A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Nathan Myhrvold about his upcoming book, MODERNIST CUSINE: The Art & Science of Cooking (by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold & Chris Young). But this is no ordinary cook book – it is a 4-volume tome totaling over 2200 pages on recipes and techniques you might think of as “molecular gastronomy”. Although Nathan humbly denies the analogy, this book is poised to do for modern cooking what Escoffier did for classical cuisine a hundred years ago.
If you haven’t heard of Nathan Myhrvold, you’ll likely enjoy his Wikipedia bio, which should be cataloged somewhere between the biography of Leonardo da Vinci and The Adventures of Baron von Münchhausen, except that all of his accomplishments are verifiably true. Nathan, a native Seattleite, is the founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a company that specializes in “the business of invention”. His resume includes a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics and awards in wildlife photography. His archeological paleontological expeditions have discovered more T-Rex fossils than any other group, and he has published breakthrough research on the trajectory patterns of penguin feces. He designs nuclear reactors and laser guns that zap mosquitoes in mid-air. And he is a major food geek.
I’ve followed the sous vide thread on eGullet and I noticed that your first post was in March of 2004. What began your interest in sous vide cooking?
I’ve been interested in cooking forever. I have this very elaborate kitchen at home. It’s the second-most technological kitchen in Seattle – the first is the one that we built over at the lab for the cookbook. But it’s only first because we moved a bunch of my stuff from home over there!
I had bought all of the equipment for sous vide a year or so before that. I was working with it and getting some results, but I sort of assumed there’s this huge body of knowledge out there and I just didn’t happen to connect with it. I put that [post on the eGullet forum] out there naively thinking people would say, ‘Fine here’s a bunch of techniques and recipes.’
I was naïve! What I discovered was, nobody actually had a clue. I don’t mean that rudely, but at that point in time (2004) Roca’s book hadn’t come out. The only books I found were books about either commercial food service or a couple of books that were in French, and which seemed to have very high temperatures and were not the real deal.
…A year or so in after I had published my major tables, and I was one of the big posters in the sous vide forum, I realized how little people knew, I saw how much interest there was, I saw how much misinformation there was and so that’s when I decided I really oughtta write a cook book.
So, who is the audience for the book? And will we need thousands of dollars in lab equipment to follow along?
I’ve been asked if this book is for home chefs, and one of the things I’d like to point out is that I am a home chef! So, YES, HELL YES IT IS! It’s for people who are really interested in food. If you’re really interested in food, I think that finding out how something works, even if you don’t have the equipment, is of value.
We’ve got a couple of principles. One is that we don’t dumb the book down. There’s a lot of books that take a very folksy, dumbed-down, oversimplified kind of view. We try not to do that.
In order to explain these techniques, and to explain the equipment and to explain the ingredients, we have to do stuff that everyone else takes for granted. You don’t have to tell people what a sauté pan is, but if you talk about a water bath or a freeze dryer or a combi-oven, you do have to tell people what it is.
We include stuff with equipment that no one else has, so far as we know. We have more equipment than Heston Bluemthal, or Ferran Adrià, or anybody else… except there might be someone who’s a chef working for a food science company that might have as much as we do… but only maybe!
You don’t need to be able to make every single recipe in the book, and if that’s the test, then that’s the wrong test.
Do you think there’s a market for special equipment like sous vide machines in home kitchens?
There is absolutely no reason that sous vide can’t be done at home. It is slightly more trouble than some other methods. Take deep frying as an example. Deep frying is done at home, but it’s done in professional kitchens a whole lot more.
Here’s a great example: if you guessed how many people would have rotisseries at home, it used to be a small number. And then Ron Popiel invented his Ronco Showtime, and they’ve sold a couple million of them. Now, a couple million is still only a few percent of US homes, but it’s a big phenomenon!
You could say the same things about crock pots, about bread machines, espresso machines, food processors… so I think that home sous vide is going to be at least as popular… in the ball park anyway… of these other things.
What have you discovered that was shockingly great? How about shockingly awful?
The shockingly positive things were how you get textures and flavors you just could not get any other possible way. For example, taking a tough piece of meat and cooking it for 48 hours, sometimes more, to get a medium rare color and taste with a very tender texture that normally, to get with the same piece of meat, you’d have to cook it at a much higher temperature and you’d get something gray. I think that is shockingly great. Being able to control seafood so you don’t overcook it is shockingly great.
These are all cases where you have proteins that at particular temperatures, in a very narrow temperature range, will make a huge change in their texture or flavor. Sous vide allows you to control that exquisitely where as conventional cooking doesn’t.
There are some things that don’t work very well sous vide. Broccoli for example, can give off a sulfurous smell, so when you open up the bag it’s quite a shock!
I read about your double-blind sous vide duck confit experiment. Apparently you have experimental evidence that shows that tasters can’t tell the difference between traditional confit and duck that had been cooked sous vide and brushed with fat. Did this piss off a lot of people?
This is not something to agree or disagree with – it’s something to experiment with. If you have an experiment that gives you a different result, well, good for you… then we’ve got a discussion!
Is there an inherent conflict between modernist cuisine and the farm-to-table movement? How do you reconcile the desire to eat local, organic and sustainable foods with the fact that many of the ingredients you discuss in the book are refined chemicals?
There are people who have beliefs about food which they believe with the same fervor that they might apply to religion. These are secular, I don’t literally mean religious foods like keeping kosher. I mean that people have an attachment to a certain idea like organic, or about local, or about sustainable… whatever the hell that means. And I don’t mean to be rude about it.
On the other hand, it’s very frequent that people aren’t willing to stop there. They also want to tell you why their approach is morally right or superior. Morally right, better for the environment, better for you health wise… And once you start appealing to an objective standard like that, then I think it’s fair to start saying, “OK, well does this really make sense?”
Let’s take baking as an example. If you make muffins, you are going to use some baking powder. The baking powder is a chemical – of course everything is a chemical, but this is a particularly refined chemical. It’s mined! It’s not grown, it’s mined! You’re probably going to use salt. Guess what? You salt is either mined, or it’s evaporated out of the ocean. You can go on and on, but essentially there are a whole bunch of ingredients that everyone uses because they’re old.
My favorite example of this is sucrose: sugar. Sugar used to be an exotic chemical that you bought at the pharmacy, that was very expensive. Now all of those things we’ve come to terms with.
I don’t think that there is anything that is wrong, from essentially any standpoint, with using ingredients like hydrocolloids. Now, guess what? They’re all made one of two ways: they’re either made from fermentation, but we make wine from fermentation and vinegar so what’s wrong with fermenting this stuff? Or, it’s made as an extract of seaweed. OK, if you’re willing to have nori on your sushi, why should you object to this?
Organic is another issue. Organic used to mean it was a small producer, like the small farmers you see at Pike Place Market. In which case, it was frequently an heirloom variety, it was picked ripe, you ate it very quickly after it was picked or harvested… that stuff is great! However, today, because of Whole Foods and so fourth, Wal-Mart is now in the organic business and organic doesn’t mean small artisanal whatever… organic can mean stuff that is just as industrialized as anything else.
We have a sidebar in the book where we talk about the loopholes in the Organic rules. There’s a set of 200 different chemical compounds that are allowed and still have food classified as Organic. And there’s a whole political process by which people lobby to put those things there. Originally when the laws were made about what you could call organic, the ideas was that this is a temporary thing and they would be phased out. Over it’s history I think 150-some have been added and only one has ever been phased off. So it’s basically a joke!
The problem here is when people have a goal, and the goal becomes a slogan, the slogan can then be twisted to undermine their original goal.
I love the idea of the farm to table movement in terms of saying, "Absolutely, I’d rather have my sweet corn picked 10 minutes before we eat and barely cooked!” I love that, because it tastes better. The trouble is once you get tied up in this thing, it’s very easy to say it’s forbidden for you to put in some agar, but of course I’ll let you put some baking powder in your muffins. What’s up with that?!!
You refer to the techniques in your book as “modernist cuisine”, but we keep hearing about “molecular gastronomy”. What’s the difference, and what difference does it make?
We trace the whole history of this in the book. It turns out that "molecular gastronomy" was a name that was invented in order to get use of a conference center in Sicily. There’s a conference center in the town of Erice in Sicily. And that conference center only allows scientific conferences. A man named Nicholas Kurti, who was a physicist in England, wanted to create a conference that brought scientists and chefs together. He did this with three other people – one was Harold McGee, another was a woman named Elizabeth Thomas, and the third one was Hervé This. They wouldn’t let them get the conference center to use it for their conference until and unless they changed the name, so Kurti came up with the name “molecular gastronomy”. There were a bunch of conferences given between 1992 and 2004 was the last one given, every few years you would have one of these little conferences. With one exception, none of the chefs who cook in the style of what we would call molecular gastronomy, actually ever attended one of those conferences. The only one that did was Heston Blumenthal, and he only attended the last two of them. So far as we can tell historically, nothing that came out of those conferences ever influenced ever influenced anyone in that movement.
Kurti died in 1998. After that point in time, Hervé This decided to really popularize the term Molecular Gastronomy. But if you talk to Hervé, he totally insists left right and center – you can find YouTube videos of him saying this- he swears that this new cuisine has nothing to do with with molecular gastronomy. He says, “That’s molecular cooking… that’s a distraction, that’s different than what I’m doing. What I’m doing is science.”
So, Hervé hates the idea of applying the name Molecular Gastronomy. Well it turns out the chefs hate it too. And the chefs hate it for maybe 3 reasons. The first one is, any chef who cooks in this style has people come up to him and say "Oh you cook in the style of molecular gastronomy!" and they’ll say, "No I cook in my own style, thank you very much.” Or they’ll say "Oh, so you’re a follower of Hervé This!" And most of these chefs will say, “No I’ve never met Hervé, he’s never come to dinner here.” And finally the chefs will say, “I cook in my own style – my style is different than Homaro Cantu, is different than Grant Achatz’s style, is different than Ferran Adrià’s style, which is different than Heston Blumenthal’s style, so don’t lump us all together. Give us some credit too – we came up with this shit!”
The analogy that I use is to something like the French Impressionists. They all painted in their own style also. Van Gogh is different than Matisse is different than essentially any of these other guys. Yet there still is meaning in grouping them together as part of a whole movement, ’cause they were part of a movement. So we try to make that point in the book and try to say, "Look there’s an overall movement here that we call modernist cuisine, but there’s a lot of variations within it. AND, by the way, don’t call it molecular gastronomy unless what you mean is literally what Hervé calls molecular gastronomy, because otherwise, you get everybody confused.”
At four volumes and over 2200 pages, this book sounds like it will be the largest body of information on modernist cuisine ever compiled. Will this book do for modernist cuisine what Escoffier did for traditional cooking?
It would be impossibly arrogant of me to compare my book to Escoffier. So I’m certainly not going to do that. One interesting common denominator that Heston did and Ferran did and I did at various stages is all of us, when we were first getting into food, discovered Escoffier and nearly memorized the damn thing. Even though it was the cuisine of a century ago, published in 1903, we all actually used that as a foundation for our own understandings of cuisine, which I find quite interesting.
Does the arrival of this book mean that the latest culinary frontier has been conquered?
I think the revolution has only just begun. There’s an awful lot more to do. But it is at a stage where we need to communicate the ideas out to a wider audience. But it’s still way too hard to learn how to do this stuff. So that is why we’re writing the book: to try to make it easier to get that information out there.
I’ve always loved science and technology, and I’ve loved the diversity of things you can address with science and technology. I’ve been into food since I was 9 years old. I went to a traditional, classical chef’s school in France. I have all of the background of the classics, but it is this revolution of technique that allows me to apply things I’ve learned in technology and actually make something of a contribution.
The fact that I both did memorize Escoffier once upon a time and I went to culinary school and so forth, and I can write the code to model heat transfer – that combination is why we thought we could make a book that is different than any other. This is the only cookbook in the world where one can say we’ve developed thousands of lines of our own unique software, just for the book.
So, what’s next?
We’re going to wind up doing a bunch of things to promote the book, and we’ve even started talking about what a second book would be like.
I, for one, am anxious to see what this book holds and how it just might change the landscape of contemporary cooking. In the meantime, I’ll be reinforcing my bookcase shelves for the added weight of 2200 pages of pure food geek gold.
MODERNIST CUSINE: The Art & Science of Cooking by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold & Chris Young (Price TBA $; December, 2010, 2200+ pages)
Update (5/4): Reader BadRabbit reminded me that archaeologists study the history of mankind. They do not, in fact, hunt for T-Rexes.