If there’s one man who you can trust to take some out-of-the-ordinary food photographs — ones that both celebrate the natural phenomena of food and dissect it— it’s Nathan Myrhvold.
For those out of the know, Myhrvold is a techy, inventive powerhouse: former CTO of Microsoft, founder of intellectual property company Intellectual Ventures, and driving force behind the gastronomic, boundary-pushing Modernist Cuisine.
Oh, and photographer. Myhrvold is the one behind all the photographs in the awarded (and exhaustive) Modernist Cuisine cookbooks, which draw you in with logic-defying high def shots of fresh produce and laser-cut interiors of bread at all stages of baking. Last year he began setting up galleries to display the photography prints, which currently have locations in Las Vegas, New Orleans, and now Seattle, home of Modernist Cuisine and Intellectual Ventures (plus plans to open one in La Jolla). Yesterday I stopped by the Seattle outpost to take a tour and chat with the man behind the camera.
Myhrvold being Myhrvold, (most) of the photos on display aren’t simply of the point-and-shoot variety. “Those are the exception, rather than the rule,” he joked. The others come to life thanks to a few things you don’t see in most photography studios: robots and lasers.
In the Modernist Cuisine workshop they cut things like metal mixing bowls, woks, and ceramic coffee cups in two so you can see what’s really going on when you whip egg whites or pour cream into your coffee. The robots are there to create easily predictable, easily repeatable actions so that the photographer can capture, say, the splash of a drink or explosion of a champagne bottle precisely on multiple takes.
One upcoming Myhrvold project which will surely feature robots, microscopic photography techniques, and lasers a-plenty is the Modernist Pizza Book. Like the 5-volume Modernist Bread book epic which came out in 2017, the forthcoming book will also be multi-volume and will tackle the history, science, and taste of pizza.
All types of pizza. Myhrvold told me they’d spent several weeks in South America awhile back, exploring regional pie types. The local specialty: rings of pineapple with a green olive in the center. “You’d say that’s not pizza, or that’s for me,” he said. “But they love it there.” The same love-it-or-hate-it mentality applies to an American classic: Hawaiian pizza. (Fun fact: Myhrvold told me it was actually invented in Toronto.)
This sort of polarization seems to go double for pizza, a food that’s arguably the world’s most popular single dish. Though it has universal appeal, pizza also mutates depending on local tastes — thus how we get things like pineapple-and-olive pies. To Myhrvold, this dichotomy is what makes pizza so interesting: it’s a food that’s simultaneously universal and exceedingly particular. And it’s also one that people really like to get up in arms about. I’ve almost destroyed friendships because I’m a strong believer that the New York slice is essentially cardboard covered in cheese (sorry).
One thing that really ruffles traditionalist feathers is the idea of automating pizza-making. “You’ve got Zume over on one end, that’s robotically created pizza,” said Myhrvold. “on the other end Naples insists you need to use wood as fuel.” The inconsistent heat of wood-burning ovens makes pizza cooking a lot trickier but, when done right, creates an excellent pie.
Zume may never be able to pizza that’s quite as good as a pizzaiolo with decades of experience (at least, not yet), but they can make pretty good pizza that’s fresher, hotter, and tastes better than the frozen stuff. Costco, which Myhrvold told me is the 13th largest pizza chain the U.S., is also leveraging automation. It has saucing and crust-pressing robots to help them churn out faster pies without the need for highly-trained cooks, which translates to a cheaper pizza.
For Myhrvold, there’s room in this world for all types of pizza. And I tend to agree: there will always be demand for artisanal pies made by a master pizzaiolo. But as Myhrvold pointed out, convenience is also closely tied to pizza consumption, at least in the U.S.: first came frozen pizza, then Domino’s came in with delivery (and later chatbots and drones). And now there are pizza vending machines, pizza portals, and even countertop pizza ovens, all vying to provide you with a piping hot slice in the easiest, quickest way possible.
“Food spans the whole range from pure fuel to high art,” he said. “There’s nothing bad about using technology to improve that.” For now, though, Myhrvold is partial to a deep-dish slice from a Chicago style pizza joint in Seattle. Hold the pineapple.