Late on a rainy evening in March, the black-sweatered crowd filled the hallways of New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education. It was late because that’s when many of the guests, who toil in restaurant kitchens, got off work. They wore black because it’s the costume of the cultural avant-garde, a movement whose leadership has improbably devolved from artists, composers and writers to the people who cut up chickens. Professional chefs, long counted among the most reliable acolytes of the bourgeoisie—why else would they be so drawn to Las Vegas?—have seized the vanguard of Revolution and are carrying it out, one hors d’oeuvre at a time. At this very moment, in fact, a half dozen of them are hunched conspiratorially over bowls of mysterious white flakes, arranging them in heaps onto spoons to be passed around by waiters.
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“Any hints on how to eat this?” I asked a young woman, a food stylist for a cooking magazine.
“Don’t breathe out,” she advised.
I coughed, sending a powdery white spray cascading onto my shirt front. For the rest of the evening I wore a dusting of elote, a Mexican street-food snack of corn on the cob. Except this was elote deconstructed, reimagined and assembled into an abstraction of flavors, a Cubist composition of brown butter powder, freeze-dried corn kernels and powdered lime oil. The flavors of corn and butter burst onto my tongue in an instant, and were gone just as quickly.
“It’s delicious, isn’t it?” the woman said.
“Yes, and very, uh...”
“Actually I was thinking it would stay on the spoon better if it was heavier.”
This party marks the moment the Revolution has been waiting for: the publication of Modernist Cuisine, the movement’s manifesto, encyclopedia and summa gastronomica, 2,438 pages of cooking history, theory, chemistry and microbiology in five oversize, lavishly illustrated volumes, plus a spiralbound book of recipes on waterproof paper, weighing 43 pounds. More than three years and roughly five tons of food in the making, it is “the most important book in the culinary arts since Escoffier,” in the opinion of the restaurant guide founder Tim Zagat—a monument to the vision of an obsessive cook, brilliant scientist and entrepreneur who is also, conveniently, extremely rich. Nathan Myhrvold, the principal author, “would be a frontrunner for a Nobel Prize in gastronomy, if they had one,” gushed the celebrity food writer Padma Lakshmi, introducing Myhrvold two nights earlier at a symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences. He is “one of the most interesting men I have ever met in my life,” she added—high praise considering that the competition includes Lakshmi’s former husband, Salman Rushdie.
Myhrvold’s round pink face is framed by a blond-going-to-gray beard, and often creased by an amused smirk, an expression he earned at the age of 14, when he was accepted to UCLA. By age 23 he had earned advanced degrees in mathematical physics, mathematical economics and geophysics and was on his way to Cambridge to study quantum gravity under Stephen Hawking. He has a scientist’s analytical, dispassionate habits of mind; when someone in the audience at his talk asks for his opinion on cannibalism, Myhrvold replies it’s probably bad for you, because people are more likely than other kinds of meat to contain parasites that afflict people.