Hungry in Seattle: boomtown of the foodie scene

The city in the Pacific northwest of the USA is a favourite haunt of gourmets far and wide. This is where the innovative creativity of “modernist cuisine” meets the entrepreneurial spirit of the young start-up scene. A tour of the labs and restaurants of tomorrow’s generation.

Jake Stangel
Daniel Duane

As Seattle’s blue-water inlets and evergreen-forested islands came into view along Interstate 5, the entire region struck me as both curiously simple and impossible to get your mind around. The simple part had to do with the big geographical picture, which I could see plain as day beyond my windshield: downtown Seattle’s rain-washed office towers looking westward over Puget Sound, ferry boats carrying people and cars between tiny island towns and the big snow-flecked Olympic Mountains that blocked storm winds and waves off the Pacific Ocean. The part I found bewildering was the sheer number of oyster-farming inlets and private islets and hilltop neighbourhoods surrounded by lovely lakes indistinguishable from salt-water lagoons; you could road trip around here for a lifetime and never see everything.

Molecular cuisine meets down-to-earth Seattle

The same might be said of the Seattle food scene, at least the way I understood it before this trip. On the one hand, Seattle celebrates the simple pleasures of local beer, wild salmon, oysters, and beef and pork raised on lush local pasture. On the other hand, the city is home to Microsoft billionaire Nathan Myhrvold, the nuclear-power engineer who donated a million dollars to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, went to culinary school, flew around the world in his private jet eating at the most avant-garde restaurants, and then published Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a 2,438-page, 23.7-kg {52.25-lb] cookbook celebrating the experimental techniques developed by chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Modernist Cuisine, about $500 [U.S.] on Amazon, put Myhrvold on the world map for so-called molecular gastronomy, that style of cooking in which fun with chemistry and physics allows the production of luxurious and powerfully-flavoured meals that look more like abstract art than food. However, Myhrvold is not just interested in how his food looks: the ultimate goal of his use of scientific methods is to achieve the perfect taste experience.

Myhrvold was out of town when I drove through, but he encouraged me to drop by his office and check out the kitchen in which he and his staff prepare lavish modernist dinners for visiting chefs—most recently for Magnus Nillsen of Faviken, in Sweden. Myhrvold mentioned that he is working on a new book, Modernist Bread.

“The overall feeling was that the best bread was made hundreds of years ago and we should try to recapture it,” Myhrvold told me, over the phone. “But that’s false. The best bread is being made today. So we’ve looked very hard at bread from a historical, scientific and technique perspective and we’re trying to create a movement by saying, ‘The best bread has yet to be baked.’” As with modernist cuisine, Myhrvold hopes to transform this search into a new movement.

“The best bread has yet to be baked”, says Microsoft billionaire Nathan Myhrvold, who runs an experimental kitchen in Seattle.

You could road trip around Seattle for a lifetime and never see everything.

The inner sanctum of an avant-garde-foodie elite

To see Myhrvold’s legendary kitchen/laboratory, I pulled off Interstate 5 into Bellevue, Washington, a leafy upscale suburb where Myhrvold’s technology patent company, Intellectual Ventures, occupies a five-storey office building of tan-coloured concrete and blue glass. Security cleared me for entry and I walked down a purple-neon-lit hallway that looked like the entrance to a nightclub or spaceship, or maybe to a nightclub modelled after a spaceship.

Myhrvold’s lovely blonde marketing assistant, Gabbie Little, swiped her security badge to open double glass doors into what amounted to Myhrvold’s private science museum, complete with a prototype 1956 Rocket Dyne H-1 rocket engine from NASA moon-shot days and a Babbage Difference Engine, an early mechanical calculator about the size and mass of a MINI Cooper Clubman. We passed secure laboratories teeming with white-coated scientists working on vaccine-refrigeration and cow-semen-preservation technology. Then we entered the inner sanctum of Seattle’s billionaire-avant-garde-foodie elite: several thousand square feet of culinary and laboratory equipment where Myhrvold’s stout, strong and stern head chef, Francisco Migoya, supervised a research team that included a man taking high-resolution photographs of individual sugar molecules.

Dressed in jeans and a clean white T-shirt, Migoya said, “You’ll see high tech lab equipment here that can be found in no other kitchen.” He pointed to a Rinox blast freezer and said, “Like, we wanted to look inside a piece of bread dough, so we made the dough, let it rise, dropped it into liquid nitrogen to freeze it quickly, then put it in here for seven or eight days so that we could slice it in half and see the internal structure.”

Crossing the room, Migoya pointed to another contraption, an OmniMacro ES Homogenizer. “Think of it as a handheld blender that spins up to 18,000 rpms,” Migoya said. Then he gestured to a white-coated lab tech, who offered me a spoonful of pistachio “gelato” made with this machine. That gelato was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, and I did enjoy seeing the interior of freeze-dried dough. But the overwhelming experience of standing in that room was slack-jawed wonderment at what any home cook could possibly want with a Sorvall RC 5C Plus centrifuge ($3,200 used on eBay), or a 135-litre tank of liquid nitrogen, or any of these other toys that would not even fit in my kitchen back home.

Challenging food

Leaving Myhrvold’s building in search of a modernist dinner, I took I-90 west onto a bridge across Lake Washington, a huge body of fresh water surrounded by attractive homes. Weaving through city streets into Seattle proper, I drove up a steep hillside into the tasteful Queen Anne neighbourhood, where mid-level Amazon employees cook farmers-market vegetables in gracious homes with sweeping views of the aforementioned Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains. On a bustling commercial strip, across the street from local-favourite eatery How To Cook A Wolf, I found a restaurant recommended by Myhrvold himself: Eden Hill, a little 25-seat place decorated like a whitewashed country cottage.

Molecular-gastronomical techniques are commonplace in the world’s finest kitchens, Myhrvold told me. “If you look at the San Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants,” he said, “the number one, Osteria Francescana in Modena, is very modernist, and if you looked through the list and said, ‘How many use no modernist techniques?’ I bet the number would be zero.”

But this food is so expensive to produce and aesthetically challenging for diners who just want a familiar plate of food. Even world-class cities such as London and New York support only a few such eateries. So it takes courage for Eden Hill’s chef, Maximilian Petty, to offer the food that he does in such an obscure place. Petty carried his sleeping baby son in a sling as he worked, and the meal started with a cylindrical savoury cookie stuffed with duck-liver pâté, wrapped in gold leaf, and bedded-down with micro-greens. Subsequent highlights included a clear juice made of lychee, kimchee and lovage, spherified into a little clear ball, and served with a green straw made from a lovage stem; by using the straw to puncture the ball, one sucked out a mysteriously subtle mouthful of aromatic liquid. I also liked the panko-crusted slab of pig’s head terrine and the dessert of foie-gras infused with birthday-cake flavours and served with sweet brioche toast and fresh strawberries.

Wait staff dressed in flannel shirts

As I waddled plump and happy out of Eden Hill bound for dinner number two on that night in Seattle, I could not help but notice that Queen Anne was packed to bursting with restaurants far less ambitious and yet equally alluring. This made me think of something I had heard from Scott Heimendinger, technical director at Modernist Cuisine: “Most of the genuinely wealthy people in Seattle are always dressed like they’re about to go mountain climbing,” Heimendinger told me. “So maybe that’s part of it, but the type of place that thrives in Seattle, the wait staff dresses in flannel, the interior is gorgeous but looks older than it really is, and the food is exquisite and totally approachable – beautiful shellfish, the most flavourful heirloom tomatoes you’ve ever seen, housemade yogurts and cheeses, and all presented as if you were going over to some effortlessly talented person’s house for dinner.”

At the Farmers Market: the rainy climate of the northwest is ideal for a huge variety of produce. This is one of the reasons why Seattle’s food scene is so diverse.

Pacific tranquillity: the Marina District in the northwest of Seattle (left). The X5 Plug-in Hybrid on the road on Bainbridge Island (right).

Pacific tranquillity: the Marina District in the northwest of Seattle (left). The X5 Plug-in Hybrid on the road on Bainbridge Island (right).

A restaurant called The Whale Wins, where I had my second dinner of the evening, captured this perfectly. One of five nautically-themed establishments from Chef Renee Erickson, the Whale Wins was so beautifully designed – white-marble bar, stacked firewood, “Sea Wolf Bread” for sale in baskets, navy-blue wooden chairs and tables – that I felt more fashionable, worry-free, and successful from the moment I sat down. To judge by all the athletic-looking customers in warm-weather casual-wear clinking wine glasses and nibbling sardines, I was not alone in this happy delusion. It didn’t hurt that the food was awfully good, especially my bowl of clams with cranberry beans in garlicky butter-and-white-wine broth, and a blackberry buckle dessert.

Modernist Cuisine for everyone

I found common ground between modernist cuisine and Seattle’s more casual food aesthetic the following morning at ChefSteps, a food-technology start-up in a sun-flooded office overlooking Seattle harbour. ChefSteps was founded by two modernist cuisine alumni: big burly Chris Young, who spent five years running Heston Blumenthal’s experimental kitchen at the Fat Duck outside London before he joined Myhrvold; and the sweetly moustachioed Grant Crilly, who helped develop modernist cuisine’s visual aesthetic before he and Young went out on their own.

The philosophy behind ChefSteps can best be described as an attempt to make modernist cuisine accessible to everyone. “We take modernist techniques and technology and apply them to foods that people eat on a more frequent basis,” Young said. ChefSteps does this through a constantly-evolving digital platform with several components: first, recipes structured as video tutorials in which world-class chefs guide you through both the production of dinner and the journey towards culinary confidence; second, a wireless handheld immersion-circulator called the Joule for use in the modernist technique known as sous-vide, in which everything from steak to eggplant {aubergine] gets wrapped in plastic, immersed in temperature-controlled water, and cooked to precision; and, third, an online community for information sharing. If all goes well, Young and Crilly hope to add grocery delivery so that every ChefSteps customer, by using the same recipe, equipment, and ingredients, can be assured of success at every meal.

Online community, knowledge distribution and innovative hardware

The ChefSteps office space was classic west-coast tech: bicycles hanging from the ceiling, professional-grade espresso machine, full bar stocked with artisanal small-batch liquor (presumably for entertaining potential investors). The combination of online community, knowledge distribution and innovative hardware, however, turned out to be representative of the unique Seattle tech scene in which engineers think a little like chefs.

As Young explained it, Silicon Valley venture-capital culture, down south in California, emphasizes cheap-to-build software start-ups with minimal infrastructure. Seattle’s tech scene, by contrast—think Amazon, with its colossal mechanized warehouses—has always been more comfortable moving atoms around in the physical world. Heimendinger, to cite a more relevant example, took a two-year break from modernist cuisine to found Sansaire, a company that manufactures inexpensive consumer-facing versions of the two most common modernist tools: blow torches for searing foods and an immersion circulator that competes with the Joule. Friends of Heimendinger’s, furthermore, make the Pico Brew computerized home beer-brewing appliance that allows you to make custom craft beer in your own kitchen; the Hestan Cue smart induction-cooking burner that puts a perfect sear on every steak every time; and the new Gir coffee grinder that detects the freshness level of your coffee beans, so that you will never again have your morning ruined by a less-than-absolutely-perfect cup. The second annual Smart Kitchen Summit, at which all these devices and more will be on display in Seattle this October, bills itself as “the leading event dedicated to exploring the intersection of tech, food, design and commerce in the connected kitchen.”

All this would have struck me as entrepreneurial wishful thinking if I had not learned several new skills from the ChefSteps software in the space of five minutes at their conference table, and if I had not eaten way too much phenomenally juicy beef in an impromptu rib-eye-versus-chuck taste test before I ducked out the door to get back on the road. By that point, the only thing I craved besides an excuse to come back and eat at a dozen more Seattle restaurants was a little taste of the vaunted local ingredients that I hadn’t adequately sampled. So I grabbed a quick lunch of raw Puget-Sound oysters and steamed mussels at the Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar, a high-ceilinged brick space that felt like an Old-Western saloon with better food. Then I pulled back onto Interstate 5 and, with Seattle in the rearview mirror, headed south.

Daniel Duane lives in San Francisco and writes for the *New York Times and many other publications. For his latest book, How to Cook like a Man, he spent eight years recreating cookbook classics from start to finish.*

Proof of origin: At The Walrus and the Carpenter, the oysters are meticulously arranged and named according to their area of harvest.

Model facts

BMW X5 xDrive40e iPerformance

Displacement cc


kW (PS)

230 (313)

Torque Nm


Vmax km/h


Top speed, fully electric, km/h


0–100 km/h (62 mph) in s


Reach in all-electric mode, km

up to 31

Fuel consumption (EU) in l/100 km


CO2 emissions