Questions for Nathan Myhrvold

  @FortuneMagazine May 6, 2013: 8:16 AM ET
QUE20 nathan myhrvold
(Fortune)

Galileo, da Vinci, Jefferson -- that's the league of polymaths Nathan Myhrvold, 53, plays in. He had a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton at 23; he did postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking; he made a fortune as the founder of Microsoft Research, the company's R&D labs; he's a paleontologist and master chef (the two are unrelated). These days, most of his efforts are aimed at "Modernist Cuisine," an idea and a movement he created that marries technology and cooking -- Julia Child Meets Mr. Wizard. Myhrvold's 2011 signature six-volume, 2,438-page, gorgeously photographed book by the same title -- weighing in at 40 pounds and $625 -- is considered a masterwork of gastronomy and science. David A. Kaplan talked to him about the future of food, cooking for Bill Gates, and cheesecake. Edited excerpts:

Q: What's your business about?

A: Our team is focused on a combination of making new discoveries in food and explaining the old discoveries better or in a different way.

Have the books made money?

I like to think of it as a business -- a business in which we've taken enormous risks. So when we first did Modernist Cuisine, I think most people in cookbook publishing would have said, "This is insane." We've broken even on the first book, and the more accessible version, Modernist Cuisine at Home, sold 40,000 copies between October and early January.

Was Modernist Cuisine always the title you had in mind?

There were a bunch of one-word titles, like Taste. That was too short and didn't really push the topic. We also thought of Cuisine Modernista, 21st Century Cuisine, and The Future of Cuisine Is Now. Maybe there's a better name. But, you know, I've gotten pretty used to calling myself Nathan. And I'm sure I would have a fine life if Mom had called me something else.

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