From Microsoft to Modernist: How 'Modernist Cuisine' Will Change Cooking
CREDIT: Stuart Fox
NEW YORK The Today Show, sure. But the New York Academy of Sciences? That's not a normal stop for an author on a book tour. However, Nathan Myhrvold is no ordinary author, and "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" (The Cooking Lab, 2011) is no ordinary book. Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, has studied physics with Stephen Hawking and cooking with the French masters, and the six-volume book, which weighs 40 pounds and contains 2,438 pages, has changed cooking now and forever .
In an event here this Monday, hosted by the model-turned-food writer Padma Lakshmi, Myhrvold explained to a rapt audience the role physics, materials chemistry and molecular biology play in the kitchen. Taking on common myths about food, from the health value of saturated fats to the necessity of cooking duck confit in duck fat, Myhrvold put on a clinic that displayed every facet of his diverse genius.
"A home chef can use about 50 percent of the recipes [in the book]," Myhrvold said. "There are 1,600 recipes, so that gives you 800 recipes. If you're willing to buy some interesting ingredients, and get some new equipment at Williams-Sonoma, that gets you up to about 80 percent. For the other 20 percent, good luck."
As Myhrvold explained it, writing the book, which has so much text and so many pictures that the ink alone weighs four pounds, taxed even the significant resources of a billionaire like himself. To conduct the experiments necessary to truly understand how food cooks, Myhrvold built an entire machine shop, hired a team of 36 chefs, scientists and engineers and conducted three years of testing.
Each new revelation, such as the fact that cucumbers have more water in them than milk does, or that the sous vide (vacuum sealed ) cooking technique that dominates the world's finest kitchens actually originated at a Holiday Inn in South Carolina, led the audience of foodies and science lovers to gasp loudly. Lakshmi, who as a globe-trotting model and host of the food game show "Top Chef" is no stranger to exotic food, could only laugh as Myhrvold blew apart even her expert opinions.
The book compiles information regarding a number of food trends that have arisen over the last decade, explaining the science behind technology-driven molecular gastronomy as well as the nutritional value of organic produce. No one has ever put so much information about cooking in a single place, or done so many experiments to scientifically prove or disprove long-held assumptions about kitchen technique.
"Modernist Cuisine" contains dozens of charts and graphs that detail exactly what happens to pots, pans, pancakes, fish, fowl, fruit, colloid gels and coal briquettes as they heat and cool.
"Thousands of lines of computer code were written to make this book," Myhrvold said. And as one of the founders of Microsoft, this is a man who knows from thousands of lines of code.
However, beneath the high-tech science and talk of flavor-infused foams, Myhrvold and his book also contained some very practical advice. For instance, to make the perfect omelet, simply discard the whites from one of the three eggs. The proportion of three yolks to two whites allows for the perfect texture for omelets or scrambled eggs, when cooked at 165 degrees. And that's advice even chefs without an immersion circulator can use.