Microsoft to “Modernist Cuisine:” A Deep Dive Into Pizza

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BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well, now we take a look at how one man went from being a tech executive at Microsoft to leading the charge for the modern food movement. Nathan Myhrvold walked away from it all to pursue a long-held dream at culinary school. He founded Modernist Cuisine, a research lab and publishing house exploring the cutting edge of cooking. And his latest series explores the history and science behind pizza of all things. Here he is speaking to our Walter Isaacson.


WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Bianna. And, Nathan Myhrvold, welcome to the show.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD, AUTHOR, “MODERNIST PIZZA”: Well, thanks. I’m happy to be here. But whatever here means in the pandemic world.

ISAACSON: So, you’re a total polymath. Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been interested in everything from dinosaur tails and now, “Modernist Pizza,” the science of cooking. Let me understand. How did this all begin? What were you like as a kid?

MYHRVOLD: Well, I loved food early on. When I was nine years old, I discovered cookbooks in the local library. And I announced to mom I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner all by myself and go shopping by myself and the whole deal. And I did. It was not a total disaster. If it had been, you know, maybe my life would have gone in a different direction.

ISAACSON: But you were good at math and physics too when you were —

MYHRVOLD: You know, what — you know, I would have been a chef except for the fact I was really good at math and physics. And, you know, I wound up getting degrees in math and physics and geophysics and —

ISAACSON: But you left high school like at age 14, right?

MYHRVOLD: Yes. Yes. By the time I got two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. I was 23.

ISAACSON: And those were in, what, theoretical physics?

MYHRVOLD: The last one, the Ph.D. is theoretical physics from Princeton. But I also have a master’s degree in economics from Princeton and one in geophysics from UCLA and my bachelor’s was math. So —

ISAACSON: So, when you were studying physics and math and getting all those degrees, you eventually go off to Cambridge and you study with Stephen Hawking. That is pretty amazing. Tell me what that was like.

MYHRVOLD: So, Stephen is a fantastic physicist. What is last well described is he’s also a really great guy. He was funny. He loved to tell jokes. He had a great sense of humor. The other thing about Stephen is, if you worked for him, it’s really hard to feel sorry for yourself. You know, you might wake up some day and say, oh, I’m not feeling well and, you know, I — this happened and that happened and the world is so cruel. I can walk, you know, and I can do all of these other things. And here’s this man with incredible physical challenges. Challenges that would break almost anybody’s will, and yet, here he is not only surviving but he’s on the top of his field.

ISAACSON: When you were chief technology officer at Microsoft, you were famous. Because I remember, in the early 1990s before the web had even spread around, you said it’s all going to go to mobile, there’s going to be smartphones. Tell me about that memo and how it affected things.

MYHRVOLD: Well, I wrote a series of memos about how computing was going to change and what things were going to be important. And my argument was a lot of it depends on actually the geometry of the human body. You know, we — our eyes work best at about the distance of our arms and that’s not an accident. You know, so, it means if we are having a shared experience, we need a much bigger screen so several of us can see it together. We move around. So, a portable computer that you can read at arm’s length is like obviously going to be what we want for a huge amount of what we do.

ISAACSON: Wait. So, why did Microsoft not invent the smartphone then?

MYHRVOLD: Well, in 1991, I wrote a memo that has a picture that I made myself with an illustration program of something that looks just like an iPhone. And the reason, it’s easy to think, oh, knowing the future is the thing that would allow you to go do it but you also have to believe enough in that future to put enough resources behind it and then not get distracted by the things that are similar but not as good. So, Microsoft’s early efforts in phones were aimed at much more primitive phones with much more — like a — what was called a feature phone at the time. And much more simple applications like address books and things like that, which were important for sure. But it wasn’t the world that really — the iPhone was the first implementation of, I’ll say my idea. Now, I’m sure there’s other people that had ideas like this early on also.

ISAACSON: So, I know you. I know your enthusiasm. I know Bill Gates and his intensity. I want to know what it was like at Microsoft you walked into him and said that you wanted to take a leave from Microsoft to go to cooking school in France.

MYHRVOLD: He — well, it was the only person who had ever asked that and certainly, the only one that was ever granted also. You know, Bill is incredibly focused. And Bill had also seen me incredibly focused in what I would do at Microsoft. And it was a little puzzling to him that I would want to go do some other thing, particularly one that wasn’t as overtly intellectual. Now, to me, that was kind of the point. I didn’t take a leave to go do string theory or something. I wanted to do something that was very different than what I normally do.

ISAACSON: And so, your interest in the science in and the chemistry and the physics of cooking led you to this whole modern cuisine thing that you’re doing? Explain those volumes.

MYHRVOLD: Well, after retiring from Microsoft, I built this amazing kitchen and I bought state-of-the-art equipment, including some of the things that I knew there were chefs that were experimenting with scientific life techniques and really trying to make food that was created in a different — sort of a jarring way from the past.

ISAACSON: And how many volumes was that first book you did?


ISAACSON: Wait. So, you wrote 2,500 pages just in your first set of books on modern food, modernist food and it tied the science and also you did obsessive photography. I mean, did people think you were going nuts?

MYHRVOLD: Absolutely. You know, fortunately, because I had been on Microsoft for a while, I didn’t need to get funding up front for this. No one would have given it to me. At the time, cookbooks — and it’s still true, that there is a huge emphasis on cookbooks on dumbing things down. So, the series like “Cooking for Dummies,” you know, “Steak for Dummies” or whatever. And if that kind of book dissatisfying to you, I can’t do any better, right? I — this is not about making something super simple, in my view. It was about explaining how it worked. Another love of mine since childhood was photography. And I thought, you know, if you have a book that’s trying to talk about cooking using the very latest techniques, things that maybe some of the best chefs don’t understand and it has lots of science, there’s people who might say, that was off-putting. You know, that wouldn’t be their idea of something fun. But I thought, if I had really compelling photographs, both intrinsically but also didactically able to show things rather than just tell them, then maybe I could seduce people to being interested in the book. You know, they flip it over and say, oh, wow. What’s that?

ISAACSON: So, now, you’ve taken all this science, all this photography, all this modernist food ideas and you’ve applied it to what I would consider one of the most ordinary foods around, which is pizza. And so, tell me a little bit about how you applied science, for example, to the pizza dough, what did you learn about that?

MYHRVOLD: Well, one of our theories is — or principles, is that any food is worthy of respect. And although pizza is — could be built as a simple food, as you did, it may be one of the most popular single dishes on earth. And they have lots of lore and legends and mythologies. So, here’s an example of both how we work and what comes of it. Almost every pizza is puffy at the rim and the crust is high and the crust is thin in the middle. Why is that? Now, the first answer people gave is, like, oh, well, the chef left extra dough at the sides. And sometimes that’s true. But even if you have a dead flat piece of dough, so, I ask lots of people. Of course, I knew we were going to do experiments. One theory was, what’s the weight of the sauce and the cheese and, you know, whatever else, sausage or veggies. So, we make pizza side by side. And one would have the sauce and cheese on it. And the other would have sand of the equivalent mass. Puffs up in the center. Looks like this.

ISAACSON: And why is that?

MYHRVOLD: Well, because it turns out weight isn’t the issue, which I kind of knew already because we tried these experiments with bread. We tried to bake bread with weights on top of it. And the yeast is strong enough and the expansion strong enough, it mostly shrugs off weight.

ISAACSON: Now, when I was growing up, I always had this historical theory, which is that pizza was invented on the Lower Eastside of New York in an original Ray’s pizza shop. Is that true?

MYHRVOLD: Sadly, no.


MYHRVOLD: So, we spent a ton of time on the history of pizza. And we discovered a whole bunch of new historical documents and a variety of other things. So, we both documented and we pushed it forward. But pizza was a street food in Naples. It was a street food in poor neighborhoods. It got popular so that the rich people of Naples would sneak down, kind of like to eat it, but it was a very local cuisine, which is typical of Italy.

ISAACSON: When was this?

MYHRVOLD: This was in the 19th century. There were a couple of people making pizza in 1790. We know from a census. And that first pizza was not like the only thing you’d recognized as a pizza. The initial toppings were a tiny fish larva. They like to catch there. But by the mid-18th or 19th century, so, 1850 to ’60, it was very recognizable for what we had today, you know, I think would have stayed in Naples except for politics and cholera. So, before 1870, Naples was the capital city of something called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilys. One of which was Sicily. I had never had a good answer as to why they called it that. But it went from being a capital city where it was quite rich to being a provincial city in 1870 when the — Italy unified and became a country for the first time. Then there was also terrible cholera epidemics. Now, that caused them to answer to public works project called the (INAUDIBLE) which involved tearing down some of the worst slums of Naples and building new sewer system and making it a much better cleaner city. Well, in the 19th century, they have not quite figured out that when you tear down slums, you need some place for the people to go. So, a combination of people literally having nowhere to go because of tenement house was being torn down and this politics meant that Naples lost about a third of its population in a 20- year period. From 1880 to 1900, two million people left Naples. Some went to other parts of Italy but most went to the new world. They went to United States and they went to South America. And it was the poorest people who were going. It wasn’t the rich. And so, those were the people eating pizza, wanted pizza, knew how to make pizza and they brought pizza with them.

ISAACSON: And so, is that how pizza got to New York City?

MYHRVOLD: That is how pizza got to New York City.

ISAACSON: Now, you traveled all over the country to —

MYHRVOLD: And the world.

ISAACSON: And somewhat obsessively. I mean, this is a full volume of work. You’re all over the world and different places. Tell me where you found something that really surprised you and that you loved.

MYHRVOLD: Oh, we were surprised many times on this trip. So, we went to 300 pizzerias in South America, Asia, all across the United States, all over Italy and other parts of Europe. And you would occasionally find something that was truly stunning, someone working away in relative (INAUDIBLE), you know, known in the neighborhood but know the place, making fantastic pizza. But we also found that basically really old famous pizzerias anywhere in the world are lousy.


MYHRVOLD: Because they don’t — they’re old and they’re famous and tourists, they’re going to come no matter what. Whereas the thing that really distinguishes a great pizzeria is the founder is still around and he’s not making every pizza or she’s not making every pizza, they’re at least inspecting the hell out of them.

ISAACSON: How many countries on this planet have pizza parlors?

MYHRVOLD: So, I think there’s 185 countries that the U.N. recognizes, something like that, depends on what you count territories, and we found all but three or four have pizzerias.

ISAACSON: Well, Nathan Myhrvold, Nathan, thank you so much for joining us.

MYHRVOLD: Well, thank you, Walter. It’s always fun.

About This Episode EXPAND

W.H.O. warned that Europe could top more than two million COVID deaths by March 2022. For the first time, the U.S. has been rated a “backsliding democracy” in a new think tank report. Arthur Ashe’s legacy as a tennis champion and activist is at the heart of a new documentary, “Citizen Ashe.” Nathan Myhrvold’s latest book series explores the history and science behind pizza.