Nathan Myhrvold: How a Geek Grills a Burger

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Photograph by Chris Buck

As usual, Nathan Myhrvold has to get the dinosaur question out of the way first: Is it true, asks a saucer-eyed brunette with cleavage bursting through her zip-front denim jumpsuit, that he has a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in a glass solarium in his massive Bellevue, Washington, home?

“Hahahahaha!” Myhrvold guffaws. Sigh. “Yeah.”

“That is amazing,” the woman coos. The dinosaur as decor is indeed impressive, but Myhrvold, being Myhrvold, is a bit embarrassed to report that he didn’t actually discover the skeleton himself. “I bought it,” explains the former Microsoft technology guru. “It’s like having the head of someone else’s deer on your wall!”

Which is why, he says, he later bankrolled a team of paleontologists, led by the consultant from the film ‘Jurassic Park,’ to comb the Montana badlands until they discovered a T. rex for him, which Myhrvold donated to the Smithsonian. Then his team discovered 11 more – the most T. rexes found by a single team in the past 100 years.

But we’re not here for the dinosaurs – or to review what Myhrvold learned studying astrophysics with Stephen Hawking or to discuss his Formula One race-car period or the bungee jumping or nature photography or scuba diving or spelunking or fly-fishing. We’re in his vast and brightly lit laboratory, surrounded by glass beakers and humming machines, to talk about food. And not just food but, in fact, molecular gastronomy, the avant-garde approach to cooking that uses chemistry and technology to invent novel, even ludicrous, edible creations. Tonight Myhrvold is putting on the equivalent of a NASA cooking show in front of two intimate tables of pros, including Andoni Luis Aduriz, chef at the number-three restaurant in the world, Spain’s Mugaritz; Scott Boswell of New Orleans French Quarter’s bistro Stella!; and Johnny Iuzzini, pastry chef at Jean Georges, on whose arm we find Claire Robinson, the bubbly Food Network hostess and Myhrvold’s jumpsuited dinosaur inquisitor.

Standing with formal authority in his white chef’s smock, Myhrvold beams with delight as he presents a tiny cracker with a butter spread made of peas that were spun in a centrifuge at 50,000 times the Earth’s gravity for one hour. Here, ladies and gentlemen, are French fries that have been soaked in an ultrasonic bath, perfectly crisped and ready for dipping in a creamy bone-marrow mousse. Have a sip of this mushroom cappuccino topped with whipped bacon cream. This preposterously tender roast chicken? Myhrvold injected it with brine and hung it for three days in a refrigerator, roasted it for four and a half hours at 145 degrees, then cooked it for five minutes at 600 degrees. “We use liquid nitrogen to chill it first,” he says, “because that really keeps the inside moist.”

If this food is far out, that’s where Myhrvold generally resides. He takes his hobbies, like dinosaurs and cooking, to baroque extremes, unconstrained by money. Retiring in 1999 as Bill Gates’ personal tech visionary at Microsoft – Gates once called him the smartest man he knows – Myhrvold has a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The two live in the same lush, woody neighborhood of techno-mega-mansions near Lake Washington, a few miles from Microsoft headquarters.

The dinner is to showcase Myhrvold’s most recent spike in the ground: a six-volume, 2,438-page cookbook called ‘Modernist Cuisine.’ It’s a lavish objet d’art bursting with lush photography and elaborate, painstakingly researched charts, diagrams, maps, and formulas. The book costs $625, took nearly 10 years (and well over a million dollars of Myhrvold’s own money) to produce, and is, by every account, the final word on the science of cooking.

It explores everything from the spherification of liquids to the microregional barbecues of the southeastern United States. It documents the exact ways steak and hamburgers cook on a grill, down to the molecular level, with annotated pictures taken with high-powered microscope cameras.

Here in this lab, he explains, a full-time staff of 18 helped him perform tasks like cutting open convection ovens and coffeemakers with lasers to expose how they work from the inside out and filming bullets with a stop-motion camera as they pierce ballistics gelatin and eggs and other foods. Why?

“Because, why not?” he says, happy you asked. “If you have a block of ballistics gelatin and a high-speed camera, pretty soon somebody gets a gun!” Some of it is even practical – like Myhrvold’s advice that you “hyper-decant” a bottle of young red wine by putting it in a blender for one minute. “Particularly if you have a wine expert over,” he says. “Because, oh, my God, the look on their face is worth the whole thing.”

Fair haired and cherub-faced, Myhrvold has the wide-eyed, and somewhat maniacal, presence of Gene Wilder in ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,’ giving off high-pitched, nutty-professor chuckles as he shows off a local clam with a large, offensive-looking appendage coming out of it.

But believe it or not, Myhrvold also wants to be taken seriously. At 53, he isn’t satisfied with going down in history as the biggest lobe in Bill Gates’ brain trust, or even as an eccentric Renaissance man with a dinosaur in his house. He wants a legacy he can call his own. And instead of focusing on one big thing, he’s hedging his bets: The lab where we’re dining isn’t just an experimental kitchen for his landmark book but a 20,000-square-foot research center for the exploration and creation of new technologies. It houses obscure inventions like “an incredibly exotic antenna that will one day revolutionize communications” and a refrigerated closet full of mosquitoes for vaccine experiments. “In fact, if you come this way,” he says, during a guided tour, “we actually have a system where we can shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers.”

Myhrvold is founder and CEO of a kind of invention incubator called Intellectual Ventures, a company that both invests in new things and manages a portfolio of tens of thousands of patents acquired with money from big investors, including Gates. “If we could create invention capitalism,” he says, “that would be a helluva legacy, that would be a helluva thing to do….We could actually turbocharge the rate at which the world invents things. I thought that was a cool idea.”

It’s not all mad-scientist hijinks, though. In recent years, Myhrvold has developed a reputation as a “patent troll,” attacked by critics who say he’s operating a kind of roving pirate ship that scoops up patents for mobile phone and internet software and then extracts fees from companies that need them to develop new or more advanced products.

Some feel Myhrvold has become a bottleneck to progress, not a catalyst for it. And stories abound of Myhrvold’s company profiting from patent trolling. It’s a reputation he acknowledged with a rueful joke at a TED Conference in 2007, saying he’d been cast as “the nerd Tony Soprano,” displaying a headline from a Norwegian magazine profile: PATENTMONSTERET. “I’m not thinking monsteret is a good thing,” he says. Myhrvold, in addition to being credited for his patents, would clearly enjoy being liked as well.

“Words can hurt you,” he tells me. “In the larger world, it frames how people think about you, and it can hurt you in lots of little, subtle ways.” Which is perhaps where the cookbook comes in. If there’s a recipe for having one’s space-age cake and eating it, too – being respected but also beloved, like Steve Jobs – Nathan Myhrvold is determined to find it.

Inside his office at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Myhrvold has an elaborate shadow box mounted on the wall, featuring all the elements in the periodic table. Besides being amazingly beautiful, almost all of the 118 compartments contain actual samples of the elements, including the gases. “The noble gases are in little neon signs that light up,” he says. “Some of the other radioactive ones are in there – but not the most radioactive ones.”

Myhrvold is himself a man of many compartments, conversant in a wide array of sciences. He has two master’s degrees, one in geophysics and space physics, another in mathematical economics, and a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics. In the early 1980s, he studied quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, but he gave it up to pursue a more lucrative career, starting a computer company called Dynamical Systems Research with his younger brother, Cameron. After two years, the business was acquired by Microsoft for $1.5 million, beginning a long relationship with Bill Gates. Myhrvold spent 13 years at Microsoft, becoming chief technology officer and launching its research arm, which incubated things like Kinect for Xbox 360 and many iterations of Windows.

In 1995, Myhrvold and Gates co-wrote the bestseller ‘The Road Ahead.’ A big part of Myhrvold’s job was producing research reports describing in precise terms what the future of computing would look like so that Microsoft could exploit it. He was often pretty damned accurate: In 1991, Myhrvold predicted the emergence of the iPhone down to the smallest detail, describing a “digital wallet” that would consolidate all personal communication – telephone, schedule manager, notepad, contacts, and a library of music and books, all in one. It would record and archive everything you asked it to, he surmised. “The cost will not be very high,” he wrote. “It is pretty easy to imagine a $400 to $1,000 retail price.” Microsoft, however, was too cost conscious and risk averse to execute Myhrvold’s vision. “Hey, it was better than predicting the wrong thing,” Myhrvold says now. “Sitting around being bitter all the time, that’s not fun. But Microsoft certainly could have done more about it. One of the greatest things that Apple and Jobs were very good at doing was daring to do the very different thing.

“It’s what I did with my cookbook, frankly,” he adds.

Myhrvold was raised in Los Angeles by his mother, a Jantzen swimsuit model and schoolteacher. He announced his intention to become a scientist when he was two years old and soon leaped ahead of his peers, graduating from high school at 14 and ending up at Princeton soon after. Myhrvold describes himself as a precocious, even insufferable child. “I would stand up and correct the teacher, if the teacher said something wrong,” he recounts. “I remember I was in fourth grade, but I was very young, and they were talking about bears hibernating. I said, ‘Bears don’t hibernate.’ There are some animals that hibernate. Turns out bears aren’t one of them.” In hindsight, he’s proud of it, even if it alienated him from others. “It took a lot of courage,” he says. “I was a shy little kid. I was so much younger than everybody else. But I thought it was OK to say that.”

If the child is father of the man, then the grade-school Myhrvold still animates the adult. He can be arrogant and knowier-than-thou, and he’s interested in the comedy of bodily functions as a matter of course, especially if they involve dinosaurs. In the 1990s, he became fascinated with what he called “the biomechanical issues associated with reproductive behavior” in dinosaurs, he once told a reporter. “Or, put more plainly, how did they fuck?”

His latest research paper is similarly jejune. “It is the definitive treatise on dinosaur vomit,” he says. “The study of fossil shit has been important to all kinds of things, but – strangely! – fossil vomit was left to me to name. Not only is it the best paper on fossil vomit, it is, by God, the first paper on fossil vomit!”

His restless curiosity and elastic attention span can lead him from wormhole to wormhole. When I met him, he’d begun his day logging data on a dinosaur study he was writing up but was soon on his hands and knees for two hours with the pool man, investigating a mysterious leak. “I often get very hands-on with things like that, which is a little bit weird,” he says. “Most people in my zip code don’t.”

He likes his expensive toys, of course. When I ask him what kind of car he drives to work, he says, “It’s just a boring Lexus. My PR people will kill me for saying this, but once you’ve got boats and planes, cars aren’t that interesting, anyway.”

But what Myhrvold seems to enjoy most of all is simply showing off his pyrotechnic mind and vast collection of novel experiences, from driving M1A2 tanks for sport to four-wheeling through the Utah wilderness to test out high-powered panoramic cameras for the weekend. Sometimes his Buckaroo Banzai résumé can all seem like material for the ongoing story of Nathan Myhrvold – a story he clearly savors telling in interview after interview, speech after speech, TED Conference after TED Conference.

“There’s an element of performance, an element of storytelling,” says Bran Ferren, the former tech guru at Disney and Myhrvold’s best friend. “And Nathan’s a good storyteller. You have to compel people to understand your path and direction. Just as in performance, you want to touch them or move them or persuade them. It’s the same with Nathan.”

For the past 12 years, Myhrvold has been trying to sell the world on what he considers his biggest and best idea of all, an incubator of new inventions. It’s a kind of for-profit think tank featuring Myhrvold and a rotating cast of brilliant thinkers, his buddies, from a cross section of sciences. It’s exactly what you’d imagine: They sit around a room together, dreaming up new ideas for inventions that might become lucrative patents – while a team of lawyers records the freewheeling conversations to document every iota of potential intellectual property.

Since Intellectual Ventures started, in 2000, the company has licensed more than 35,000 new patents in the U.S. and has thousands of applications under submission. “Invention is about as close to magic as we get here,” Myhrvold explains. “That’s what we’re trying to do, create a business model for a liquid capital market for invention.”

It’s an attractive and possibly ingenious vision, but patenting novel new inventions is only a small part of Myhrvold’s plan. The real business of Intellectual Ventures has little to do with magic and everything to do with teams of lawyers collecting fees for patents Myhrvold had nothing to do with.

For all his childlike wonder and marvelous powers as a raconteur, there’s a glint of steel in Myhrvold’s eye. He wants to see the world in as clear and crystalline a way as possible, which, in the Microsoftian culture where he grew up, means ruthlessly.

In the late 1990s, he was among the first to see that patents were as much the future of technology as inventions themselves, that they would be the land grab of future megaliths like Google and Apple, and he wanted to win that game under his own name. So as hundreds of start-ups went under during the implosion of the dot-com boom, Myhrvold and his investors began snatching up the patents from failed companies, bundles of patents for small and medium technologies that might yield profits in the future internet. A portfolio of these patents, the thinking went, amounted to tens of thousands of tollbooths through which other companies would have to pass as they tried to develop new applications.

Last year, Myhrvold was the subject of a scathing story on ‘This American Life,’ the NPR program hosted by Ira Glass, which told the story of a young software company that received a bluntly worded cease-and-desist letter from a patent troll. Though the letter didn’t come from Intellectual Ventures, the story cast Myhrvold as a greedy villain, with Chris Sacca, a former Google executive, quoted as saying Myhrvold’s company can “literally obliterate start-ups.”

The patent wars have ramped up with Motorola, Google, Apple, and Microsoft battling for giant patent portfolios that will allow them to compete with as little financial and technological friction as possible, virtually blotting out smaller innovators.

Myhrvold, of course, saw it all coming. “Once upon a time,” he says, “the West had no barbed wire, and there were no land rights. One set of people wanted to drive their cattle willy-nilly; the other said fences and cattle. In some cases, there was literally a shooting war. But guess what? The property guys won, because ultimately you do need private property. The tech companies and internet companies came out to a green-field situation like the Wild West, and they said, ‘All right, let’s go out there, and party on!’ If you look at all the high-stakes litigation we’ve had in the last six months, I’m more right every day.”

The more we talk about the patent issue, the more defensive Myhrvold seems to become. He’s learned to see attacks on him as sour grapes, or just part of a larger power struggle that he happens to be winning.

“People called Microsoft a bunch of names, but I’m proud of what I did at Microsoft. The only great research lab in the last generation was the one I made! But people pilloried us in the press all the time.”

For all his forward-thinking futurism, Myhrvold remains culturally Microsoftian. He prefers a BlackBerry over the iPhone, still uses a Hotmail email address, and isn’t on Twitter or Facebook. His worldview is libertarian. He recently wrote a column for ‘Bloomberg News’ (“I’m a columnist now! For God’s sake!”), arguing that hydrofracking, the controversial technique for extracting natural gas that can have devastating environmental consequences, is so effective it will stall the green-energy revolution for years to come.

“If the conventional energy is cheap, it cuts the legs out from under the alternative energy,” he says. “It’s just a damned fact!” It’s a zero-sum worldview that, while great for a wealthy swashbuckler like Myhrvold and lucrative for Intellectual Ventures, doesn’t always endear him to the little people. “I think Nathan is one of those guys who doesn’t really get the fact that he’s extraordinarily gifted and everybody can’t do what he does,” says a person who knows him from culinary circles. “He has very little social conscience because he thinks everybody should take care of themselves.”“This and this,” explains Myhrvold, “we use all day, every day.” He’s showing off to a table of guests his two favorite kitchen tools in the lab: the Sorvall RC-5C Plus Superspeed Centrifuge and the Omni Macro ES Digital Programmable Homogenizer. The former can make an excellent pea butter; the latter a constructed gelato. These, he hopes, will one day be part of everyday cooking.

If Myhrvold wants to bridge his ideas to reality and not be deemed a mere opportunist, or monsteret, what better route to the public’s love than through its stomach?

Myhrvold got serious about food in the early 1990s, working nights at a Seattle restaurant to get enough experience to be accepted to La Varenne culinary school in Burgundy, France, while working days at Microsoft. It was at La Varenne that he learned the art of sous vide, a core technique of much of molecular gastronomy, which involves putting food into a vacuum-sealed container and cooking it at a very low temperature for long periods of time, enabling laser-like precision and producing intense flavor.

His life was changed when he befriended Heston Blumenthal, chef at three-star British restaurant the Fat Duck, who was famous for making creations like bacon-and-egg ice cream and later a seafood dish that required an eater to wear an iPod, with sea sounds for audio accompaniment.

At the time, molecular gastronomy was considered an elite experience and, indeed, was meant to be: Ferran Adrià, the Spaniard behind legendary molecular-gastronomy restaurant elBulli, who is one of Myhrvold’s heroes, compared it with rarefied pursuits like jazz and Formula One racing.

“It’s a specialized thing that will appeal to a small number of people,” says Colman Andrews, Adrià’s biographer and a fan of Myhrvold’s book. Which is why Myhrvold saw an opportunity not only to create the bible for the molecular-gastronomy world but also to become its pied piper. “I’m going to build what I want, and then I’m going to hope that other people want what I want,” he explains. “It’s much riskier. A lot of great disasters have been made this way, but also a lot of great successes have been made this way. I recognized that every penny I spent on this might be lost.”

Myhrvold published the book himself, overseeing every detail down to the packaging. It was so massive – the ink alone accounts for four pounds of its weight – the binding didn’t hold together, and the container had to be redesigned at great expense. When it finally came out, however, the mere fact of the book – its size, cost, and eccentric and media-loving creator – made its own kind of stir. It was hailed by culinary celebrities like David Chang, of New York’s Momofuku, and Adrià himself, who donated a recipe to the book, saying it would “change the way we understand the kitchen.” And it’s hard to deny how detailed and vivid the book is, both as a monument to gawk at and as an elaborate encyclopedia to get lost in.

Myhrvold wants his book to change the way modern American kitchens operate. He’s closely monitoring the book’s impact, noticing, for instance, that whereas people once referred to this cooking as “molecular gastronomy,” they are increasingly referring to it with his term. “Oh, my God, it’s switched over almost entirely to ‘modernist cuisine.’ And that’s great, and I take some credit for that. So that’s what it’s called now!”

Myhrvold says the book will sell 40,000 copies in its first year. At $500 a copy, he points out, “that’s like selling 20 million of a $1 retail book.”

But whether people are using the book as something other than decor remains an open question. Last year, ‘New Yorker’ food critic John Lanchester praised Myhrvold’s book but said its ultimate effect “will, if anything, widen the gap between ordinary and professional cooking. The truth is that this stuff is for the pros.”

When I recite this passage to Myhrvold, he gets animated. “We’re totally equalizing things,” he argues. “Any amateur can learn something at the same time as Ferran Adrià does. That’s an equalizing factor. I would argue that it’s the awww-pposite of that.” But what about the barriers to entry? Not everyone can lay down $625 (the actual price) for a cookbook, let alone $10,000 for a Sorvall RC-5C Plus Superspeed Centrifuge. At this, he sighs, clearly annoyed. “So why is $500 expensive?” he asks. “If it was a $500 car, it would be a cheap car. If it was $500 of textbooks to go through a college course. Oh, my God! It’s a trivial fraction of the overall costs.

“We wanted to make something that was different, that had a level of quality and level of detail that was unlike anything else,” he says. “And, yeah, it costs something! But really good parmesan cheese costs more than the supermarket crap! You can decry it as elitist, or you can swallow hard, buy it, and grate it over something.” Myhrvold argues that even if only middle- and high-end chefs adopt modernist techniques, that will create a kind of culinary trickle-down economy, with his ideas finding their way from his lavishly funded kitchen to your not-so-lavishly funded kitchen, eventually enriching everyone. He expects we’ll see evidence of it in the years to come.

“Ten years from now, you could stop by a roadhouse and say, ‘That dish! That dish right there!’ ” he exclaims.

It’s not yet clear what “that dish” will be. But even if the chef at the local roadhouse never uses a centrifuge, and even if ‘Modernist Cuisine’ doesn’t travel beyond pro kitchens, all is not lost. Myhrvold, after all, has a diversified portfolio. There’s the mosquito laser and the tens of thousands of patents in his company’s portfolio, a kind of wide net for catching money from Google or Foursquare or Twitter or dozens of young companies trying to foment innovation in the digital age. Or maybe – who knows? – there’s something nobody has ever thought of before, which will change the world forever and have Nathan Myhrvold’s stamp on it.

Dinosaur vomit!

Whatever the case, for one evening in Seattle, Myhrvold has an audience oohing and aahing at his wacky creations. A fake quail egg made of passion fruit. A zebra-striped omelet. Creamed spinach with chlorophyll butter. Six hours of eating in all, a kind of endless parade of novelty and exotica. Wine flows, cheeks go ruddy, and laughter, for a while, overtakes the hum of machines in the background. Everyone is jovial, and perhaps no one more so than Myhrvold. A bit ruddy himself, he bounces from table to table, answering any questions posed by the CEO of Viking stoves or Pierre Hermé, the famed French pastry chef, explaining the vacuum-infused vegetables or the cocoa seaweed or the consommé that requires the meat to be juiced using “a hydraulic press that will squeeze with 120 tons – and that gets it real flat!”

“He just wants to have fun,” whispers the drunken wife of a top food critic.

And it’s true, cooking seems like a kind of therapy for Myhrvold, a place where he can aim his supreme ambition and laserlike attention toward humans in a way that won’t make them have to hire lawyers. And maybe – who knows? – they may even love him for it. “If Pierre hates the meal, is it the end of my career?” muses Myhrvold. “No. But we’re anxious to please them because it’s what you do when you cook.”

He says it like it wasn’t always obvious.

Sometime after midnight, as the mammoth meal winds down, he examines a tray of last desserts just then coming off the assembly line. “Wanna bite?” he asks, as I walk by. It looks vaguely like banana – and, in fact, it is. Centrifuged. “Isn’t it fucking excellent?”

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