Former Microsoft smarty Nathan Myhrvold is pioneering the way we think of food, and the way we look at it. In his new exhibit at the Pacific Science Center, "The Photography of Modern Cuisine," Myhrvold combines his passions for cooking and photography in an eye-opening experience that goes way beyond the usual Gourmet Magazine food porn.
His work is to food photography what the "Bodies" exhibits are to anatomy: A blend of science and aesthetics that gives you a deeper — even forensic — look at its subjects.
Traditional food photographs have one mission: to make you salivate. But just as Myhrvold's instant classic book "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" reinvented the kitchen as a laboratory, Myhrvold's new book and exhibit approach food by way of technology and chemistry to produce stunning, sometimes highly informative images of food and its preparation.
To Myhrvold, cooking is not just about eating. Every meal, he says, is an experiment, an act of science. Cooking, he says, "is the only experiment we do on a regular basis."
If the ancient alchemists concealed their experiments in elaborate coded symbols, Myhrvold is exposing the cook's dark arts with vivid, ultra realistic, high resolution imagery — a spare-no-expenses approach that strips common acts of their mystery. His cutaway images take culinary everydays like a pot roast and literally slice them in half — while the roast is cooking. The resulting photographic cross-section lets you see inside the pot as the ingredients boil, bubble and roast.
He does the same with ovens, microwaves and barbecues. He photographs familiar acts — cooking the family dinner, making a smoothie — but takes you into unfamiliar territory. Inside the red-hot stove, you can see the sizzling, flaming, transforming science with a rib's eye view. Myhrvold's pictures have a detailed, hyper-real quality that is riveting, though not always appetizing.
At a recent preview of the exhibit, Myhrvold pointed to an image and asked what it was. No one could guess, but it reminded me of the tissue cells on a specimen slide I might have found in my father's basement lab (he was a research pathologist). In fact, we were informed, it was a magnified image of whipped cream. Why, Myhrbold asked, does whip cream whip up? Turns out, the whipping creates zillions of tiny bubbles which stay intact because they are coated with a thin layer of milk fat that keeps them from bursting (that's why skim milk doesn't whip).
It's not all engineering and chemistry. Some of Myhrvold's images are sensuous and appealing. A dramatic image of two raspberries plopped into a dish of raspberry puree is striking. Myhrvold says it took dropping some five pounds of berries to capture the contrast between the seedy texture of the berries and the frozen-in-time splash of creamy puree.
Even so, Myrhvold cannot resist using his images to explain, Bill Nye-style, the physics and chemistry of food. He tells how he purchased a camera that can shoot a million frames per second in order to take a picture of a kernel of popcorn popping (it required only 6,200 frames per second to catch it, by the way). He explains how a tiny bit of moisture inside the kernel is boiled by the heat until it wants to expand by 1,600 times. That pressure is what causes the popcorn to burst and jump like "a steam rocket." Myhrvold wanted to capture that in mid-flight.
Like the popcorn kernels he photographs, Myhrvold's food franchise has expanded. His modern food books have shipped some 100,000 copies, he says, and he seems happy to have combined two of his great passions. For all of his focus on food science, he loves to eat, and is willing to experiment with his own stomach. "I have eaten a lot of weird shit," he says -- like Sardinian maggot cheese and rotten Icelandic fish. He insists that his scientific approach to food doesn't spoil the sensory experience, though his approach often feels like the kitchen version of a CSI episode.
Still, though food is food — full of flavors and aromas -- Myhrvold is a defender of cooking that isn't always about pleasing the palate. He likens a meal to reading a good book, wants it to surprise him, to give him something he's not expecting. "Does every story need a happy ending?" he asks.
In Myhrvold's world, every meal is a learning experience and food photography can do more than just make you drool.