Earlier this year, Modernist Cuisine was published, much to the fanfare of those who love to cook (and design aficionados). With a list price of $625 (though you can buy it on Amazon for the bargain price of $450), this six-volume, 2,400 page set reveals the art and science of cooking.
Last month, one of the authors of the book, Nathan Myhrvold (CEO and a founder of Intellectual Ventures, a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions) sat down with Edge.org and explained the premise of the book, who would want to read it, and offered a few thoughts on the publishing industry.
Cooking obeys the laws of physics, in particular chemistry. Yet it is quite possible to cook without understanding it. You can cook better if you do understand what is going on, particularly if you want to deviate from the ways that people have cooked before. If you want to follow a recipe exactly, slavishly, what the hell, you can do it without understanding it. As a rote automaton, you can say, “yes, I mixed this, I cook at this temperature” and so forth. But if you want to do something really different, if you want to go color outside the lines, if you want to go outside of the recipe, it helps if you have some intuition as to how things work.
For this book, we set out to describe the science of cooking — and do so in a very visual way. Other people like Harold McGee, in 1984, wrote a book called On Food and Cooking, which is a seminal work that started a whole trend of people explaining the science of cooking to both average people and chefs. Therefore we were not the first, but we decided that we would have a more visual description. We would first explain how traditional cooking actually works and then use that as a springboard to talk about more modern cooking techniques and how you can use them.
Not only have we written a book, but we have written a paper-based book — we don’t have an electronic edition. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that every task should have the best appropriate technology deployed behind it. If you want to deploy large, beautiful, high-resolution pictures to people in the world of cooking, there is no better platform in 2011 than a paper book.
This is an interesting perspective on the book. The mindset for publishing this book is similar to Steve Jobs’s thought process behind his products (When asked how much market research Apple did for the iPad, Jobs boldly answered: “None. It’s not the customers’ jobs to know what they want.”). Anyway, Myhrvold explains:
I’m not sure actually who is going to buy and read the book. We’ve created this without focus groups. There are two fundamental approaches you can take to designing a book or any product for that matter. You can run all kinds of focus groups and do market research and ask yourself, “what do people want?” There are a lot of very successful products that are made that way. Or you can say, “I’m going to follow my own curiosity and vision and make the book that I would love to have and hope someone agrees.” That is the algorithm that we took for this book.
On the remarkable effort to get this book completed:
At peak we had 36 people full time working on the book. We had about 18 for a period of 3.5 years overall. Now, that is wonderful and it has some issues. The wonderful part is that you benefit from everybody’s knowledge and you get pushed in ways that you wouldn’t have gotten pushed otherwise. There are lot of things where I would have said, “oh, forget it, we don’t need to do that,” but somebody else got excited about it and by the time I realized it, we had already done it.
The bad part is you have to negotiate things. You have to make decisions as a team. Somebody has to be Solomon and cut the baby sometimes and say, yes, that is enough. You may think that we didn’t have very many “No” decisions given that we have 2,400 pages. But in fact there was a ton of stuff we left out because I didn’t want to have 24,000 pages. Running a book project as a team is unusual and of course, it’s unheard of for novels.
On comparing publishing to various restaurants:
Producing the book is different. The world of publishing has been so oriented around inexpensive books, which is wonderful in many ways. It’s great that the world is focused on cheap things that you can sell to lots of people. But image a world of restaurants where the only restaurants were chain restaurants that were in malls, where Ruth’s Chris was the most high-end restaurant in the country? Not that Ruth’s Chris is bad. I go there and it’s a great thing. But Ruth’s Chris and PF Chang’s are not the sum total of the restaurant world.
But publishing executives want their books to be at best Ruth’s Chris. In fact, they would really prefer the Cheesecake Factory. So cookbooks are all made to be the Cheesecake Factory of restaurants. The Cheesecake Factory is great, I am not denigrating it. But it is wonderful that there is an El Bulli, that there is a Per Se, there is a Le Bernardin, a Daniel, that there’s a Momofuku, that there’s a variety of restaurants that in their own way, some very high end, some not particular expensive or high end, but it’s that cultural richness that makes the world of food fantastic.
I haven’t bought the book (nor can I afford to), but I find the purpose behind this book fascinating. Do read the whole conversation at Edge.org.