Nathan Myhrvold on Modernist Cuisine '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.

modernistcuisine.com

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.

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.

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