A Tour of The Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Laboratory

Inside a high-tech laboratory that's spinning out the future of food (in a centrifuge at 13 Gs)

In 2008, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold began to carve out a portion of the 20,000-square-foot warehouse outside Seattle that houses the research lab of Intellectual Ventures. The former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft had an idea for a cookbook he wanted to write, and he needed some kitchen space.

Maxime Bilet, the kitchen's head chef of R&D and a co-author (with Myhrvold and Chris Young) of the ambitious cookbook, led me through the kitchen, where four full-time staffers were in the process of making me lunch using a variety of outre apparatus. The usual kitchen accoutrements were on display -- stove, sink, cutting boards, refrigerators -- but Bilet's tour started with the ultrasonic bath.

An appliance commonly used by jewelers and dentists, it runs super-high-frequency vibrations through a water bath, cleaning the grime off whatever's submerged in the water via high-energy cavitation. The team discovered that subjecting cut potatoes to the bath creates tiny fissures in their surfaces; which, when the potatoes are French-fried, result in a much crispier exterior. From the ultrasonic bath we proceeded to the chamber vacuum sealer, the ultra-high-pressure homogenizer, the rotor-stator homogenizer -- well, just see the gallery.

The warehouse also houses a bio lab, mosquito hatchery, chemistry lab, "small things room," a machine shop, a photo studio, and more. As in the rest of the lab, much of the equipment in the kitchen was bought used on eBay and Dovebid. And the working kitchen I toured only contains a fraction of the equipment owned by the project -- there's a 30,000-square-foot warehouse nearby full of items that aren't in active use.

What's in store next for this amazing kitchen? The cookbook comes out next month, and for the present, the team is using the equipment to homogenize and freeze-dry meals for members of the press like myself as part of the promotional effort. And after that? I asked Myhrvold.

"We could do another book. An obvious thing to do as a follow-on would be pastry, dessert, and baking. But, of course, I do have a day job, so the next thing might be curing malaria, or building nuclear power plants to create a carbon-free future. Who knows?"

The Building

This is where the magic takes place.Paul Adams

The Plaque

From outside, this is the only sign of the wonders that lie within.Paul Adams

Kitchen

Meal preparation is just beginning.Paul Adams

Kitchen with Rotovap

Front and center, the rotary evaporator stands proudly.Paul Adams

A Few Immersion Circulators

The white ping-pong-esque balls act as insulation to help the water baths'temperatures remain constant, while they cook food for hours or days at a low temperature.Paul Adams

Whiteboard

Crucial for keeping track of who's working on tortilla gel and who's on cheese powder.Ryan Matthew Smith, Modernist Cuisine

Rotor-Stator Homogenizer

This is a mechanical homogenizer that works well for many purposes; it's quieter but not as powerful as the ultra-high-pressure one.Paul Adams

Ultra-High-Pressure Homogenizer

This one homogenizes even more effectively than the rotor-stator. It takes a liquid in through the silver tube on the left, and sprays it out under hundreds of PSIs of pressure through the copper tube. Whatever it homogenizes stays homogenous.Paul Adams

Combi Oven

The Rational oven maintains a precise temperature and humidity, or even steps through a programmed sequence. This one is set to the RSTCHK roast chicken program.Paul Adams

Autoclave

It's designed to sterilize medical equipment at high temperatures and pressures, but it makes a heck of an onion soup too if you're so inclined.Paul Adams

Freeze Dryer

Used in the kitchen lab for making dried versions of fresh ingredients, including a gourmet version of instant ramen.Paul Adams

Spray Dryer

This yields a sprinklable powder of whatever you put into it. One application Bilet describes: caramelize up some scallops, powder them, and sprinkle cooked-scallop powder onto raw scallops for a scallopstravaganza.Paul Adams

Spray Dryer, Continued

The other side of the majestic spray dryer makes a convenient bookshelf.Paul Adams

Rotovap

The rotary evaporator is used to distill flavors. Here, Dave Arnold and Nils Noren explain how to use one.Paul Adams

Ultrasonic Bath

Subjecting potatoes to ultrasonic vibrations in the bath creates micro-fissures in their surfaces. Then, when they're deep-fried, the resulting micro-textured surface provides a modernist crunch. Myhrvold says ultrasound brews a superior cup of tea as well.Paul Adams

Vacuum Sealer

This is a prerequisite for sous vide cooking. It's also invaluable for quick infusing and other techniques.Paul Adams

Cooling Centrifuge

The washing-machine-esque centrifuge is the one item of technology chef Max Bilet says he now can't live without. It subjects foods to up to 13 times the force of gravity, separating them into their component parts.Paul Adams

A Shelf of Ingredients

The modernist kitchen is nothing without its hydrocolloids.Paul Adams

The Deep Freeze

The orange rectangle is carrot-infused butter; Activa is a brand of transglutaminase meat glue.Paul Adams

Every Kitchen Should Have an Okamoto

The industrial grinder is housed, of course, in every kitchen's adjoining machine shop.Paul Adams

Every Kitchen Should Have an Omax

According to omax.com: "OMAX abrasive waterjet cutting machines cut metals, composites, glass, ceramics and more!" Pretty sure they don't use this to make cheese curls, but you never know.Paul Adams

Entrance to the Bio Lab

Just down the hall from the kitchen. Suit up!Paul Adams

Mosquito Wing Research

Step one: understand the mosquito.Paul Adams

The Mosquito Hatchery

This room is kept at a pleasantly tropical humidity for the comfort of all the bugs in those boxes.Paul Adams

A Microwave Sawn In Half

To show how it works, of course. On the right, notice an all-white mockup of the Modernist Cuisine books in their plastic sheath.Paul Adams

Raclette Furnace

Skewered on the raclette grill, a piece of custom-made emulsified cheese that was concocted in the lab from Comte, gruyere, and gouda. The grill roasts the edges of the wedge to perfection, and the emulsification ensures that the cheese doesn't separate into a greasy, curdled mess.Paul Adams