A Chat with Nathan Myhrvold of 'Modernist Cuisine' and 'Modernist Cuisine at Home'
Photo via Modernist Cuisine
Tonight at 7 p.m., Nathan Myhrvold—he of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist at Home fame—will enlighten crowds of food nerds at Harvard, when he takes the podium to speak as part of the university’s lauded Science & Cooking lecture series. A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down and talk food with the former Microsoft CTO at Henrietta’s Table. To prep for the interview, I emailed a handful of local chefs and asked them: “If you could ask Myhrvold anything at all, what would it be?” Ahead, technological food wizard tackles everything from human thermometers, to why he’d come back as foie gras in his next life, to chef Jason Bond’s candied-chestnut-conundrum.
LM: My first question comes from Andy Husbands of Tremont 647: “With the uprising of the nouvelle molecular cooking/cuisine do you ever feel that the manipulation of food is sometimes getting in the way of the ingredient? Such as the manipulation of a tomato into water or foam or sous-vide, instead of sourcing the best tomato from farmers and simply serving it with sea salt?”
NM: Well, if we’re going to agree that all Italian tomato sauce is bad, you can buy into the question. The thing that’s funny, is that there are lots of foods which are about serving simple ingredients au natural. And there are other foods that are just not like that. So I’ll bet [Husbands] likes cheese. And bread. And wine. And guess what? Those things are all celebrated by the techniques around them. Tomatoes, by and large, are celebrated by the techniques around them. And a sun-dried tomato or a marinara sauce is still a great way to eat tomatoes. The ways we get tomato water is a different way to serve tomatoes. And in fact, I think when it’s done well, it celebrates the ingredient. It doesn’t detract from it. I think that technique when properly done, does the opposite of what he suggests.
So the problem is when people don’t have the proper technique.
That’s always true. There’s a funny thing—when that occurs in traditional food, it’s ‘Well, I can’t cook.’ When it occurs in the modern field, the whole field must be wrong. The whole field must be wrong!
Another question from Husbands: “With molecular cuisine, I see more and more kids wanting to learn the coolest techniques rather than focusing on the basics—how do you address this?”
I guess there are two things—the first thing is that of course there is always a tendency to want to cut to the head of the line and just learn the flashy stuff. That is absolutely true in conventional cooking. This is nothing new, but it’s always true. And when it comes to the classics or the basics, there are also a lot of the basics are just flat wrong. [Chefs] just get taught a bunch of half-truths or complete falsehoods that have been made up over the years, and then when they come to us they need to unlearn all of these things.
Are there a couple of examples that you can provide that are commonly seen?
Oh sure, like that searing meat seals in the juices. That you shouldn’t use a pressure cooker for stock. We only use a pressure cooker for stock, and we wouldn’t make stock any other way. What causes the browning reactions in meat. There’s tons of different thou-shalts or thou-shalt-nots that I was taught in cooking school, or people are taught in cooking school, and they’re just wrong.
There has to be something said for evolving, too.
Well, exactly. By the way, what [Husbands] considers the basics, wouldn’t be what Escoffier considered the basics. There would be a whole set of things that just aren’t done anymore.
Yep. So moving on, my next question comes from chef Anna Sortun from Oleana: “How often are you actually applying all of your research in your home kitchen?”
Well of course, I have to be at home to cook. Here I am in Boston this week, I was up in Seattle a bit last week, and the week before that I was in New York. So I travel an awful lot, so I’m not home enough.
How often are you cooking a meal at home for dinner?
Cooking an ordinary meal? Not very often. If I’m at home cooking, I’m usually doing some kind of an experiment. I’ve got some weird idea that I want to try. And as soon as I started on the book, I’m much more of a cook-and-experiment kind of guy than a cook-a-whole-traditional-meal kind of guy, as I’m a man on a mission to write this book.
So this question is from chef Nookie Postal, the chef at Fenway Park: “Who do you consider to be a chef? Would it be someone that masters the techniques in your book? Are they considered a chef? Or do you think that there needs to be fundamentals from more traditional cooking plus modern cooking?
Well, our book, the big book Modernist Cuisine, not the home book [Modernist Cuisine at Home]—it basically covers all of cooking. We describe how smoking and roasting and frying, essentially every single thing, works. We don’t have traditional recipes, but in terms of covering the basics, we cover the basics. We don’t do pastry-making or dessert. We have a couple of dessert items here and there. In the new home book, we have one chapter on dessert. But I wouldn’t claim that we cover that stuff. But for savory cooking, I think we cover it. It’s hard for me to think of a single major technique that isn’t covered.
Do you think the desserts will be something you do eventually?
I’ve been thinking about it.
Yeah? That might be the next one? Well I know the science of it, obviously, has to be entirely different.
Well, pastry has always been an area that’s more precise. You don’t add baking powder to your biscuits by taste. You can salt to taste, you don’t add baking powder to taste if you want it to turn out right. Or yeast to taste, or any of those other things. So those guys bought into the notion of being precise. They also bought into the notion of white powders. You can’t be a baker if you’re not using baking soda, or baking powder, or yeast, or some other damn white powder that’s not a normal ingredient. In fact, sugar was once one of those weird white powders. Refined sugar was something you’d buy at the grocery store in small quantities and it was this precious thing. So the spirit of pastry is different than, say, [savory]. And when we do a book, it’ll have to reflect that.
Next question is from Jason Bond of Bondir:“How do I keep my candied chestnuts from turning into rocks? Beans do the same thing too.” This is more of a technical question.
Yeah, now I don’t know exactly what he means. I think what he means is that over time they harden up. You can also get, in both cases though, you can get the situation that if you’re cooking them in the wrong water they’re gonna be really hard. And I would have to say I don’t know, exactly. If it’s the cooking them to get them soft issue, in both cases it depends a lot on the mineralization of water. You should cook them in bottled water, or distilled water, or de-ionized water like you’d use for a steam iron. If you cook beans with too much calcium or magnesium in the water, they will always stay hard. We actually exploit that—we got a recipe for, if you’re doing like a bean salad, we recommend that you add a little bit of calcium or magnesium and then they’ll stay nice firm.
Right, because then they won’t be mushy.
In a bean salad you don’t want them to be. But if you have too many minerals in the water, you have a problem. So I was on Top Chef last year as a judge, and they did this barbecue thing on a ranch in Texas—everybody’s beans turned out hard as rocks. And [the judges are] all saying, ‘Why didn’t you cook them long enough’. And [the contestants were] like, ‘We cooked them all night, what do you want?’ I said, ‘Guys, you’re screwed. You used well water from a limestone well. There was no way on Earth those beans were ever going to be soft.’ And so that can affect chestnuts. So if that’s what he means, there’s a simple mineralization issue.
Next is Michael Serpa from Neptune Oyster: “Part of the joy of cooking is discovering how things work by trial and error and repetition, which is why line cooks have been doing the same thing for years—they do it faster and more precise. Does knowing how everything works already take away from the joy of discovery one has as a cook?”
Not at all. In fact, I view it as the opposite. Do you want to be the human thermostat or not? If you take the line cook at a steakhouse, they’ve probably gotten pretty good at grilling steaks. And you’ll see this guy sweating like crazy in front of like 20 steaks, and he’s poking them and doing all this stuff, because he knows they have to be medium rare, rare. And a lot of skill went into that. And a lot of bad steaks went into that. He ruined a bunch before he got as good as he is now. Is that really what creative cooking is about? Being a human thermostat? If you take out, ‘will this be properly done?’ —forget it, it will always be properly done, I can set this little machine to set a digital thermostat that will be a better thermostat than I will ever be. But that doesn’t reduce me as a chef. That means I get to now think about the flavors and all kinds of other things.
It frees you up to think about other things.
Today, painters don’t mix their own paints. In the Renaissance they had to. Today, you can buy them at the store. Does that make you less of a painter? No, you just don’t have to worry about that shit.
So this one’s more technique-driven, from Tim Maslow of Strip T’s out in Watertown: “How can you create a crisp texture with a lipid ingredient only? No starches, like a chip. Is that something that’s possible?”
Literally speaking, no. Now, what we call fat, like if we had a chunk of fat from a steak, it’s not pure fat. In fact, it’s fat held by connective tissue. And when people say you have to render fat, the reason you have to cook it for a long time is not to melt the fat. The fat melts at a relatively low temperature. As an example, if you get some lard, lard will melt at a relatively low temperature. You get a piece of pork fat, it will not melt at that low temperature, because it’s full of connective tissue. And you also could, now that I think about it….I could answer in a perverse way. If you’re using intense cold, yes you can make something that’s crispy, and pure fat.
So how would you do that?
Here’s a thing we’ve done: if you drop olive oil in liquid nitrogen, it’s like a marble. The inside actually still can be liquid, but the rest, if you put it down and hit it, it looks like shattered glass.
And how long does it retain that size and shape?
Well until it melts. If you eat it while it’s crunchy…It’s a little bit like how a dove [ice cream] bar is crunchy without being hot. If you were going to crisp it by it being hot, then you would have to have some other coating or edge. But he said without adding a starch?
Yeah, just kind of like a bare-minimum way.
You have to add some kind of a starch or a protein so that it can get crispy. In the case of bacon, it’s naturally in a protein matrix, and that’s why you can crisp that protein matrix while the rest of it stays. A lot of crispy skin things are that way, they still have lots of fat in them but they have enough protein. Pure lipid, the only way you can make it crispy would be to make it crispy-crunchy by making it frozen.
Okay, so the next question is from Sam Monsour, the chef at J.M. Curley: “I understand that mastering pit barbeque takes a lifetime and there are tons of trade secrets involved, but what’s the essential science behind it? Basicallyn how can a novice barbecue lover yield mind-blowing barbecue.”
Our favorite way to cook barbecue is to cook it sous-vide for a very long time and then smoke it, or you can smoke it first and then sous-vide.
And have you entered competitions doing that technique or when you were doing that was it more traditional?
When I was doing competitions, that was old-school. I think you can make better stuff make it more reliably with new techniques. One of the reasons why I say it takes a lifetime to become a pit barbecue guy, is that that’s learning to be the human thermostat.
This next one is from Tiffani Faison from Sweet Cheeks: “Who do you consider you core audience, even with Modernist Cuisine at Home? Is is important for you to reach an audience that is broader than a professional cook or someone who has the means to invest in the high-tech equipment?”
Modernist Cuisine has sold more than 50 [thousand] copies worldwide, so we have a big audience. It’s much broader than just professionals and you can find lots of evidence online that there’s people at home cooking with Modernist Cuisine. But that said, you can’t cook everything in it, but hey, there’s [1,522] recipes. Do you really need to cook every single one of them? So I view Modernist Cuisine as being for people who are passionate and curious about cooking. Modernist Cuisine at Home is meant to be less daunting, Essentially, every recipe in there can be done at home. I am never going to try to compete with Cooking for Dummies or Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. Those are great. They do a better job in that category than I would do. So Modernist Cuisine at Home is still about saying, ‘I’m going to take you to a different place than you’ve ever been before, and push the boundaries.’
She had a second question: “Is there a way that the techniques that you have pioneered and refined be used to feed lower-income families in a healthier way?”
A lot of what we’re about is doing things like using cheaper cuts of meat that you cook longer, and then may actually taste better than more expensive cuts of meat. The typical way that you price beef, for example, is the tender cuts are expensive and the tough cuts are cheap. If it’s as tough as shoe leather, you need some technique. But that’s not the end of the world. Mostly that’s done by braising, but we expand the things that you can do. You know, we have tons of cooking about grains and vegetables all of which are intrinsically pretty cheap. So, I think absolutely the answer is yes to that question. Now, I didn’t write Modernist Cuisine for poverty, at least not yet. Who knows.
One last question, from Tim Cushman at O ya: “If you came back in your next life as a kind of food, what would you be?”
Have you gotten that question before?
No, I have not gotten that one before. How do you really seriously answer a question like that?
But you have my answer! Foie Gras. Too fatty, too rich. It’s me!
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