The Art & Science of Modernist Cuisine: An Evening with Nathan Myhrvold
Posted June 21, 2011
On March 21, 2011, Science & the City and the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science hosted Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, as he unveiled Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking, co-authored with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. In conversation with Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo's Top Chef, Myhrvold revealed the philosophy behind and the work that went into this magnificent series of volumes on modern gastronomy. Along the way, he also shared some of his own cooking and eating adventures—his sampling of Sardinian "maggot cheese" and Icelandic Hákarl (made from dried Greenland shark), for example. The audience also had the opportunity to taste a much more delectable treat, a specially prepared pistachio "ice cream."
Sharing some of the beautiful images from the book with a packed house at the event titled The Art and Science of Modernist Cuisine, Myhrvold explained his scientific approach to cuisine. No process, no food, no technique was too mundane to be understood and perfected. This approach yielded new understandings of old techniques along with some fascinating new recipes such as strawberry gazpacho. It also required some intriguing machinations to make it all come together. The Modernist Cuisine team needed a state-of-the-art machine shop, upwards of 20 people, thousands of lines of computer code, an impressive array of experts, and much more to produce this 2,438-page tome.
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Nathan Myhrvold, PhD
Nathan Myhrvold is CEO and a founder of Intellectual Ventures, a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions. In addition to stimulating the invention of others, Myhrvold is himself an active inventor, with nearly 250 patents issued or pending, including several related to food technology. Before founding his invention company, Myhrvold was the first chief technology officer (CTO) at Microsoft. He established Microsoft Research, and during his tenure oversaw many advanced technology projects. He left Microsoft in 1999 to pursue several interests, including a life-long interest in cooking and food science.
Myhrvold competed on a team that won first place in several categories at the 1991 World Championship of Barbecue, including first prize in the special pasta category for a recipe that he developed on the day of the contest. After working for two years as a stagier at Seattle's top French restaurant, Rover's, Myhrvold completed culinary training with renowned chef Anne Willan at the Ecole De La Varenne. Myhrvold's formal (non-culinary) education includes degrees in mathematics, geophysics, and space physics from UCLA, and PhDs in mathematical economics and theoretical physics from Princeton University. In his post-doctoral work at Cambridge University, Myhrvold worked on quantum theories of gravity with the renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
Bravo's Top Chef All-Stars
Padma Lakshmi is an actor, model, food writer, and jewelry designer, who currently hosts Bravo's Top Chef All-Stars. She has hosted two other successful cooking shows—Padma's Passport where she cooked diverse cuisine from around the world, and Planet Food, a documentary series broadcast on The Food Network and worldwide on the Discovery Channel, in which she journeyed to countries including Spain and India. She has also written a best-selling cookbook Easy Exotic, for which she won the International Versailles Event for best cookbook by a first time writer. Her second cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, is filled with over 150 recipes from around the world. As an actor she was last seen in Paul Mayeda Berges' film Mistress of Spices, and she appeared as Princess Bithia in ABC's mini-series The Ten Commandments, the second-highest rated television film of 2006. She has appeared in films in the US, Italy, and India. In addition to her food writing, she has contributed to American Vogue, Gourmet, and British and American Harper's Bazaar.
By Nathan Myhrvold's account, disrupting traditional, sometimes inaccurate, understandings of food and cooking is a sure way to upset people. "Our relationship with our food is profound—our food becomes us," he explained, and people often react viscerally to the suggestion of change. For this reason, Myhrvold has received, among much enthusiasm, some staunch objection to the vision of cooking outlined in his Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking. But as his conversation with Padma Lakshmi confirmed, this 5-volume tome is much more than novel recipes and much more than change for its own sake: it explains everything from the scientific underpinnings of traditional cooking, to the new materials, techniques, and methods of so-called "modernist cuisine." This view of cooking aims not to displace traditional cooking but to understand it, all while outlining the novel approach of this new kind of cuisine.
Myhrvold's and Lakshmi's conversation previewed the book and described the intensive work that went into its production, and on a deeper level, it provided the audience with a sense of what modernist cuisine is and where it comes from historically and philosophically. Myhrvold's depiction is of a cuisine that is at once fun and adventurous, beautiful and extraordinary, scientific and rigorous, and of course, decidedly modern.
Cooking as adventure
Myhrvold's own interactions with food and cooking exhibit the adventure and excitement with which Modernist Cuisine's contributors undertook their efforts. He began his journey with cooking very early in life and was given free rein at home to experiment with the recipes for Thanksgiving dinner, among other occasions. Though he clearly enjoyed experimenting with cuisine, at no point were his efforts lacking in rigor. In fact, while CTO at Microsoft, Myhrvold prepared for and was admitted to an intensive program for experts at renowned French haute-cuisine culinary institute Ecole de la Varenne. In this way, his study of "traditional" cooking has been as scientific as his study of modernist cuisine. Modernist Cuisine is the result of both studies: it delves into the science behind common and modern cooking processes and teaches mastery of both.
One feature of this text, by contrast to many of its haute-cuisine counterparts, is that it does not seek to override personal taste with prescriptions for "correctness." Rather, the book contains many alternatives for each technique—readers can adapt the recipes to suit their tastes and their tools. Myhrvold eagerly explains the way to marshal modern technology to make not just the perfect cheese slice, but your perfect cheese slice (his choice: a blend of gruyère and emmental, blended with emulsifying salts so that it will not separate at high temperatures), among other examples. While accounting for differences in taste, Myhrvold and co-authors adamantly resisted "dumbing down" the book either in their explanations of the science or in their description of tools. "The audience would want to know how the best chefs in the world would do it," he explained; if the team used a centrifuge, they said so—though they also gave alternatives.
It was clear to the audience from the high quality photographs of ingredients, finished dishes, and even ongoing cooking that part of the authors' adventure was a technical one. To produce the beautiful photographs that appear throughout the book, the team needed expert photographers and advanced equipment. In particular, the book features detailed "cut-away" photographs of broccoli being boiled, hamburgers on a grill, and a genuine Dutch oven, all of which show the contents in the process of being cooked. These photos required the group to cut in half everything from cast iron pots and woks to whipped cream makers and an entire Weber grill. Myhrvold joked, "We have two halves of the best kitchen in the world—they're just not together anymore."
Though much of the work behind the book went into testing some hypothesis or other, at times, the team was obviously just playing. The book on gels, for instance, includes a recipe for ballistics gelatin, the kind used to test what bullets do when they hit a target. The group even demonstrated these effects by firing a rifle through the gelatin block and capturing it all with their high speed camera—the video of which was revealed at the event.
Modernist Cuisine is extraordinary for much more than the technology needed to produce this epic work. In the book, Myhrvold and colleagues reveal to the reader recipes for new aliments, such as pistachio ice cream (or "constructed cream" as they called it) made entirely from pistachios. But they also brought items from traditional cooking out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. For example, when Lakshmi queried Myhrvold on his favorite recipe from the book, he responded immediately: the scrambled eggs. He cooks his scrambled eggs using a technique known as sous vide. Sous vide (French for "under vacuum") cooking uses low temperatures, tightly controlled to prepare meat or vegetables which are encased in a vacuum bag and kept in a water bath much like those used in chemistry labs. The secret to good eggs, he explained, is temperature control and the ratio of yolks to whites (ideally 3 to 2).
Even foods that normally require no preparation can be made extraordinary. Pointing to an image of a pomelo that could have easily been mistaken for the interior of a lobster, Myhrvold described the preparation of the fruit in this beautiful picture. Having removed the peel from the pomelo with "Peelzyme," a readily-available enzyme that carefully degrades the pith, Myhrvold and team were able to see the tiniest detail of the pomelo's structure. Lakshmi likened the image to 19th century botanical drawings, rich in detail, color, and artistry, but she qualified that these images are very much "of our time." These images and their subjects are unmistakably modern.
Although many of the recipes involve entirely new foods, no traditional food was immune from Myhrvold's modernizing, scientific approach—not even french fries. By putting thin slices of potato under the microscope and staining them with iodine, the group could examine the location of starch granules and contemplate the best method for dealing with those starch granules as they set about making french fries. Their method involved putting the potato in an ultrasonic bath that uses sound waves to bore tiny pits in the potato. These pits could then be infused with more starch, making the resulting french fries crispier than ever. Although this may seem like a great deal of work for everyday food, as Myhrvold put it, "Any kind of food is worthy of refinement if you really care about it." For this reason, the volumes contain chapters devoted to team members' favorites, from Indian curries to Southern barbecue.
The technique of sous vide has raised some interesting questions for Myhrvold and Lakshmi. On the one hand, it has its advantages: because cooking takes place in a bath only a few degrees above the desired end temperature (approx. 126°F core temp for medium rare steak, for instance), no matter how long the food is in the bath, it will never overcook. The temperature is simply not high enough to cause the food to burn. On the other hand, some detractors of the technique have argued that it takes the "soul" out of cooking to know that you don't have to monitor the bag's contents for them to turn out perfectly. But Lakshmi had a clear response to this critique: "That's like saying the analysis and perfecting of your craft is taking the artistry and beauty out of it." And to her, this kind of thinking is "antithetical [to] the pursuit of art or creativity or any kind of intellectual study."
And Myhrvold had an answer for those who had a related conception of "good food" based on purity and tradition—for those who took issue with "processed" food on principle. It's true that modernist cooking sometimes requires ingredients to be "processed" into the delectable dishes that result but, Myhrvold noted, this does not distinguish it from traditional cooking. On the contrary, some of the most cited "natural" foods (bread, cheese, and wine to name a few) are in fact heavily "processed." Certainly, he clarified, some processed foods are not healthy, however, the technology used to make these foods can be used to make great food as well. And, as the pistachio ice cream example shows, these technologies can help bring to life otherwise subtle flavors, easily buried in some traditional recipes.
Scientific understanding and rigorous experimentation lie at the heart of Modernist Cuisine. To perfect recipes, bring out the flavor of particular ingredients, and develop new techniques, Myhrvold and his team started their volumes with the fundamentals: the science behind basic cooking. Thousands of lines of computer code were written, many partial differential equations solved, and numerous explanatory graphs produced to explain why steaming can cook broccoli more slowly than boiling, how temperature drops as hamburgers are placed closer to the edge of the grill, and many other processes. In addition, the first volume contains a chapter on food safety and one on microbiology, complete with explanations of how to prepare food free from dangerous microbes.
The book's authors treated the cooking as rigorously as they did the science behind it. Even the structure of the book, with hundreds of what Myhrvold called "parametric recipes," detailing the precise maneuvers for perfecting basic modernist techniques, exhibits their commitment to thorough understanding. Each technique is rigorously tested and outlined for the reader so that each modernist cook, whether in an industrial kitchen or a low-tech home kitchen, can undertake their own scientific investigation as they carry out the recipes. At its essence, this scientific approach to cuisine is meant to be both precise and fun, and it provides a new, entirely modern way to enjoy the art and science of cooking.