as?
NM: Well, people think you have to sear a steak to seal in the juices. That does nothing of the kind. It makes the juices go out faster. When writing my [Modernist] Bread book, we figured out that kneading doesn’t do what people think it does for you, just doesn’t work that way at all.
SB: So you like flipping notions on their head of what might be understood as…
NM: Sometimes you flip it on its head. Sometimes you just learn a little bit more about it. But either way, there’s two approaches you can take to cooking. One is a recipe approach. It says, “Do this. Do this. Do this,” and you get a good result. And if all you care about is getting the result, recipes are great. Now, if you want to do something different and do your own dish, where you try to do something in a different way, that’s where you actually have to understand: How does it work? Now for me, it’s also kind of fun to know how it works. And so in learning how it works, yeah, you’ve got to get rid of the ideas that are flat wrong. Others aren’t flat wrong, but their relative importance isn’t understood, or people haven’t really followed the implications all the way out.
SB: You obviously dug really deeply into a lot of what you’re talking about right now through Modernist Cuisine, the book that you released in 2011, or six-volume series. This thing was massive.
SB: Six hundred twenty-five dollars, two thousand four hundred thirty-eight pages, a million-word-plus, fifty-pound thing. How did you—
NM: Yeah. But my favorite is that there’s four pounds of ink. And the printers told me that. I was like, “What?!” But then they explained that on a full-page photo, there’s about a thousandth of an inch of ink. Well, you have a thousand pages with a whole-page photo, and that’s like a block of ink an inch thick, which, when you put it that way, four pounds of ink sounds about right.
SB: How did you even conceive of… Did you know it was going to be such a big project when you began?
NM: I thought it was going to be huge, like five hundred pages, so no. [Laughs] There’s a lot of great projects in life, children being a great example, that are entered into with enormous naïveté. First-time parents don’t really know what it’s going to be like. And lots of other projects, they develop as you go along. So if someone had told me I was going to do a six-volume cookbook as my first book, I would’ve said, “No. That makes no sense.” But that’s where we ended up.
SB: And you’ve built a whole publishing company around these books, too.
NM: Yeah. It turns out that the approach that we took to the books was different enough from what the world normally does that there just wasn’t much value. The publishing companies saw the book, and they… Well, I should say I didn’t go to publishers up front, because I wanted to flesh the book out and see what it was like. Well, once we were about half done, I had all of, or half of the pages all laid out, and so we brought it to people. And a couple of them were very interested, but they wanted to print a thousand copies. And I said, “Look, we’re doing all this work. It’s going to be for more than a thousand copies.” They said, “Well, you’ll never sell them.” I said, “Okay.” I might be the weird old guy who’s sitting on nine thousand copies of the book and using them for firewood to heat myself in my declining years. But I’m going to try to do something more. And by now across different editions and stuff, it’s like three-hundred thousand that we’ve sold, so they clearly misjudged that.
NM: And that was part of a broader issue that there was a feeling in the book world that you have to dumb everything down, that you make things as simple and as dumb as possible. And then you make the book as cheap as possible, so you use cheap paper and cheap ink, and you try to avoid color pictures. And I said, “No. There are people who appreciate something great.”
NM: And I don’t know if I’ll find enough of them, but we’re going to have really nice paper, and we’re going to have beautiful pictures. And we’re going to write a book that explains how things work to the best of our ability, not dumbing things down. And so when I was initially on the book tour for the book, people would say, “Well, can I make every recipe?” I’d say, “No.” And then people would look like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Look, there’s eighteen hundred recipes. A person at home, in an ordinary home kitchen, can probably do eight hundred of them.” If you go and buy some stuff at Williams Sonoma—so nothing too exotic—you probably could get up to twelve hundred. But there’s also going to be some that will be hard for the best chefs on earth. But guess what, you’re learning the same time they are. And isn’t that kind of cool that you can get that view into how cooking really works and be at the same level as the best chefs on earth?
SB: Well, I thought what was interesting, too, is you were sort of capturing a movement that was happening. It wasn’t just another cookbook. You were making a name for something, Modernist Cuisine being something slightly different from, say, molecular gastronomy, which was already not the best definition of what was happening. But these were chefs like Ferran Adrià with El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal with [The] Fat Duck, Wylie Dufresne with WD-50… Was it their cooking that inspired you in this direction, or were you always interested in understanding the shift that was taking place?
NM: I was always interested in food and cooking. And I was always interested in science. In the eighties, Harold McGee’s book came out in its first edition, called On Food and Cooking, which was an early example, perhaps the first really big example of someone applying scientific thinking to explain why cooking works.
But you’re absolutely right that I was inspired by the fact that a generation of chefs had innovated, and innovated and continued to develop new techniques. I got into the book accidentally in a sense. I had retired from Microsoft, and I was doing more cooking. I’d built a new kitchen with a lot of state-of-the-art stuff in it. And I naïvely thought, There will be some book that will tell me about cooking techniques developed in the last thirty years, and I couldn’t find it.
Now, you could find books that were about French Nouvelle cuisine, which was from the seventies, so that was older than thirty years. And you could find classic techniques for everybody. Oh, classic Chinese, sure. Classic Italian, absolutely. But the chefs of the world had continued to come up with new things, and there was no good way to learn it. And then I talked to the chefs involved, and I realized they weren’t really keeping up with each other. Plus, the intuition that they had developed from classical cooking often involved principles that were just flat wrong. And if they really wanted to go further, somebody was going to have to explain it. And the food scientists hadn’t kept up with that because food science has mostly focused on nutrition, or it’s focused on big, factory-made food.
So most food scientists in the world are trying to deal with shelf life—it’s like: How do I make some crap and put it in a box, and have it not go bad before someone buys it? Which, okay, that’s a valid thing for some people to do. But shouldn’t we put some focus on the very best cooking?
SB: Yeah. So it takes a forty-year-old who just retired from Microsoft to come up with this.
NM: Well, evidently. Yes. Look, if I had been able to find the book, it would’ve been much cheaper and easier. I could’ve bought it, learned it, it would’ve been great. But I couldn’t, and the fact that I had the resources to do it the way I wanted was important because it… The cooking industry and particularly the cookbook industry had focused on: Let’s make simple cookbooks for everybody. And they weren’t going to go touch these high-end techniques. The chefs involved would eventually write their own cookbooks. But they have the challenge that they’re trying to write a cookbook while running a restaurant. And how much time, energy, and page count can they put into explaining things and taking it from zero? So the couple of books that had come out from these chefs experimenting with new techniques had the property that, if you already knew how to do the thing, you could recognize it, but you really couldn’t learn it from scratch. If it wasn’t for that movement, I don’t think I would’ve thought there was enough there. And then it turned out there was a lot there.
SB: And obviously this was [a] very time-intensive project. How long, ultimately, did this take from inception to…
NM: So I started working on the book in 2005. I worked on it for almost two years by myself. Amusingly, the outline that I developed—that is pretty much the book that we made, except that we had to cut out all of [the] pastry [section]. But I didn’t think it would take as long as it did. Ultimately, the book was out in late 2010, so it was five years.
SB: Wow. What was it like in terms of the experiments going on? I know you did a lot with… You have an affection for the sous vide cooking technique, and that plays a big role. What was it about sous vide cooking that appealed to you so much?
NM: Well, a lot of cooking is about applying heat to food. Now, the dominant approach prior to sous vide was to say, “Okay. I’m cooking a steak. I want the steak to be, let’s say, medium rare, which is about 125 degrees Fahrenheit. So I’ll cook the steak with a heat source that’s vastly hotter than that.” So the bottom of a pan is going to be in the order of three hundred or four hundred degrees. And so I’ll use this much higher heat than I actually need. And then I’ve got to time it just right. And if I time it just right, it’s perfect in the middle. I still will have two big gray bands on either side, which is the meat that was so close to the heat that it got well above that core temperature.
And this is a thing that you see repeated throughout all of cooking. You have a very high heat source you’re using to cook something to a much lower temperature. And you either use timing, or compromising, or both to get there, whereas sous vide was, at its essence, it doesn’t even have to have a water bath. It’s about cooking at low temperature. So if you’re cooking that steak sous vide, you would cook it to get it 125, you cook it at 125 or 126, just above the temperature. And that cooks the interior. Now the exterior doesn’t have the sizzling, caramelized, brown—it’s actually Maillard-ized, not caramelized. A French scientist named [Louis-Camille] Maillard figured this out. But Maillard-ized doesn’t roll off the tongue like caramelized, so menus of the world have yet to credit the poor man. [Laughs]
So then you cook the outside. You want a different surface? Great. Let’s just sear it super briefly in a super-hot pan to get the outside. And by making that split between, how do I cook the inside versus how do I cook the outside, you ensure a way better result to each one. And the low-temperature thing is perfect for digital technology to have a thermostat, so it’s perfect. And then searing the outside, it’s not very time critical. You just do it to color. And the result gives you something that’s both… It’s better in a quantitative sense. If you look at a typical piece of steak that’s cooked in a hot pan or charbroiled, about thirty to forty percent of the meat will be overcooked relative to your desired temperature. At the price of meat, that’s actually a big concession.
If you cook it sous vide, it’s perfectly done, edge to edge, and you can get a very good sear on the outside all the same, and away you go. So it is simpler and better, so what’s not to like? But here’s the thing. People had not cooked with this low temperature before. And there were some things that were counterintuitive about it. One example is food safety. People were concerned. “Oh, my God, if you only cook at that low temperature, it won’t be safe.” Now the paradox is, in almost all cases, sous vide cooking is way more safe. But there was a concern about it. The reason that you cook some kinds of meat is to tenderize it. So you have a really tough cut of meat, a great example is beef short ribs. Short ribs are a delicious part of the cow. It’s got tons of flavor. It’s great, except it’s tough. So what do you do?
Well, the classic way to do this is to braise the crap out of it. And that means putting your short ribs under or mostly underwater and cooking it for a long period of time, and they get unctuous and tender and gray. Now, that treatment of short ribs is fine. I’m not saying it’s bad to have gray braised short ribs. I like braised short ribs. But you also could cook it at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, but now I’m talking up to seventy-two hours. And by cooking it at this low temperature for seventy-two hours, you get a medium rare short rib, a beast that never existed prior to this. And that’s really delicious, too.
And that’s only one example of a whole set of things where the cuts of meat that are expensive are expensive because they’re tender. Most of the animal isn’t tender because it got some exercise. It’s only a few weird muscles that are so tender that we can eat them cooked very quickly. The rest of the cow—or you could do this for tons of other animals—the rest is tougher, but it generally has better flavor. But then you have to stew it or braise it, but not with sous vide, so that opens up a whole category of things you just couldn’t do any other way.
SB: How do you think about speed in relation to cooking? Because we’re talking about some really time-intensive recipes here.
NM: Well, it’s always important to be cognizant of time and convenience. A lot of people, a lot of people in the food world, will say, “Oh, everyone should cook more.” Okay, but they don’t have the reality of the fact that people have jobs and they’re super busy. And they’ll point back at ages past. In ages past, we as a society, sadly, wasted half of our population by not letting women have careers. Well, the flipside is, women have careers—you don’t have a galley slave working all day. So when you come you can say, “Ah, yes. It’s great that we have home cooking.” And so of course, convenience matters, and of course time matters.
Now the thing that’s interesting about sous vide is that the time element is primarily a planning thing. You can’t come home from work and say, “Hey, honey. Let’s have seventy-two hour short ribs today.” On the other hand, if you just plan a little bit, it doesn’t take very much in actual preparation time. So that’s another thing you have to factor in, is to say, “Hey, let’s be cognizant of the fact that there’s prep time when you’re actively cooking versus time the food is sitting there.” And in a sous vide cooker, it’s perfectly safe for it to sit there for three days, and nothing’s going to happen.
For my [Modernist] Bread book, it was the same thing. In general, to make great bread, you want it to proof or ferment for a long period of time. That doesn’t mean it has to be time-consuming if you plan ahead so it can sit in your fridge for a couple of days.
SB: Right. What are your thoughts on Slow Food?
NM: Well, I think the Slow Food movement—which is at its highest development in Italy—there’s a lot about it that is really very admirable. And it’s an example of a reaction to a world that was shifting very strongly towards fast food, and also prepared food and supermarket food. And that industrialization of the food system is what they’re reacting to. So all that’s valid. Now, one of the fast food inventions of Italy I particularly love, it’s called espresso. It means fast. That was its whole point: fast food. It’s in the damn name. And sorry, I’m not going to give that up.
SB: That’s so funny. We actually had [Illycaffè chairman] Andrea Illy on the podcast. And Andrea is somebody who thinks so slow, but he’s serving a fast product.
NM: [Laughs] If you’re confronted by a wave of industrialized food, as occurred around the world in the fifties, sixties, seventies, all around the world, people had a reaction to that. In the bread world, that was the artisanal bread movement. And then the first instinct they had was to say, “Let’s go back to the old ways, even if they’re slow.” And the Slow Food people in Italy, particularly relishing irony, I think, love to call themselves Slow Food. Now, I think what they really were after, though, was quality food. And if you only look to the past, you paint yourself into a corner. That’s part of why my next big book after Modernist Cuisine was Modernist Bread because the bread world, I think, had painted itself into a corner, where the general vibe was that all the best bread was baked a century ago. And all we could do was try to be ever more primitive in the way we worked to get back to that.
And one artisanal bread baker was telling me that he was done with buying flour. He was going to mill his own flour. And I said, “Okay. But what’s next? What’s five years down the line? Are you going to use stone tools? Would that actually make better bread?” And of course the answer is no. So the problem with the Slow Food movement, or the artisanal bread movement, is—they have a lot of positives, but you can’t live life just looking in the rearview mirror and worshiping a golden age, which, by the way, never existed.
The best bread being made in history is being baked today. The best. And the only better bread will be when people figure out new shit in the future. A great example of that is, we’re probably all familiar with very open-crumb, high-hydration breads—ciabatta is an example. Tartine, in San Francisco, bakes this incredible high-hydration bread. Well, it’s all modern. Ciabatta was invented in 1982. And we know because the baker in Italy who invented it applied for a trademark. Inspired by this, we did a bunch of research on hydration levels. Hydration level is the amount of water you put in proportion to the amount of flour. So a very dry bread is fifty percent hydration. That means you’ve got half the weight of the flour in water.
Okay. You’ve got two pounds of flour, one pound of water. Well, Chad [Robertson] at Tartine makes a bread that’s like ninety percent, so it’s almost equal weights of flour and water. But it’s a pain in the ass to deal with. So even though it looks rustic, oh, no, no, it wasn’t rustic at all. It’s a modern affectation, and a brilliant one. I love it. But it turns out in the past, the first baguette was probably baked in 1918. And one of the reasons is that bread in the nineteenth century was a major part of what people ate. And so in nineteenth-century Paris, people would eat between half a kilo and a kilo of bread per person per day. That’s what they ate. Occasionally, there was something to smear on the bread, or a little soup to have with it. Well, a baguette weighs two hundred and fifty grams. Okay. You don’t bring home four baguettes per person every day. And it’s expensive to make four baguettes per person.
So we found a French scientist named [Louis-Édouard] Rivot, who, in the 1840s, went around Paris measuring loaves of bread, God bless him, determining their hydration, weighing them. He would trim the crust off so that he could weigh the proportion of crust to the inside. Well, the first interesting thing we noticed about Rivot’s work is that the typical loaf of bread in Paris in the 1840s weighed two kilograms. That’s four point four pounds. And that wasn’t the biggest one. He had up to five-kilo of loaves of bread. Well, the reason is, you have a family with a bunch of people, you buy a big chunk of bread.
SB: Your next book is Modernist Pizza. Tell me about that. Is pizza another area you feel has been painted into a corner?
NM: Well, pizza is… The reason we’re doing a pizza book is we had a pizza chapter in the bread book. And we decided it was way more interesting than just a chapter, and so now we’ve gone deep into it. So pizza’s fascinating because it is arguably the world’s favorite single dish. You could say bread, or rice, or something, but that’s not a whole-meal dish, whereas pizza is. There’s pizza in every country on earth but two. Now, we did a search of the internet, and then for the two that didn’t seem to have pizza, we called the embassies and we talked to them. They said, “No, we don’t yet.”
Pizza also has this interesting property that, wherever it goes, it mutates or adapts to the local thing, so that they develop their local style. And people love that local style a little bit like the way they love sports teams. So if you’re from Chicago, you actually have two different styles of pizza you can love. New York is mostly New York–style pizza. But then if you go to the quad cities—which is, counterintuitively, it’s a set of five cities in the Midwest; got the name screwed up somehow—they have their own weird style, and so on around the world. And so that’s a very unique phenomenon.
Pizza has painted itself into a corner in a different way, which is a lot of pizzerias buy into the notion that, Oh, my grandfather, or great-grandfather, started this pizzeria, and somehow developed the perfect thing, and we’re never going to change it after that. And we’re just sort of caretakers of the recipe. And that’s wrong to me, at many levels. Unfortunately, it’s created what we call the “old-school disease,” which is old famous pizzerias are almost inevitably mediocre. If you want great pizza, you want something where there is a currently living person who is the one who started the pizzeria, who’s obsessed with it, who’s obsessed with making the quality good. And the grandpa of the guy who started it, I’d take his over the grandson’s, and this is nothing—I’m not trying to insult the other generations. But you can do a better job if you’re alive focused on it.
And in Italian cooking in general, this is an issue where people will always say, “My grandmother did a better job.” Or “This is my grandmother’s recipe.” And I will usually say something like, “God, isn’t it a shame that talent had skipped the last couple of generations?” What are you going to do about it? And by the way, what will your grandson or granddaughter say? Will they reach all the way back up to great great grandma, or are they going to do one of your recipes?
SB: I wonder if that has some to do with, obviously, legacy—and time, too, the notion that over time, things start to fade.
NM: Sure. And part of it is this reaction to modernism, this notion of saying, “Oh, back in the old days, they did things right. And then all this modern cheap shit came in, and the quality went all to hell.” Well, look, they’re right, that in many kinds of food, the quality did go all to hell. That’s not a wrong observation. But it’s not a modern modernity issue. And you see that with architecture. I like to use architecture as a counterpoint to food because I think food in its highest expression can be an art. But it also has a practical side. And so architecture, almost unique among arts, has this thing of, hey, most buildings are built so that we can have a roof over our heads and we don’t freeze to death and so forth. They have a very prosaic functional component, although, the very best buildings absolutely are art.
Well, the same thing happens with food. We need to eat a couple times a day just to fuel our bodies. So it’s got a very strong prosaic element. But then again, if you really get into it, and if you really create great food, oh, my God, of course it can be art. It can engage our thoughts and emotions in ways that are surprising.
SB: Well, let’s talk about art. You’re a photographer as well. And your photographs are all over these books, which you set up in these incredible ways. Talk about how you set up the tools to really allow you to take these pictures, many of which involved cutting various things in half.
NM: When working on the first book, I had this thing where we wanted to explain to people how food actually cooks. Well, to do that, you’d need to both describe it in text, but it also helps to have illustrations. I thought, “Well, we could have illustrations that show what’s going on inside the food.” But illustrations have a separateness. They’re wonderful things, but the verisimilitude of a photograph, making it seem real, seemed to be compelling. Well, let’s try to set up some photos that are both beautiful photos to look at, but also have a strong pedagogical bend so that they help show how cooking works. So that meant, if I’m going to tell you what’s happening inside your food while it cooks, I have to look inside your food while it cooks.
And that means if it’s in a pot, I’m going to have to cut that pot in half. Now, it happens that my company was also building a machine shop at the same time that we were starting to work on the books. I was like, “Oh, great. This is perfect.” So we have all kinds of different machine tools for cutting stuff in half. And, by God, we have cut enormous numbers of things in half so that we can make this point.
SB: Yeah. Even, I read, an oven.
NM: Oh, sure. We’ve cut a big Viking oven, a couple of commercial restaurant ovens. We cut a microwave oven in half. And there, I wanted to make sure that we also cut in half a component in there called the magnetron, which is actually the component that makes the microwave. I figured, hey, we might as well open the kimono all the way. [Laughs] If you’ve ever wondered where those microwaves come from, man, I will show you.
SB: [Laughs] And what was it for you about showing it like this that was so important? I mean, I think that in many ways, the book became known as much for the recipes as it did for the photography.
NM: Sure. But there’s a couple different ways you can position a book. At the onset, we were trying to explain the science of cooking—how things actually work. And we were supposed to document the most cutting-edge cuisines and culinary techniques at the most advanced restaurants on earth. Now, that could be off putting for some people. This is like, if Cooking for Dummies is at one end of the spectrum, hoo boy, we’re at that other end of the spectrum. So how do you make this thing that could seem dry and intimidating feel accessible? How could you get people to have their curiosity sparked enough that they would dive in? And so that’s why we did the photos the way we did. I wanted to have photos that were both beautiful, but also showed you something you’ve never seen before.
And then, in showing you that, [it] gets you intrigued and say, “Really? That’s what it looks like? Really, that’s what happens?” And in hooking that, what you allow is you get people to realize, no, this isn’t dull, technical points. This isn’t complicated chef talk that’s way over my head. This is something that anyone can understand if you just bother to look.
SB: Yeah. Even if you have liquid smoke–infused lettuce, it’s… [Laughter] So in terms of photography, I understand that was also something that you became interested in from a really young age.
SB: What’s your photographic evolution been like in terms of what you like to photograph, pay attention to, how you studied?
NM: Well, when I was probably 9 or 10, I got into cooking in a big way. When I was 9, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. Around the same time, I got into photography. Now I’d been given a plastic camera, and I sort of outgrew that. And I was in a Salvation Army thrift store, and I bought this camera for two dollars, which was a top-of-the-line camera when it was issued, in 1938. It was an old Contax rangefinder camera, a little bit like the Leica cameras, but not as famous or as costly as—a Leica would’ve never wound up in a Salvation Army; [the] Contax did.
So I started taking pictures. I started developing my own film. I converted a bathroom in our house into a darkroom. I wasn’t content to stop at the Contax, which was a thirty-five-millimeter. I then bought a view camera, which is one of the old bellows-style cameras. And I did landscape pictures mostly with that. And it was a great way to learn about all of those things. It wasn’t anything like the photography that I do now. But it certainly got me hooked on photography. Well, that sort of kept on throughout my life. As I worked at Microsoft, I could afford getting better cameras. And so when the book came out, it was a great opportunity to take this other passion and put it together.
But it was nontrivial, because, first of all, these shots where you cut stuff in half, no one had done before. And it was also studio photography, which was a very different thing than anything I’d learned as a kid. Studio photography has the—its great strength and its great weakness is you control everything. It’s a great strength because you can control the light exactly the way you want it. It’s a weakness in a sense because it means you have to figure out what light you wanted. And any photographer who shoots outside of natural light has been shocked, like “Oh, my God, look at the light right now.” And you don’t get the “oh, my God” thing very much if you’re arranging the lights in the studio. Sometimes, sometimes.
But the other thing that I thought was really important is, because we’re writing a cookbook, in high-end kitchens, presenting the food is part of cooking it. So we were big on saying, “We don’t have a food stylist.” There’s nothing wrong with food stylists. But when you go to Per Se for dinner, they don’t have a food stylist tweaking your food. The chefs do it, and that’s part of the whole—
SB: It’s the art.
NM: It’s part of the art.
NM: Amusingly, at most high-end restaurants until the mid-sixties, that didn’t happen. It was a one particular restaurant in France, a Troisgros brothers restaurant, where they started plating in the kitchen. Prior to that, the waiter would come out with a bowl and whack stuff down on your plate, and the chef couldn’t control it. And giving the chef that level of control was actually really important. But I’m digressing here.
SB: Interesting. Well, I understand that those pictures, just looking at them, even though you’re catching a millisecond, they must’ve been very time-intensive shoots. Could you talk about what it was like?
NM: The way most cookbooks are shot is, you develop the whole cookbook, you get it all set. Then you invite the photographer over for three days of madness, where you’re cooking, plating, cooking, plating, cooking, plating, and they’re shooting like crazy. And they’re trying to remember to vary things so that they’re not using the same plates for everything. You get the best work that way. So I hired an assistant full-time. And then he wound up doing a lot of the shots also. Today, with our cooking, we’ve got a team of several people who both take pictures and do the very complicated digital processes of color-correcting them and making sure the printer makes pictures in the final book that look like what we want because that’s nontrivial. So we actually invest massively more time and energy into the photography than any other cookbook does.
And you could argue that’s crazy because if you view a cookbook as a set of recipes, it’s not that necessary. But that goes back to what I said earlier—I’m not trying to make a set of recipes. We have plenty, plenty—thousands. But we also want to explain, and we also want to be something that’s a quality experience in its own right. I like to say that the books are for people who are passionate and curious about food. If you’re not passionate about food, I’m not going to interest you in a twenty-six-hundred-page book. If you’re not curious, I also don’t have much to offer you because the curiosity is what you say, “Oh, my God. Does it really look like that? Hey, how do they do X?” But if you are passionate and curious, I think the books are really interesting even if you never cook.
NM: Well, as soon as the books came out, people would call us and say, “Where can I buy the pictures?” We also enclosed in the box, there was a thing with the printer where the printer had done some test prints, which were a little bigger than eight-and-a-half by eleven. And they made too many of them. And they said, “Look, we can include them in every box just as a little freebie for almost nothing.” So we said, “Sure.” Well, I’d go and I’d see these things hung up in people’s houses. But the stuff that I know was an accidental—in New Orleans, we’d say a lagniappe, a little extra thrown in. And people kept asking, “Well, can we buy them?” We’d not thought about that. And we tried a couple experiments. We were on art.com and we were on some other things. And ultimately, we decided if we wanted to do that, we’d have to be serious about it. And that meant we would have to create our own galleries.
Food is a very funny topic this way in [that] throughout most of the history of art, food has been a very important topic of art. Classic still life paintings, whether it was in the 1600s all the way up through the impressionists, still lifes with food were a huge category of art. But something funny happened in the transition to photography, where if you asked who’s the most famous food photographer or the most famous fashion photographer, you could name a bunch of names, I could name a bunch of names. People have heard of them. Who’s the most famous celebrity portrait photographer? We come up with Annie Leibovitz. There’s a bunch of other people who do that sort of thing. Food? Food has been very funny because it’s important to us. There’s never been more people who identify as a foodie, who say that food is an important part of their lives.
Well, the art that you display in your home should be something that resonates with you. If you’re a foodie, why not have food art? When we published a book of our food pictures, a coffee-table–size book, I actually went through the categories of coffee-table books on Amazon. They had a hundred thousand books, overall. The single biggest category of coffee-table books were largely pictorial books, naked women. Naked men are a distant second to naked women. Then there’s horses, and there’s dogs. And there’s country houses and national parks. Some of the fields are so mature that they have sub-fields, so not only are there lots of coffee-table books of dogs, there’s a whole sub-field of pictures of dogs taken underwater. I didn’t know that existed, but apparently it’s a thing.
There were no food books. We couldn’t find a single coffee-table book that was just food pictures. Obviously, there were some that had pictures in them. And throughout the history of photography, there have been great artists, great art photographers who would photograph food. Edward Weston is known mostly for his Carmel landscapes and his nudes. But he loved taking pictures of food. And he’s taken the world’s best picture of a green pepper, “Pepper No. 30.” Irving Penn loved shooting food. But it was a little sideline that wasn’t considered a major part of his work, except by him. So we decided that the thing to do is to say, “Let’s open a modernist cuisine gallery and see if people want to buy big pictures of food.” And at the time we did this, and I think it’s still true, it’s the only galleries in the world dedicated to food pictures of a single artist.
And whenever you do something no one else does, you may find out why no one else on earth does it. And so far, we’ve had really good reception. But we still have people say, “Oh, but really, pictures of food on my wall?” And I said, “Well, what else are you going to put?” And they said, “Well, landscapes.” I said, “Okay. Does your apartment have a landscape room? Because I’m pretty sure it has a kitchen and a dining room.“ Food is something that’s so much a part of our lives—
SB: And it comes from the landscape.
NM: Why can’t it be art?
SB: Yeah. It comes from the landscape.
NM: So I also do food landscapes insofar as they connect back. I have a series of pictures I’m doing, which is food that no one knows what it looks like. So this got inspired by the fact that they grow hops in Washington State. Now, today, more than a billion people will have a beer. And essentially, none of them knows what hops actually looks like. It’s a vine that grows eighteen feet tall. It’s the craziest plant ever. So I’ve got a bunch of hops pictures, and I’m going around doing other things like that.
SB: You shot—you did drone photos of almond trees, I understand.
NM: Yeah. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. But all those Blue Diamond almonds that we love to eat, they come from somewhere. And almonds are like a bunch of stone fruit, like cherries. Almonds will bloom before there’s any leaves on the tree, so you get this crazy spectacle of a thousand acres of blooming trees, either white or pink, and it’s just amazing to photograph.
SB: I want to quickly go back to the beginning of your life. You were born in 1959, raised in Santa Monica, California, by your mother, who was a schoolteacher. You skipped four grades of public school. At age 14, you started your higher education.
SB: Receiving two master’s degrees in mathematical economics and geophysics and space physics, a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics. What was the path? Did you imagine yourself ever at a place like Microsoft and that you would have this… At that time, I guess, did you even imagine something like the internet?
NM: Well, being really interested in photography, I could’ve grown up to be a photographer. Being really interested in food, I could’ve grown up to be a chef. As it turns out, I was really good at school also. And I loved science. I loved math. I loved all that. And so, for most of the time I was in higher education, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do, I would say, “I’ll do academic research.” Maybe that’ll be as a professor in a university, maybe that’ll be at some research lab, but I want to be a scientist.
Mom tells me that I told her I wanted to be a scientist when I was two years old. I have no reason to doubt her on this, but certainly I spent a lot of time after that into doing it. After getting my Ph.D. at Princeton in physics, I was a postdoctoral researcher with Stephen Hawking. And then I took a leave of absence. Originally it was supposed to be for three months. There was a software project I’d worked on with a couple friends in graduate school. Personal computers were only just beginning then, and we’d written some software for it. We wanted to kind of wrap this up and put a bow on it and move on with our lives. Only we ended up starting a company, which in 1983, it wasn’t so common to start a software company.
And then after a couple years, Microsoft bought us. And then I wound up becoming Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, and that whole period was all very exciting. If you [had] asked me, “Did I want to grow up to be it?” No, I didn’t. I didn’t know it existed. But there’s also a pretty strong sense which I’d say it didn’t exist when I was a child. In 1959, there were the very beginnings of the computer industry, but it wasn’t like what Microsoft became. It was also being—we had an expression at Microsoft, being “at the center of the cyclone.” There was this enormous technological change, and we were right at the middle of it. And that was hugely exciting.
SB: In 1994, you wrote this now-famous memo to Bill Gates predicting even the rise of smartphones, foreseeing that digital networks would revolutionize communications as we know it, basically knowing that Netflix was going to happen.
NM: Yeah. It sounds… I always have this problem when people ask me about the things I do, if I really tell all of them, it reduces my credibility, not raises it. And so if I say, “Oh, yeah. I knew all that was going to happen in the early nineties,” it sounds like I’m revising history. But no, we really did.
SB: And you set up—
NM: And some of it took longer than I thought to happen. Some of it really hasn’t happened yet. In that set of memos, I predicted most of what we do with smartphones, which wasn’t that hard. I mean, a computer, a desktop computer or laptop, is great for people writing stuff. It’s not great for carrying around, so of course you’re going to have something that you carry around. And I have an illustration that I made for those things. Okay. What shape will it be? Well, the biggest thing that people were willing to carry around in lots of—you could have something huge in a case—is a checkbook. And in fact, our smartphones are roughly checkbook-sized, and that’s because they’re effectively drafting on this history that we had pockets of a certain size, which is also why airline tickets—which now it shows how old I am, I say airline ticket. But a whole variety of things were made for a form factor, and so that’s clearly going to be one of the form factors that we use for computing.
Netflix and the idea of having video on demand, obvious is not the right word. But I think it was a very predictable thing. And the reason for that was books. So, from the vantage point of the early nineties, you had this crazy thing where there were only really three networks, Fox was a work in progress. Three networks, and people were making the impossible call to say, “What shows should we put on TV?” And in the world of books—the world of books is not perfect. But because instead of there being only a dozen shows, new shows every year, there’d be thousands of books. You have a different dynamic.
And the example I like to use with Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, and Madonna’s book, Sex. So Madonna, one of the sexiest people ever, was at the height of her career, she publishes a book of nude pictures of herself. And then you have a physically challenged British scientist writing about cosmology and the origins of space and time. Which one is going to sell more? Well, the conventional wisdom is you’d bet on Madonna. Stephen’s book outsold it by factor of ten. And that’s been true throughout the history of books. You can’t always pick up-front what the best books are. So publishers have dumped tons of money into marketing books that went nowhere. And then you get A Confederacy of Dunces, which wins all of these prizes after the author’s mom gets it published because he killed himself, because he didn’t think he could get it published. Right?
So that dynamic clearly ought to work for video. Why should TV shows and video shows be so constrained that three programming executives decide what the whole United States would watch. Technologically, I understand why it was constrained. But no, of course not, which is why television and video, the things people say, “Oh, it’ll all be little short YouTubes.” But no, we love stories.
NM: And depth. So yes, YouTube videos are cool, and little gifs are cool, no doubt. But we also binge-watch hours and hours and hours and hours. In fact, the funny thing, and I didn’t predict this part—I suppose I should’ve—is not only was the long-form stuff still interesting, but in fact, there’s been a revolution in longer form. Something like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones is a, depending on how you view it, it’s a series of ten-hour movies, or it’s a seventy-hour movie. And that—under the right circumstances—that’s fantastic. You don’t always want a seventy-hour thing. It’s not every story that we actually care about who sits on the damn chair enough to watch seventy hours of it. But that kind of richness, which was a richness that you had in the world of books, it was denied to video, and so yeah, of course that was going to happen.
Now here’s the part that hasn’t happened yet, which is the set of interactive applications that we have on our phones is also totally predictable. We don’t have video that’s as good. You know, the game consoles are still the best, or PC gaming, gamer PCs are still the best way to play games, if that’s what you’re into. You don’t have the same facility of apps to play on your TV that you do on your phone or your PC. And that day will come, but there’s a variety of things that have stymied that in the short-term.
SB: I want to finish the conversation on Intellectual Ventures, which is the outfit you run now. All together, there’s around thirty to forty thousand intellectual property assets in this company’s portfolio. Around three thousand of those your company invented. And you personally have several hundred of those. Talk to me about that. How did you come to construct this organization post-Microsoft?
NM: Well, I knew that after Microsoft I still wanted to do some tech-industry things. I didn’t want to just run away totally from it. And so the thing I wound up focusing on was invention, having new practical ideas. Now, invention is different than research. Research is about trying to find out things about the world. Or, a more practical research might be, “I’m going to try to cure cancer.” Invention is a different thing. Invention is about saying, “Hey, can I have a clever idea that’s really useful?” If it isn’t useful, it’s not much of an invention. And good inventions don’t have to change the entire way that we think. They don’t have to be a contribution to mankind’s knowledge. Sometimes they are. But they’re an important thing to do.
So my company, Intellectual Ventures, is structured around investing in invention. And we do that either by acquiring inventions of other people or by setting out to invent stuff ourselves, or supporting inventors. And we do that—a good chunk of that—is done in the tech industry. But the tech industry—which I love, and was a part of for a long time—the tech industry is about making tools and toys for rich people. And by rich people I mean anyone in the United States. And depending on what it is, you can decide if it’s a tool or a toy. An iPhone is kind of both, depending on your job and various other things. It can be a tool or a toy.
But there’s a lot of people who live on a dollar or two a day, and they don’t have access to any of that. Your life and mind have been transformed by this technology. This podcast will be consumed over this technology. But it wasn’t a life-or-death thing for your life and mine to be transformed. So we have a portion of our inventions, not all, but a portion of them really focus on saying, “Let’s invent things for the developing world.”
SB: Is this the sort of Global Good arm of your—
NM: Yes. We call that chunk of our company Global Good.
SB: Yeah. You’ve invented a vaccine container that keeps vaccine cold even without refrigeration.
NM: Yeah. Yeah. We invented that thinking primarily of the vaccines that were normally given. But then it turned out that our container is uniquely the only one they’ve been able to use for the Ebola vaccine. So in each of the last Ebola crisis, including one that’s going on now, all the vaccines are delivered in our containers. We just recently invented a new thing. One of the tragedies of, actually, the human condition is that mothers die during childbirth. Most mammals don’t have that problem. Humans are unique that way. And one of the big problems is postpartum hemorrhage. So one of our people invented a way to stop postpartum hemorrhage. It is a cheap, simple-to-use device. We’re doing clinical trials on it right now, in Uganda. And people were coming to give me an update and they said, “Oh, we’re really sorry that—we’re embarrassed—it’s only been—” At the time, this was a few weeks—“only been tried on nine women.”
I said, “Well, what happened?” They said, “Oh, we saved all their lives.” I said, “Look, don’t ever apologize for saving nine women’s lives.” That’s a good day at the office. Now, yes, we want to build our statistics up more. But that will happen over time. We invented an A.I. diagnostic that diagnoses cervical cancer. And I think it’s the first really effective A.I. diagnostic. It has the property that it all runs on a cell phone from a cell-phone picture, cell-phone picture of the cervix. And it has, like, ninety percent accuracy.
NM: Now to put that in perspective, you only get about sixty percent for a pap smear, which is what most women in the United States get. And we just happened to find the right combination of a condition that’s going to kill a billion women over the next few decades. So it’s a super important problem, but it’s not a problem that Western… In Western medicine, it’s kind of a solved problem, so it’s not that big a deal. People still die of cervical cancer, but it didn’t get a lot of attention. And it turns out we could make an advanced neural network that would recognize it vastly better than humans.
SB: Are you thinking about the climate crisis and doing work in that area, too?
NM: We have done a lot of work on the climate crisis. Some of that work has taken the form of—we invented a new type of nuclear power reactor. The wind doesn’t always blow; the sun goes down at night. You’d like to have what utility people would call a “base load” source of power that runs day or night that’s carbon free. Well, nuclear has that property, but there’s a variety of—well, it’s a paradox of nuclear. And the paradox is that, because people got spooked about nuclear, people haven’t rethought it. If you’re not building any plants, why should you rethink it? Plants like Fukushima in Japan were literally designed with slide rules. And so you have this enormous amount of possible innovation, and so we’ve invented a passively safe nuclear reactor that we think is a key part of the climate problem.
But we’ve also worked on dual engineering. That’s the emergency plan if the world doesn’t get its act together. And unfortunately, if you look at say the atmospheric CO2 levels, or global average temperatures, the world does not have its shit together yet. Global warming is an odd problem from a human-governance perspective. In the seventies, there was a realization that we had polluted the crap out of things. The Clean Air Act was passed; a variety of other things were passed. And it turns out it’s pretty easy to clean up something that is severe and local. So, you have a factory that’s belching out horrible stuff, well, it’s easy to find because it’s belching out horrible stuff. Okay, right, we’re going to fix that damn thing.
Global warming is global. We all share the same atmosphere. The time scale is very long. We can’t just go close that plant. We have to do a whole set of coordinated actions. But our governance is very local. Our governance is, in this country, it’s popularity-based. Democracy is a good thing, but it’s hard to tackle things that require twenty-five-year consistent policies with people that have two to six year—
NM: Yeah. It’s hard. So one aspect of this is energy R&D, and renewable energy R&D in particular. Whenever there’s been an oil crisis, boom, there’s lots of funding. And if you look at the price of oil or the price of natural gas, it zigs and zags like crazy. And whenever it’s high, they dump money into funding. But then they stop. And then you can’t do good research with that kind of instant on and then off thing. So what we’ve actually under-invested in so many of the ideas because when fuel’s cheap, yeah. Who cares? So it will be interesting to see how the world copes with this. Certainly, more renewables is part of the answer. Some of the answer requires a very different political approach.
So in the United States, we regulate the grid locally. It’s the state public utility commission, and then it—all the way—goes down to very local government. But to tap renewable energy resources, oops, we have to work across states. And it’s super hard to get that done. Electric cars are certainly part of the answer. But one thing most people don’t realize is that the final mile of the grid, that last bit to your house, is generally not made for that amount of power. Or a different way to say that is the big tank trucks that pull up to the gas stations and dump, they are on most parts of the world, the gas truck comes twice a week. That’s actually a lot of energy flowing into your neighborhood every week, so we’ve got to fix that part. We have to be able to share across a long distance.
Part of the issue with renewables is [that] they’re weather dependent. And to some degree, not a perfect degree, you can cope by having the power come from further away. And then you have the problem of—I like to call [it] the “storms with names” problem. If you live somewhere where storms have names, like say, Sandy, those don’t happen very often, but they can easily involve a thousand miles in any one direction. Sandy was the whole East Coast of the United States. Hurricanes, other hurricanes will do the whole Gulf Coast. So you have to have a grid that’s resilient enough that when you have zero-generation capacity all there, we still can power our society.
SB: I feel like we could just keep going, but this is a great place to end. Really inspiring, thanks for coming in today, Nathan.
NM: Okay. Well, thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Nov. 22, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.