Nathan Myhrvold on Modernist Cuisine 'Culinary History Has To Be Analyzed Like Art History'
Part 2: Food Experiences Comparable to an Opera or Broadway Play
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
- Part 1: 'Culinary History Has To Be Analyzed Like Art History'
- Part 2: Food Experiences Comparable to an Opera or Broadway Play