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Nathan Myhrvold: ‘Culinary History Has To Be Analyzed Like Art History’

In a SPIEGEL interview, inventor and chef Nathan Myhrvold, the author of the new book “Modernist Cuisine,” discusses the deployment of laboratory equipment in the kitchen, the preparation of the perfect cheeseburger and the practice of hyperdecanting — using a blender to serve wine.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Myhrvold, what is wrong with the ordinary French fry?

Nathan Myhrvold: There is nothing wrong with it, but most French fries are just not perfect. They’re too greasy, they’re underdone, they’re not crispy. And most of them wind up being soggy.

SPIEGEL: Definitely a culinary affront. Are you able to offer any help with your new scientific cookbook, “Modernist Cuisine”?

Myhrvold: Yes, and this is a subject many people are obsessed with. The traditional technique is that you fry French fries twice — first at a lower temperature, then at higher temperature, letting them cool in-between. We decided to follow a totally different approach to create a French fry that was crisp on the outside, that had a very light fluffy texture on the inside and that would stay that way for some time. First, we steam the French fries so that they are basically cooked. Then we put them in an ultra-sonic bath …

SPIEGEL: … an appliance that is normally used for cleaning jewelry or glasses?

Myhrvold: Well, yes. It produces very high frequency soundwaves that cause tiny bubbles to form in water, which are so powerful that they can actually rip holes in aluminium foil in a process called cavitation. In the case of the French fries, it pokes little holes in their surface. That makes the exterior rough. If we now fry them, we get an extra crispy experience because of the extra surface area.

SPIEGEL: Yum! And how long does it take to make them?

Myhrvold: Two hours. But really, the extra time is the ultra-sonic bath. It sits in there for 45 minutes and you don’t have to care.

(-> read original interview at SPIEGEL ONLINE international)

SPIEGEL: Your new book, “Modernist Cuisine,” is a six volume, 2,400 page behemoth, which weighs 47 pounds (21 kilograms). It’s an encyclopaedic treatment of modern cooking techniques and recipes and costs $650 (€445). Who do you think is going to read something like that?

Myhrvold: The book is for people who really love food, no matter if they are professionals, home cooks or even if they don’t cook themselves at all. I wanted to have a book that would explain cooking in a way I’d never seen a cookbook do before. And I wanted to take techniques that have been developed by great chefs around the world that are almost impossible to learn unless you go and work in those restaurants.

SPIEGEL: The underlying theme of “Modernist Cuisine” is that we are witnessing a revolution in cooking. What does it entail?

Myhrvold: The book is about pushing the boundaries of cooking using science and technology and laying the foundations for 21st-century cooking. Most of it has its roots in the mid-1980s, when people realized that science was important to cooking and that technology was relevant, too. My friend Ferran Adria of the restaurant El Bulli, in Spain, started very early on to experiment with these new techniques. My co-authors, Chris Young and Maxim Billet, and I document this revolution. And we did invent some new dishes and techniques.

SPIEGEL: The book features, for example, recipes of faux eggs made with parmesan cheese, “caviar” made from melon and “cherries” made of foie gras. Is this sheer childish curiosity?

Myhrvold: The new revolution in cooking can be viewed in two ways. One is that you can take any traditional food and apply modern techniques. In the book, for example, we have some very traditional American food, like maccaroni and cheese. They taste better but basically look the same. The other approach is to create food that is quite different than anything that has existed before. That’s what I call cooking in a modernist aesthetic. Let’s do a risotto made with pinenuts instead of rice, for example. Pinenuts are a traditional Italian ingredient, but they have never been used this way. By doing so, however, you make something that is delicous, fresh and new and that has an interesting culinary reference.

SPIEGEL: You are a mathematician and a physicist. Does your enthusiasm for cooking stem from the fact that it is reminiscent of experimenting in a laboratory?

Myhrvold: Food, like anything else, lives in the physical world and obeys the laws of physics. When you whisk together some oil and a little bit of lemon juice — or, in other words, make mayonnaise — you are using the principles of physics and chemistry. Understanding how those principles affect cooking lets you cook better. And I was fascinated by this very early on. When I was 9 years old, I announced to my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner …

SPIEGEL: … which involves the roasting of a whole turkey …

Myhrvold: … exactly, and so I went to the library, got Auguste Escoffiers classic “Le Guide Culinaire” and tried.

SPIEGEL: How did you fare?

Myhrvold: Well, I could do a lot better today, but I was enthusiastic and I was nine. After that, I read literally hundreds of cookbooks and was sort of a self-taught chef. Then, in the mid-1990s, I took a leave of absence from my job at Microsoft to go to chef’s school La Varenne, in France.

SPIEGEL: In 1991, you were even on a winning team at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, in Memphis.

Myhrvold: Yes. There is a long tradition of barbecuing in the southern United States. For “Modernist Cuisine,” we looked into this micro-regional cuisine and invented nine different barbecue sauces. We also looked at grilling. By doing a computer simulation, we discovered that, if you line the inside of your grill with aluminium foil, the cooking is much more even.

SPIEGEL: How do you cook a steak medium rare to perfection the modern way?

Myhrvold: First, we cook our meat. Then, we use an extremely hot grill or a torch to heat the outside and make it crispy. For cooking, you can use a steam oven or a combi-oven. However, the steak gets even better if you use the sous-vide cooking technique.

SPIEGEL: … the method of cooking vacuum-sealed food very slowly in a water basin at comparably low temperatures …

Myhrvold: Exactly. NASA, for example, used the method for food for space flight. The key thing is the control over temperature and cooking time. It is very carefree and very accurate in temperature, which means you get the precise results you were aiming for every single time. You also conserve the flavors.

SPIEGEL: You also present what you describe as the ultimate cheeseburger recipe in the book. Please explain.

Myhrvold: We have a philosophy that any dish can be made fantastic if you really care about it. So, if you want to make the ultimate cheeseburger, you better make your own bun, your own sauces and your own pattie. First, there is this special mix of meat, and we did a lot of experiments to find the right meat mixture. Then, we have a specific way of grinding it that aligns the grain. It’s simple to do and we feel it makes a real difference in how the hamburger tastes and what the texture is. Next, we cook the hamburger sous vide. Then we put it into liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds to a minute. Finally, we deep fry it. That’s even better than grilling.

SPIEGEL: Can you describe the result?

Myhrvold: The outside is very brown and crisp, the inside medium-rare in perfection. The bun and the lettuce and the other things have to contrast the flavor. That’s what you want. Some people make fun of the fact that it takes 30 hours to do. But if you care about hamburgers, here is the ultimate hamburger.

SPIEGEL: To write “Modernist Cuisine,” you created a complete “Cooking lab” in a portion of a 20,000-square-foot (1,858-square-meter) warehouse outside Seattle that houses the research lab of your company, “Intellectual Ventures”. The Cooking lab is one of the most compelling kitchens in the world, with a load of industrial-type equipment. What, for example, is a Rotovap?

Myhrvold: It’s a laboratory device for doing destillations. And there are a couple of cooking contexts where you want do that. There are many foods, for example, that have flavor compounds in them which you can distill. You can also use the device to make cognac, schnapps or whiskey. And we actually do quite the opposite: If you take a scotch whiskey and distill out the alcohol, what is left has an amazing taste to it and can be used as a flavoring for a dessert.

SPIEGEL: The kitchen also features a 100-ton hydraulic press, for example, for beef jerky, and an autoclave, which — as far as I know — is designed to sterilize lab equipment. You call it “the pressure cooker from hell.”

Myhrvold: Yes. And it does a great French onion soup! The onions for such a soup typically have to be brown. But that browning reaction is tricky. It’s very easy to burn the onion. Now, we take the onion, put it in a little bit of water and add a little bit of baking soda. After 30 minutes in the autoclave, we have perfect French onion soup.

SPIEGEL: A spray dryer, freeze dryer, combi-oven and vacuum sealer — this isn’t exactly the stuff one would find in an everyday kitchen.

Myhrvold: Well, many of these machines are made for laboratory use and are fairly expensive. But you don’t have to get all of them. If you are willing to buy a little bit of equipment, then you can cook 70 to 80 percent of the recipes in the book. The three most useful machines are the water bath for cooking sous vide, the centrifuge and the homogenizer.

SPIEGEL: You really think people will do this at home?

Myhrvold: Sure. And it makes a lot of things easier. Modern cooking techniques can achieve ideal results without the perfect timing or good luck that traditional methods demand. Take beurre blanc, for example …

SPIEGEL: … which disintegrates quite easily if you don’t take utmost care.

Myhrvold: Exactly. And we have a recipe for the invincible beurre blanc that you can make ahead of time, that you can even put in the refrigerator and heat up later. The recipe involves some emulsifiers that you don’t get in every grocery store, but you can usually find them on the Internet …

SPIEGEL: For example?

Myhrvold: Propylene glycol alginate, which is derived from a seaweed and originally comes from Japan. We use it for a lot of recipes. It’s great and easy to use.

SPIEGEL: You also recommend putting wine in a blender for decanting. Are you serious?

Myhrvold: Absolutely. It is called hyperdecanting …

SPIEGEL: … which is probably a great way to freak the hell out of any wine-lover.

Myhrvold: Completely. And thats half of the value. I did this with a friend of mine once who is a Spanish duke and who comes from one of the oldest wine-making families in Spain. When I hit the switch of the blender with his wine in there, I thought he is gonna pull a sword.

SPIEGEL: How does it work?

Myhrvold: Part of the goal of decanting is to have the gases that have dissolved in the wine come out of it. Another goal is to have oxygen come in. The traditional way is to pour the wine over a large part of the surface area of the decanter so that the exchange of gas is promoted. And so I said, hey, we can promote the exchange of gas even better with a blender in about 30 seconds. In blind tests, most people find this to be an improvement, particular for a young red wine, such as an ’82 Margaux.

SPIEGEL: To make “Modernist Cuisine” even more compelling, you went to great lengths in illustrating the book. Heavy machinery was used to bisect a whole kitchen?

Myhrvold: We have two-halfs of one of the best kitchens in the world. We cut a microwave in half, a grill, a wok and even a $5,000 restaurant oven. Early in the book project, I hit upon this idea of doing cutaway photos, where we would show the magic view of what’s happening inside your food while it cooks. You see the glowing coals and the fat flaring up from the burgers, and the burgers themselves are cut in half so you can see what happens is as the heat progresses through.

SPIEGEL: Was it worth the effort?

Myhrvold: Well, you tell me. Our goal was to show people food as they have never seen it before. To achieve that, we actually made a hell of a mess. For example, we discovered why people don’t cut their woks in half. Our wok caught fire three times, because the oil from the wok would get right into the flame of the burner and then, whoosh. And we had to clean up and start again. But, in the end, we got the shot. And the shot, I think, shows you all the things that go on during stir frying, because stir frying is a combination of tossing things in the air, having super high heat from below and so forth.

SPIEGEL: You seem to enjoy questioning traditions of cooking and reinventing methods and technologies. Is cooking an ever-changing subject, maybe even comparable to art or theater?

Myhrvold: Absolutely. Culinary history has to be analyzed in a similar way to art history. Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal, chef of the restaurant Fat Duck, near London, are the modernists of cooking. They create wonderful experiences, comparable to an opera or a Broadway play in New York. I think that there is a role for food to be art; and when food is art, it can have drama, it can have spectacle, it can be theatrical. It can be this amazing experience. That’s what they are aiming to do.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Myhrvold, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bethge

(-> read original interview at SPIEGEL ONLINE international)

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