Nathan Myhrvold doesn't see food the way the rest of us do.
But then again, Myhrvold also has a slightly different pedigree than most of us. He had a Ph.D. by the time he was 23, studied with Stephen Hawking and was chosen by Bill Gates to be Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft.
His latest venture, though, has been boiling down his six-volume work, "Modernist Cuisine," into a guide for home cooks. The final product is "Modernist Cuisine at Home," and it’s perfect for cooks who are as obsessed as Myhrvold with creating the perfect burger, the perfect French fry, or the perfect omelet.
From Chief to Chef
Myhrvold can trace his love of cooking back to Thanksgiving dinner. “When I was nine years old, I announced to my mother that I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner — all by myself,” he remembers. “I went shopping by myself, I wouldn’t let her in the kitchen, and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner.”
Years later, Myhrvold took a leave of absence from Microsoft to attend culinary school in France. When he learned the school only accepted students with professional experience, he even finagled a gig moonlighting at a French restaurant one night a week. While enrolled, Mhyrvold realized that the only way to understand the best cooking techniques was to cobble together experience in different restaurants.
“If you went and you worked in one kitchen for a while you’d learn ... three techniques," he said. "If you went to another kitchen he’d have another five ideas. But there was no comprehensive book.”
After retiring from Microsoft, Myhrvold began the quest to write that book — and a big book it is. “Modernist Cuisine” is a 2,438 page, 50-pound shelf-breaker. Even the whittled down “Modernist Cuisine at Home” tips the scale at 10 pounds. So why invest in these encyclopedic works? What revelations lie inside?
The Secret to "Modernist Cuisine"
Myhrvold’s methods focus on the ability to control the cooking process exactly, allowing, for example, the ability to cook an entire steak to medium rare, 130 degrees, without getting those grey bands of well-done meat on either side.
“You can make a big pot of hot water…put the steaks in, let it sit for an hour or so, and finish it in a super hot pan or on a grill, just for a few seconds on each side to sear it,” Myhrvold explains. The hot water bath is a technique borrowed from professional kitchens — top chefs call the method “sous vide.”
Cooking a steak in hot (but not boiling) water will take longer than conventional methods — up to two hours depending on the thickness of your steak. But Myhrvold’s two hour steak is one of the least time consuming recipes to be found in “Moderist Cuisine at Home.” On a press tour, Myhrvold fed Stephen Colbert pastrami that had been cooked sous vide for 72 hours. Cooking the meat at a low temperature for such a long time allows all of the collagen in the pastrami to break down, making for a more tender dish.
Bringing Modernist Cuisine Home
For those who think that modernist cuisine is only viable in top-notch professional kitchens, Myhrvold points to the proliferation of foams. While a decade ago only the most daring chefs were whipping savory elements into foam, the trend has found its way into kitchens across America. Myhrvold believes the transformation occurred when people realized that texture plays an important role in food.
“When you whip something up into a foam it has a different texture, it has a different taste,” he explains. “Lots of people enjoy whipped cream on a dish where if you just gave them cream, they probably wouldn’t do it. That’s an example of the trickle down.”
Along with watching modernist techniques trickle into kitchens across America, Myhrvold says the most satisfying part of writing “Modernist Cuisine” has been finally becoming the expert he strove to be.
“Who was I to tell famous cooks how to cook?” Myhrvold laughs, “They call me up and ask advice now.”
For more on Nathan Myhrvold and "Modernist Cuisine" watch NOVA scienceNow's "Can I Eat That?"