Photos uncover hidden worlds of daily culinary experiences at Pacific Science Center exhibit

Staff writerNovember 1, 2013 

In homes all over America, there are science experiments occurring. Air is being suspended in milk fat, water molecules are being locked in place and edible emulsions are being created. The cooks who perform these acts might be surprised to learn it’s science at work. They would just call it whipping cream, freezing ice cubes and making mayonnaise.

It was the intersection of food and science that prompted Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer of Microsoft, to create the five-volume cookbook series, “Modernist Cuisine.”

“Cooking is the only experiment we all do on a regular basis,” Myhrvold says.

The 2,472-page series with 1,522 recipes has become the bible of the modernist cuisine movement. Popularized by Spanish chef Ferran Adria, American chef Grant Achatz and others around the world, the movement respects but is not shackled to traditional cooking techniques. It’s a world of pea “butter,” nitrogen frozen ice cream and culinary foams.

When Myhrvold’s books came out, the photography garnered the most attention. With microscopic views and groundbreaking cutaways of cooking implements in action, the images did what good photography always does: give the viewer an uncommon perspective of its subjects.

“By doing this, we hoped we’d make people look at food in a different way,” Myhrvold said as he recently led a tour through “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine: The Exhibition.” The show at Pacific Science Center in Seattle showcases the imagery produced by Myhrvold and his team at The Cooking Lab in Bellevue.

One hundred large-scale images and videos made over seven years make up the show. Plants, animals and the food they become are the subjects along with the cooking techniques and some of the props used in the project.

One photo shows a cross section of a root vegetable garden. The rainbow-colored vegetables — purple potato, golden beet, red carrot, green leek — are illustrative and visually arresting.

Another photo looks like Jupiter’s red spot as shot by an interplanetary probe. Only reading the caption does one learn it’s actually a Trichinella worm in animal muscle. The photo, Myhrvold said, is interpreted differently if the viewer knows what it is before or after they see it.

“We’ve made it look kind of cool,” he said.

One large photo looks like the tentacles of a sea anemone. It’s actually an extreme close-up of a wedge of grapefruit with teeth-like juice sacs. Another photo of leaf veins becomes a visual allegory of a cardiovascular system. A sliced close-up of an artichoke is fascinating in its color, texture and detail. Extreme close-ups of blueberries look like props from the movie “Alien.”

“If you really look at them, they’re beautiful,” Myhrvold said, pausing in front of an extreme close-up of what are usually plain looking lentils.

The show and its accompanying 12-pound book, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” are educational as well as pretty to view. An extreme close-up of a strawberry reveals that the small seeds on the skin of the red orbs are the true fruit of the plant and the berry is just a specialized and very tasty stem.

Other photos are pure art. The tentacles and suckers of an octopus are enveloped by swirling designs of ink. Parrot fish shot in a fish market are a riot of color.

Myhrvold has perhaps gotten most acclaim for his cutaways — everyday cooking objects sliced in half to illustrate the inner workings of stoves, blenders, microwaves and other tools. As he explains, cutaways are commonplace in illustrations but rare in photography.

Some of the photos are so delectable viewers might start salivating as they wander the galleries: Skewers, mac and cheese, paella, a café latte, banana pie. The mac and cheese looks particularly creamy. Myhrvold explained that by adding an emulsifying salt, sodium citrate, he keeps the fat from separating from the protein.

One of Myhrvold’s subject areas includes cooking phenomena. While still photos show eggs being fractured by a .308-caliber bullet and a wine glass shattering, a video screen displays slow motion clips from the shoots. A dropped cube of red gelatin twists, turns and jumps in a comical fashion. A golden-colored sphere shoots up out of a liquid and slowly flowers into popcorn.

And something as simple as cream being poured into coffee, shot close up and played in slow motion, looks the creation of the universe.

The startling video was shot using a camera that can record 1 million frames per second. But to obtain a sharper resolution, Myhrvold and his team used it at 6,200 frames per second.

“It takes five pounds of popcorn until you get one as nice as the one we got,” Myhrvold said.

During the tour, Myhrvold showed a photo that looked like pock-marked pewter bubbles in a sea of motor oil. It was simply whipped cream as seen through a microscope. The pocks are tiny fat globules on air bubbles suspended in the cream.

The book goes into technique much more than the show does. It covers cameras and lenses, studio shoots, software and cutaways.

Some of the photos are photo illustrations. The cutaways and other photos in which food levitates are composites from numerous photos. Still, Myhrvold and his team were able to boil water in half-pots with their cutaway side glued to heat-resistant glass. Many of the cut-in-half props from the shoots are on display, including half of a Viking range.

Myhrvold also includes a section in the book with tips for shooting your own photos in restaurants and at home. That segment can come in handy for folks who photograph everything they eat in restaurants and post it to social media. In the book Myhrvold quotes a psychiatry professor who says that’s a form of mental illness when done obsessively. But Myhrvold gets in the last word.

“If we want to take pictures of our food and share them with like-minded friends, that should be our business and no one else’s,” Myhrvold writes. And few have put as much time, effort and money into sharing their food photography as he has.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@

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