​Nathan Myhrvold and his Modernist Cuisine

Nathan Myhrvold and Magnus Nilson
Nathan Myhrvold and Magnus Nilson

I have no hesitation in joining the ranks of food geeks or nerds especially if it leads to an invitation to dine at the Modernist Lab in Bellevue, Washington. It was an amazing meal that marked this years Cinco de Mayo with a Taco el pastor imprinted with an image of the guest of honor that night the very cool, long haired affable chef of Faaviken in Sweden. As I flew to Seattle on the day of the dinner I knew that the evening would be exciting with an opportunity to visit the inner sanctum of the high tech modernist cuisine proponent, Nathan Myhrvold. Having Magnus as a dinner companion made the evening even more unforgettable.

An ensuing conversation with Nathan Myhrvold who can expound on almost any subject under the sun was not only full of laughter but also accompanied by his very frank opinions about any subject we touched upon. He chortled when I said I could listen to him for hours and it is not hard to do considering the many disciplines he is involved in. His crew being quite aware of the possibility rolled their eyes leaving me with the impression that it had happened before, probably many times.

The interview as published in The Daily Meal.

Nathan Myhrvold
Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold and his Concept of Modernist Cuisine

by Geeta Bansal

Nathan Myhrvold has a natural exuberance and generosity in his laughter, the food that he occasionally serves to the lucky few who make it to one of the rare dinners in his Modernist Lab, and in sharing his ideas or opinions of which he has many. In a nondescript office park in Bellevue, on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington, the doors to The Intellectual Ventures Lab open into Myhrvold’s private imaginarium. Within this 87,000sf space the Modernist Kitchen serves as the crucible where food ideas and techniques are tested and opinions floated. The former Chief Technology Officer and Strategist of Microsoft is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, a private invention marketplace. This physicist, inventor, author, scientist, trailblazer, philanthropist, and self-confessed geek is undoubtedly very smart, considering he pursued a post-doctoral research fellowship under Steven Hawking. A close friend of Bill Gates, his former boss, Myhrvold has a penchant for challenging experts in any field. A considerable fortune assists his large-scale hobbies that include researching dinosaurs, which led him a few years ago to challenge a scientific report on the growth rate of dinosaurs. Controversies about Intellectual property and patent collecting business aside, he is probably more well-known for his forays into the science behind food and avant-garde cooking than for paleontology, oceanography, history, or nuclear science and a multitude of other disciplines that interest him.

Myhrvold the perfectionist added a culinary degree to his master’s degrees in space, geophysics, mathematical economics, and a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics. A sabbatical from Microsoft to attend Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne, a French cooking school in Burgundy, was preceded by a stage at a local Seattle restaurant as a requirement for admission. You have to give him credit for never resorting to half measures. For many “food geeks” Myhrvold’s encyclopedic “Modernist Cuisine” published in 2011 is the new go to cookbook/reference book for professional cooks. The six volume and 2400-or-so-pages-heavy tome requires physical as well as literary fortitude to stick with the elaborations of the pure science of cooking not forgetting the $625 price tag.

Myhrvold, whose can trace his own Nordic heritage all the way back to his great great grandfather Johan Adolfus Svendeson Myhrvold who migrated to Minnesota in 1878, recently hosted an intimate dinner at his lab to honor famed Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson. The unusual setting of the dinner in the middle of an active laboratory researching and elaborating on food techniques with its team of chefs and in house sommelier set the tone for the twenty three course gustatory experience. Prior to the dinner the small group was privy to an informational lecture along with stunning slides and interesting anecdotes of the teams visit to the Svalbord Seed vault in Norway. Visuals from the next book Modernist Bread: The Art & Science to be released next year accompanied interesting bits of information gleaned by his team during their exhaustive research.

Ferran Adria, Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz, and Anthony Bourdain have also graced the tables in the Modernist Lab. Myhrvold, who attributes his interest in food to Ferran Adria and his many visits to El Bulli, when asked about why he hosts these events said, “We want to tell people that we can cook” and a recent dinner there proved that they certainly can.

Why did you choose Modernist Cuisine as the title of your book, and what is modernist cooking?

It is cooking that is using modern ideas and modern techniques. It’s not trying to be the past and that is the simplest definition of it. It’s cooking that is just focused on saying we can do new things as opposed to the ideas that cooking should be about the past and authenticity is the most important thing. Everything in cooking was invented at some point so it is not in the air and water but it is a human invention.

How long does anything remain modern or current because a split second later it’s already the past?

That is a really important point. If you asked an art critic what modern art was they would have a similar idea or response. If you are in a museum of modern art you will see things from the 1920’s which is not terribly modern but at the time it was really modern.
You are investigating the science behind cooking and you have considerably weighty books in print. Even your book on bread that is in the works is probably the same if not even more expansive.

You are investigating the science behind cooking and you have considerably weighty books in print. Even your book on bread that is in the works is probably the same if not even more expansive. Why not choose a digital dissemination of information?

I really like books and in fact have always loved books and think there is something wonderful about a physical paper book. We go to all this trouble and do all the incredible work on the books, take these beautiful pictures and then to just stick it on a website comes with two problems. First that we can’t make any money back from it or it would be very difficult to and second it just isn’t the same experience as holding a physical book. For the same reason I could say why don’t we just take nutrition pills, vitamins and protein powder and we will be just fine. People are doing this stuff called soylent which a disgusting soy milk shake you drink instead of ingesting real food.

We could but it wouldn’t be much fun!

Is there any particular cookbook that has impressed you during your foray into cooking?

There are tons of good books and I hate playing favorites because for one thing people might get mad at me and the other is that there are too many wonderful books out there. I certainly think those like Rene Redzepi’s book and Magnus Nilsson’s books are important. Especially Magnus since he has a tiny restaurant out in the middle of nowhere and in order for him to have an impact on the gastronomes and chefs of the world and in light of the fact that most people who would like to eat in his restaurant never will it is significant. That is why it is important for him to publish and that is also an element of our strategy here. We think it is really important for us to write books in order to influence more people and have a bigger impact on the world of cooking than if we tried to have a little restaurant in Bellevue, Washington.

You are also very keen on photography and have come out with a book on it. In fact all of your books have some amazing images. Is such visualization important to stimulate interest in food?

I think that people like looking at pictures of food and it is a part of getting people interested in our books. Some of the images in our books are pure science and that can be scary for people. Some of the things are very technical, especially some cooking techniques that are so advanced that they are meant for professional chefs like Redzepi or Magnus. In order to make the book accessible to people we used pictures as a universal language. The pictures interest you and then you think about looking up more stuff and pretty soon you have sucked them in. It’s a very important point that in order for us to make cooking techniques, ideas and science accessible we make them visual and pretty.

You have so many passions and varied interests ranging from paleontology , photography, history, scientific research, and food, but which particular aspect of cuisine interests you the most? Is it the creation, or the comprehension, the process, or the invention?

You left out my favorite part, consumption because I love to eat!

Sometimes I get asked if now since I know so much about food if it’s impossible for me to enjoy it anymore. No, I love it, it’s more fun because I have the understanding. By the way there are still a lot of things I still don’t understand. It’s all important and they are all things that I love and food to me is about all of that stuff. It is understanding and figuring things out. There is a great pride in making food and people like to make food and I like to because it’s fun and comes with a feeling of accomplishment. It also feels great to serve food to others and have them appreciate it.

You referred to the reformation of cuisine. Can you elaborate?

Most fields have gone through periods of trends as well as big new movements. Modern art and Modern architecture are really good examples and it happened even in poetry, literature, and painting. Many schools like the French impressionist school of painting for example came up with their own vision, there were many schools of painting and each one came up with their own new vision. That strangely did not occur in food and most of  the twentieth century was about the emergence of new art forms like bold new architecture and same for other fields, but we did not have a bold new phase in food and cooking. The closest we came to that was as late as the 1970’s when the French Nouvelle cuisine movement began and that was a shocking thing within France.

It was considered wacky, bold and horrible because people don’t like when you change stuff. Just as the French Impressionist paintings had been viewed as ugly when they first emerged. Everything else in the human culture and aesthetics went through this big revolution and metamorphosis. During the revolution in French Nouvelle cuisine they went from being revolutionaries to winning very quickly and then they stopped there and there wasn’t another movement right afterward. In art there was a continual effect of new movements like Picasso bringing Cubism and then came Surrealism and other forms. This change in food only happened in Spain where chefs like Ferran Adria, Juan Mari Arzak, and Joan Roca rose to the top of the revolution. In the 80’s Ducasse and Robuchon were at the top but there wasn’t another French chef after them to start another revolution to overthrow them. In Spain the chefs I mentioned wanted to emulate the French but unlike them the Spaniards kept innovating. They developed this new avant-garde, modernist type of cooking in Spain and then suddenly they were at the top of the heap.

Heston Blumenthal started cooking this way in the UK and then it came to the U.S. Then the Scandinavian chefs started cooking this way too so I view all of these movements as modernist. Like modernism in art they are about creating a new thing though inspired by the past. They were not slavishly following the past just like this new movement in Scandinavia which I consider to be modernist even though they might be cooking with old techniques they are still their own and not French. Not that there is anything wrong with French cooking!

So I think this movement has been very powerful just like the reformation in Christianity or art in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Has this change given freedom of expression to people in cuisine?

It has given tremendous freedom and allowed people to create. They get to do what they want and no one can stop them like for example Nordic cuisine which has been embraced. Customers are lining up, it has helped the economy and brought in more tourist trade. It has also prompted other guys to open restaurants. The impact of these Nordic chefs like Nilsson or Redzepi is not just their restaurants but it’s also putting their countries on the map and encouraging other chefs to do cool things.

Since you had Magnus Nilsson as your guest of honor and in light of your own heritage, what is your perception of Nordic cuisine?

The important aspect of Nordic cuisine according to me is that they are doing it and I draw the connection back to the Spanish chefs like  Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, Juan Mari Arzak . Prior to their work the only way would have been to be French or copying the French. The Spaniards created a model whereby they could be doing their own thing and still create great cuisine. Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson and then at Maaemo in Oslo along with other chefs set out to make a New Nordic cuisine  and it’s a fantastic thing. Rather than cook like they were in Paris they decided to cook their own thing though they took inspiration from Nordic ingredients, history  and it’s a creative cuisine that is evolving. The idea that anyone would go on a food tour of Scandinavia would have been a joke twenty years ago. You would have eaten rotten shark or herring, and now people are going there on food trips because these guys are cooking up a storm.

Have these Nordic chefs changed direction in recent years and have they begun using more regional ingredients and techniques?

I’m not sure that is true. One of the things about creating your own cuisine is that  you can do whatever you want and take your own direction. While it’s great to use Nordic ingredients and traditions most Nordic cuisine is not authentic in any reasonable way. It’s not about your grandmothers Nordic cuisine it’s a totally new thing. I mentioned at the dinner that there are Nordic chefs making fish sauce which is commonly associated with Southeast Asia. Now they are making it with Scandinavian fish, which of course will ferment just as the Southeast Asian fish does since there is no trick to that.

Going back to Nordic ingredients, there is an interesting challenge of working with things that are only available in the Nordic countries. There is an ethical challenge but at the end of the day I don’t think that some appeal to localism or regional ingredients makes much sense. For example Tim Wendelboe is a Norwegian who by many coffee lover’s standards makes the best coffee in the world. He selects, roasts and brews at his shop in Oslo. This for me is the definition of great coffee and whenever I am even remotely in the vicinity I make it a point to visit. Since coffee doesn’t grow there so should he not be doing this? Of course not, because people in Scandinavia drink it and it’s a wonderful tradition in the region.

Another example is that as a child I could not figure out why traditional Swedish baked goods have cardamom. I looked it up and found it comes from India and was surprised that these spice cookies were still Swedish cookies. In the Middle Ages all throughout Europe spices were a really big deal and Europeans were fascinated by them. The spice trade was what Columbus and other great explorers set out for on their travels. So the question is: Are cardamom cookies traditional Swedish cookies and I would say they are since they are made in Sweden for a couple hundred years. But is cardamom Swedish? Hell no! And I don’t see a contradiction in that.

Is this a current trend with chefs talking about going back to their roots or bringing back lost or forgotten ingredients to their kitchens?

There is an element of this which is very much about being trendy and I totally agree with that. However there are other motivations. I think it fine to rise to the challenge of using these ingredients and it is trendy. Sometimes people wind up fixating a little more on the trend than they do on other things. One aspect is that many people who go to Noma or many other such restaurants somehow fantasize about this and the notion that there is an element of tradition in it. There may be an element of tradition in the inspiration or even the techniques but it is not your grandfather’s Danish restaurant. This is a new wonderful thing and it’s novelty is something we should celebrate and not pretend that it doesn’t exist.

What do you think about all the international conferences and events these days? Are they also contributing to this progression of cuisine?

Absolutely, these conferences like MAD or Madrid Fusion, the Internet, the fact that people can find out about new things so easily and quickly help in this process. If people like Magnus had to wait twenty years before the world discovered him he would have a lot harder time. Though he did have to wait before the world discovered him but probably not as long as Ferran Adria who started cooking in a bar and grill that was part of a golf course in 1983. It took a long time before the world of foodies found him. Other young chefs have been found earlier in their careers because of the media, conferences, the present worldwide interest in food, writers like you covering all of this have got a role in this as well.

You are fond of the term “nerd”. Is that the target audience for your books?

I don’t want to apply one label to everybody because there are actually a lot of different folks with different ideas. Certainly the biggest set of people we are targeting are those that label themselves as foodies and are into food. They may or may not be cooks or at the level we were cooking at the dinner the other night. Without a lot of such people being interested in food it would not be possible for any of this to happen. There are lot of other segments besides customers consuming food that are important so I don’t have a word for “food nerds” but yes I am one. When I use the term nerd I mean that I am a science guy so a lot of my approach to cooking is pretty much about science and technology. There are a lot of people in the food world who love food but they don’t come about it naturally from that point of view because they don’t consider themselves as science sort of people.

There is widespread perception that when science and technology are applied to food, taste and flavor are lost in the process. Is that a valid criticism?

I think that is bullshit, but maybe that’s just me. There is this stereotype that if science is involved it somehow takes the soul out of cooking or that it is not about the ingredients any more. In almost every walk of life people will come up with trends, words and ideas which tend to get overused. This is a good example because there is wonderful insight into food that you can get from traditional ideas and ingredients by themselves can be totally wonderful and I agree with that. It’s like the pea soup which we served at the dinner where we have taken an ingredient and enhanced the taste and not detracted from the essence of it.

You are often criticized for research into food techniques which do not benefit a broader cross section of society. For example not everyone out there knows of a sous-vide or a centrifuge. You are also researching many other fields that many people are not aware of. Any response to that?

In our case we do the food projects and are famous for the crazy, big cookbook and intense focus on food like you experienced at the dinner. What we are aiming to do with that is just creating the best food experience that we can. We have lots of other projects at Intellectual Ventures that are directly aimed at the Third World and at helping people to not starve to death example our projects aimed at food in Africa and that I feel is an important area. A problem like famine is of course different from trying to make the world’s best pea soup which is not going to save the world. Our projects at Intellectual Ventures like fixing the world’s energy problem and dealing with climate and global warming are important because they have consequences on people’s lives. At the same time we are also dealing with things in a personal sense like my passion for food and cooking in the Modernist Lab.

Talking about your forthcoming book on bread, you mentioned an electron microscope that could detect gluten strands, so are you looking into the gluten intolerance that seems to be afflicting a large cross section of people these days?

What we have done is two things in the book. For one we covered what is known scientifically about gluten and gluten intolerance and then we also have a chapter on gluten free bread recipes. To be honest these are two different things because a lot of this gluten intolerance is self-diagnosed and there is potentially no scientific evidence that it’s correct. I think people should eat whatever it is they want to eat and I don’t like telling people what they should eat. Personally I don’t think that is my job. One of the things that is true about this gluten free movement is that a lot of the people who are in it don’t have that point of view. They want to proselytize and tell people not to eat gluten because it’s terrible for you. You have to be correct before saying that but unfortunately they are not because there is no scientific evidence to back them up. In our book we provide gluten-free recipes because there is a lot of interest and there are people who do have celiac disease or other medical conditions and should not consume gluten. So we have some of the best gluten free recipes that I have ever tasted. I also think gluten and bread have been unfairly demonized by people who are proclaiming something they believe in or they want to sell books.

You visited the global seed vault in Svalbord , Norway while researching your bread book. Other than the frost nip on your nose, what else impressed you about this project?

It is an amazingly cool place and we went dog sledding and it was a fun experience. I think it’s awesome that someone has gone to the trouble of making a doomsday seed vault to save us all in case some major shit hits the fan. It’s one these places you hope the world will never need and that would be everyone’s hope. It’s great that someone actually put the passion, energy, and money into doing it. I am proud to be part of a society broadly speaking that has the foresight to do that even though I hope that it is totally pointless, a complete waste of money and we never have such a catastrophe and need the seed vault because we have destroyed the planet. It’s great that someone planned ahead just like the building I am in has fire sprinklers which I hope never have to be used.

The other message behind the seed vault is that we tend to take so many parts of our food system for granted and that is one of the reasons our food system is so screwed up. In all the musings over what would happen in case of a catastrophe how many people are thinking about seeds we will need to plant to feed the world? It is a great example of recognizing the importance of something we take for granted.

Since we are talking about seeds, what are your thoughts on the subject of GMO’s and the controversy with the seed vault?

I am not sure what the GMO controversy involves in this case but generally speaking throughout history people have been freaked out by changes to food. People were afraid that new things were bad for them and even tomatoes were viewed with skepticism when they first came to Europe from the New World. Part of it was because the leaves looked like deadly night shade family which they were. Tomatoes are not bad for you but very well-meaning people over a period of two hundred years were skeptical about them.

Ironically the place where they were most outraged and took a lot of time to accept them was what is now Tuscany which seems ludicrous now. The food in Tuscany now revolves around tomatoes. A lot of the worry about GMO’s is way overboard in my opinion.

Does it stem from a fear of the unknown?

Food particularly seems to freak people out and fear of the unknown about food is worse than in any other case because we actually put it into our bodies. People who are against GMO’s are typically not against anything that actually happened. What they are afraid of is that there will be some scenario like the Godzilla movie and suddenly some GMO in the future destroys the world or kills us. The GMO’s that exist today have all been proven scientifically to be safe. It’s just this question of “could it be” and maybe it could, that is why this whole issue, I think, is overblown a bit. It is a choice and if someone doesn’t want to eat them then they have a right not to do so. What bugs me it when people go out and tell the world and frighten them by saying they are dangerous especially when they have not been proven so.

Do you view food as medicine?

Food is essential for our existence and certainly there are some foods known to have medicinal properties. I am sympathetic to the idea of food as medicine but we haven’t focused on that. In our book we have focused on the other aspect of food and health which is foods that are bad for you. We have found that scientific evidence of foods that are bad for you is contrary to the popular conception. For example lot of people think that dairy products, meats are terrible for you and there is really no scientific evidence of that. In fact in the 1970’s and 80’s food companies unwittingly promoted poly unsaturated fats or fake fats as being good for us while animal fats were bad. It’s turned out that these manufactured fats or trans fats were really bad for us so there is a history of bad stuff being touted as good for us contrary to the facts. If you actually care about fats this is a very troubled history.

What do want your contribution to food or legacy to be?

Personally I hope my legacy does not start for a long time (laughing) and I don’t want to think about it for now so I can’t say what it will be. All I can say that we certainly have tried to make a book that covered food in a very different way than all other cookbooks out there. By the way it also happens to weigh more than any of them out there!

A lot of people have resonated with that and we have been able to communicate things about food that I think are useful to people regardless of whether they are a foodie or a chef trying to cook simple food, but are yet very curious about it. So hopefully we will continue to make books that people find useful.

Any unrealized dream out there?

(this was responded to by guffaws of laughter)

I will quote Lord Byron:”Man’s reach exceeds his grasp what the heaven for”.

Incidentally the lines are from Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

Whoever the poet, in this instance the words succinctly express Myhrvold’s thought.

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