Modernist Cuisine: The Big Book

Nathan Myhrvold talks with Susan Hassler about the science behind passionate cooking

Loading the podcast player...

Susan Hassler: Hello, I’m Susan Hassler, and welcome to this edition of “Geeks Cooking.” It’s IEEE Spectrum magazine’s podcast for and about engineers and technologists who love to cook. Today we’re talking with Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, and founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a company described as a disruptive organization providing an efficient way for patent holders to get paid for the inventions they own. His official biography is long and formidable. Nathan earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics, and a master’s degree in mathematical economics from Princeton University. He also has a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, both from UCLA. What’s barely hinted at in all this is the serious fun: His cosmological studies with Stephen Hawking. His dinosaur expeditions with renowned dinosaur hunter Jack Horner. Winning the world championship of barbecue in Memphis, Tenn. Getting the Babbage calculating machine rebuilt. Becoming a master French chef. And now authoring Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume, 2400-page compendium on the art and science of cooking. Hello Nathan.

Nathan Myhrvold: Well hello.

Susan Hassler: Thank you very much for talking with us today about your beautiful book. Can you tell us a little bit about how it went from being an idea to a real project? I mean, clearly this took a long time.

Nathan Myhrvold: It did take a long time. After I retired from Microsoft, I had a lot more time to cook. In fact, that was one of the motivations. And I started following some of the high-technology approaches to cooking, and in particular something called sous-vide cooking, which had been developed primarily in Europe, and I kind of naively thought, “Well, gee, there must be some big book on it that I can just pick up, and when I do, I’ll learn all about it.” Well I discovered that in fact there is not that much known about sous-vide, and some of the stuff that was known was technically wrong. So I started doing my own experiments. I wrote thousands of lines of computer code to simulate heat transfer in food, and learned quite a bit about that. And started posting these things on an online community called eGullet. Well, the posts were very popular, and I kept learning more and more about this, and I realized that there was a tremendous amount of cooking knowledge not just about sous-vide, but about lots of other kinds of modern cooking that had been discovered by food scientists or by engineers, or by chefs, but they had—although they had discovered it—they had not really documented it or put it any place that was easy to find. So if you worked as an apprentice for this one chef, maybe you’d learn his set of techniques. And if you went to another restaurant and worked there, you’d learn a few more. You know, if you hung out with some food scientists, you might learn a couple of other ideas, but it was very difficult to learn it, because it was so scattered. So I decided that there would be a real value in pulling all of the information together and putting it in one place, in one definitive book.

Susan Hassler: Well it certainly came to be just exactly that. Can you describe then, how did you meet up with Chris Young, or Maxime, or how did you all come together? Were you working together before this, or…

Nathan Myhrvold: For the first two years I was really working on the book by myself. And I made an outline, I started writing various parts of it, I started developing the ideas for what would later become the illustrations. And along that time I had eaten at a restaurant in England called the Fat Duck, which is very famous for its modern approach to cuisine. And Chris Young worked there. He had been a graduate student in chemistry at University of Washington but decided that instead of pursuing his Ph.D. that he wanted to be a chef. So when Chris contacted me and said he was coming back to the U.S., for personal reasons, I said, “Hey, why don’t you come work for me on this cookbook?” And Chris said yes. Pretty soon he had put me in touch with Max Bilet, another guy at the Fat Duck, and so we hired Max. I hired a photo assistant and we were off on a project. One of the things that was an inspiration to me in the project was the way software is written. Even though a book isn’t software, I decided that this is something we could do with a small team rather than something I wanted to do alone. Because in my experience, a very capable small team can actually make better software than someone who writes for themselves. And I thought a better, a small team of people could create a book that would be broader, bigger and better than we could if we just left it to me alone.

Susan Hassler: You know, I think that’s very interesting, because we always are looking at the kind of different ways of approaching software, and there is this sort of, I don’t know, essential size, after which it either is too many people and you have just chaos,

Nathan Myhrvold: Yes, there’s such a thing as too many people on a software project, but there’s also such a think as too few.

Susan Hassler: Right.

Nathan Myhrvold: Because if you’re writing for yourself, or writing software for yourself, or by yourself, you tend not to push and—as hard or in as many ways as if there’s a couple people doing it. And then past a certain number, of course there’s too many, but I thought we’d be in that sweet spot, and I think in retrospect we did achieve that with this book. I certainly never could have written a 2400-page book by myself. I’d still be working on it and would, you know, five years from now.

Susan Hassler: Right, no, you’d be in an encyclopedia still in your cave. But we’ve talked to several people who would call themselves molecular gastronomists. Would you consider this to be derived from that, or is it just sort of an encapsulation of that, that school of thinking about cooking?

Nathan Myhrvold: In volume one of our book we cover history, as well as some fundamental science, and one of the histories we cover is the history of what’s called molecular gastronomy. Which has a very amusing history, not exactly what most people would expect. It grew in part out of a conference held in Italy. But at another level it grew out of the notion of people trying to use science to understand what happened in the kitchen. Now there’s been a bunch of people called food scientists that have done that for decades, so that part’s not new. But most food scientists focused on the industrial scale problems. They didn’t focus on what makes a soufflé work, or how various things that are part of a home kitchen or restaurant kitchen would. Really what was different about the folks that call themselves molecular gastronomists is that they really started focusing on saying, “How can science help me with fine cooking?” That was really a perspective that wasn’t there before. On the other hand there’s also lots of chefs and food scientists that were out exploring the frontier who never did call themselves molecular gastronomists. They were kindred spirits in some sense, but they weren’t part of that formal school. So we call this overall trend “modernist cuisine.” It’s about using science and technology to inform cuisine as an art.

Susan Hassler: That’s an interesting way of describing it. We have seen with this approach in some other people that it can get very technical and very kind of clinical, and I think as you’re describing food scientists, it’s almost in that camp. But what you’re describing is actual cuisine, and fine cooking. And so can you talk a little bit about equipment? Because a long time ago I worked in a molecular biology lab, and I thought, my God, we could have been cooking, what are we doing? We were doing all this other silly stuff. So you have a lot of kind of remarkable equipment that’s not in your traditional home kitchen. So if somebody’s looking at this book who’s, you know, a really interested amateur chef, what do they actually need to try out the recipes? What’s the basic tool kit?

Nathan Myhrvold: We wrote the book for someone who is passionate and curious about food. If you’re not passionate about food, I can’t tell you to buy a 2400-page book on it, and if you’re not curious, you probably don’t have a good reason to buy it either. I would argue that if you’re passionate and curious about food, we have an awful lot to offer, even if you don’t cook, believe it or not. But we do have 1500 recipes in the book, and lots of modern techniques. And I think probably half of those are pretty straightforward in almost anybody’s kitchen. If you’re a reasonable amateur chef, you will find a lot of stuff in there—hundreds and hundreds of recipes. If you’re willing to buy a little bit of additional equipment, things that you can buy at Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma, or some store like that, you can probably take that 25, 50 percent up to 75 percent. The last 25 percent to go up to 100? That’s going to be hard. And that’s going to be hard for someone at home because we use lots of interesting equipment. We use centrifuges. We use liquid nitrogen. We use rotary evaporators, freeze dryers, spray dryers. Almost any piece of equipment that people have found use for in a chemistry or biology lab, yeah, we’ve found a use for it in cooking. And a lot of stuff that you might not think has any application in cooking. We—we actually use an oxyacetylene torch. You normally use that for welding or cutting metal. And we use that in cooking. And the reason that we went and used all of that equipment, as well as a number of unusual ingredients, is to really push the state of the art, you need to. Now that doesn’t mean that everyone at home has to cook every one of those recipes. So if you’re not comfortable having liquid nitrogen at home—I do use it in my home—but if you’re not comfortable with it, that’s fine. You don’t have to do those techniques. We felt people who are passionate and curious about food wouldn’t mind if there’s some recipes that are a little bit more advanced than what they’re going to do, because they’re curious about how they work. They’re curious about how some of the best chefs in the world would tackle the problem, and learning that makes it okay even if they don’t cook absolutely every one of them at home.

Susan Hassler: What about things like thermometers? Why are our stoves so impossible to control? I was looking at your cutaways of stoves and I actually had occasion about a week ago to visit someone who’s just installed a very remarkably high-end, expensive kitchen, and yet, you know, the stove is always something, or the ovens, for example, they’re not precise.

Nathan Myhrvold: Well, the history of traditional cooking has not relied on precision. You know, you cooked over fire, and you were supposed to use your skill as a chef to judge that. Of course a thermometer is an incredible invention. We, I think we list that as the single most important equipment anyone can buy is a digital thermometer. And the second piece of equipment is a digital scale, because those are both incredibly useful for achieving precision. But the fact is most traditional ovens don’t control temperature very well, and they don’t control humidity at all. And controlling humidity is very important. Now we know that when we sweat or if we’re wet and get out of a swimming pool, there’s a little bit of a breeze, we know how cold we get because the latent heat of vaporization of water. That’s the energy it takes to go from liquid water to steam is a tremendous amount of energy. And it totally governs how we control our own temperature through sweating. Well guess what: Food is mostly water. Most meat’s about 75 percent water. There’s more water in a cucumber than a glass of milk. Cause a cucumber’s about 95 percent water, and milk, between the fat and the protein and so forth is just under 95 percent water. As a result, humidity is very important in an oven, because the water from the food is going to evaporate. And that water from the evaporation is going to cool the food, and it’s going to cool it below the temperature that you think. So we like to use combi ovens, or CVap ovens. Those are special commercial ovens which control temperature very accurately. And they control humidity by injecting water. And that combination, we think is a tremendous way to cook. It’s found in these high-end restaurant ovens. In Europe it’s starting to become quite a trend to be in home ovens. And that’s just beginning in this country, so I think in the future, we’re going to see a lot more capable ovens. In fact, more generally one of the reasons we used unusual equipment is really to make the case to the world’s kitchen equipment makers, ”Hey, you ought to consider making a temperature-controlled oven that’s much more accurate. You ought to have a humidity controlled oven, you ought to make a better blowtorch for the kitchen, or a kitchen centrifuge. And I think over time we’re going to see a lot of these things that seem to be very exotic all get brought into the mainstream kitchen equipment by manufacturers making something suitable for home use.

Susan Hassler: What did they think when you started cutting their stuff in half? I mean, did they know what was going to happen, or was it a surprise?

Nathan Myhrvold: So, you know, most of the things we cut in half were pots and pans or a cheap microwave, and we didn’t really notify any when we bought them, and then we, we cut them in half so that we could show people a magic view of food, that we could show them what was happening inside their ovens, inside their pots and pans while they cooked, so we could really talk about all of the physical processes that are going on. And you know, some of these things are a little bit technical. And we were afraid that if we just had it all in text, it would seem a little daunting and off-putting to read all of this text about how microwaves cook food. Better to show people how, so we took a microwave oven, we cut it in half, we made sure that we bisected it through the magnetron so that we could discover how the, how the microwaves are actually generated and the wave guide that carries the microwaves from there, and the fan that stirs the microwaves to make, to illuminate hot-spots. We did all that because we thought people were curious about how it happened. Now in a few cases manufacturers donated equipment to us, on the basis that we would cook with it, we’d learn about it, but, and then we’d cut it in half.

Susan Hassler: But, no, it really is though, a terrific way to get a sense of like, what is happening in any of these processes. Some of those pictures of, even of water boiling in a pot are kind of remarkable. Or milk in a coffee mug, I mean it’s an amazing way of making it very visceral.

Nathan Myhrvold: Yeah, we thought that if we had really compelling photos we could get people drawn in, even if they weren’t interested in all of the, the technical details. But if you are interested in technical details, we have those too. I think we’re the only cookbook in the world that has partial differential equations in it. We have the heat equation in it, and we discuss how, how heat moves through food and how diffusion is really critical to understanding cooking. We even have a biography of James Watt, and Fourier, who discovered the law of heat conduction.

Susan Hassler: Well some of our listeners will really appreciate that, because they’re the kind of people who recalibrate their digital scales and digital thermometers before they start to cook anything. So this I think is the right audience for this. One of the things that is notable in some of the recipes, anyway, is that things take time. This is cooking over long periods of time, and in our fast food age, is there a way to cheat sheet some of these recipes, or is time a real key ingredient to great food?

Nathan Myhrvold: Well there are certain, certain kinds of cooking, certain approaches to cooking where time is critical, and you really can’t slow it down. When you cook meat in sous-vide cooking, one of the things you sometimes do is take a very tough cut of meat and cook it at a low temperature for a long period of time, to make it tender. And over that long period of time, collagen molecules that are in the connective tissue of the meat will break down and turn into gelatin. That process intrinsically takes time. And now you can raise the temperature, but when you raise the temperature you make the meat grey and dry it out. So there’s a few things like that where time is critical, you can’t slow it down. There’s other recipes in the book where we speed things up dramatically. We have a recipe for making beef jerky in 30 minutes, in the oven. Normally beef jerky takes days to dry. And the reason it works is we use a microwave oven. So you put the thin strips of beef, you season them, you put them in the microwave, and microwaves have the wonderful property that they heat food by causing water, and also some fat molecules to vibrate. As a result, the amount of heat they put out depends on how much water is there. So you can use a microwave to speed dry beef jerky and in 30 minutes you’ve got finished beef jerky. So that’s an example where modern techniques don’t slow things down; they speed them up.

Susan Hassler: Do you have a current kind of favorite recipe that you’re cooking over and over again, or are you kind of cycling through, from the book right now?

Nathan Myhrvold: Well it depends, you know. There’s a recipe for scrambled eggs in the book that I make myself about three times a week. So that I make a lot of. There’s a few other recipes like that that we sort of use incessantly, but there’s also an awful lot to explore. And a lot of the cooking that I do is very experimental. It’s not about the things we’ve already figured out. It’s about the things we haven’t figured out yet. So frequently I’m out trying something brand new, and of course, when you call it “experiment,” you do that because it doesn’t always work.

Susan Hassler: What kind of stuff are you working on now? I mean, what is your latest experiment? Are you, can you take these then out to the restaurant where you’re, where you work from time to time, after you try them out a little bit?

Nathan Myhrvold: We tend to basically cook for each other. We got a, the crew of people from the book is all still working here, and we cook for each other and for other people in our laboratory. And then once we think we’ve got it pretty good, then we’ll cook it for outside folks, but not until we’re pretty sure it’s good. It’s sort of a point of pride.

Susan Hassler: Right.How long did it take to make the 29-course meal? How long did it take to prepare that menu?

Nathan Myhrvold: Well, it’s a good question, but it’s a complicated answer to it. So when we cook a 20- or 30-course tasting menu, which we do—we had one last week—it usually takes several days for the cooks to do all of the preparation. You know, you have to buy the materials, peel it, get everything all ready. Some stuff you can only peel and get ready the day, that day of course, but a few things you can do a little bit in advance, and we always try and do that. Then they’re cooking pretty much the whole day of the thing, and then all, it takes about 2 or 3 hours to serve, to do the final preparation, plating and serve the meal.

Susan Hassler: And are you using mostly local agricultural…

Nathan Myhrvold: Well, you know, we love cooking with super high-quality ingredients, and if you start with great ingredients, it’s half the battle. So we’re blessed in Seattle with having a tremendous number of local things, and we certainly do use local, high-quality produce when we, whenever we can. There are some things for which having it fresh isn’t an issue. You want stuff that’s, you know, we buy our balsamic vinegar from, from Italy, and it’s 50 years old. And that’s the point of it, is that it’s 50 years old, so it’s neither local, nor is it fresh. But I tell you, balsamic vinegar’s still pretty good, and I’m not going to give it up. In terms, more generally across the ingredients, I think what’s important to me is really quality. And local things often have a quality edge. Organic things can have a quality edge, but they don’t always. And so you have to be smart in how you buy what you’re going to eat, make sure that what you’re buying is really high quality. And if it is, that’s probably more important to me than exactly where it was sourced.

Susan Hassler: Can’t you take these kinds of processes and put them on a larger scale?

Nathan Myhrvold: Some of the ideas and techniques that we use are inspired by things that the processed food industry figured out. We aim for the highest quality, rather than low cost or shelf life like they do, but some of the science and the techniques are shared. Also I think that some of the things that we do, and we think of at a very high-end level actually could be done very practically in a fast food restaurant or a diner. There’s a small chain of a couple of hamburger places in Los Angeles, for example, that uses sous-vide, and many of the techniques that we use.

Susan Hassler: Oh really? That’s pretty interesting. So they’re applying that just for luncheon menus, or local take-out?

Nathan Myhrvold: Yes, and people, you know I think, there’s a lot of interchange where street-food techniques and street-food combinations are, have influenced high-end cooking. But the converse is also true—that the ideas from science or from high-end cooking influence street food. And maybe a good example of that is the cryogenic ice cream product called Dippin’ Dots. Dippin’ Dots was directly inspired by a guy working in a biology lab, and it’s ice cream frozen in liquid nitrogen. But it’s not done in an exclusive, high-end molecular restaurant. It’s done in novelty ice cream places in fairs and amusement parks, and all over the place.

Susan Hassler: Yes, I think I saw this in the Outer Banks in a regular old ice cream stand kind of a place, next to a go-cart house.

Nathan Myhrvold: But they’re selling stuff made intrinsically, made with liquid nitrogen.

Susan Hassler: Well, when you were on your book tour, were there things that surprised you? What were people interested in as you went around? I’m sure it was very different in all the different places you were visiting.

Nathan Myhrvold: Well, you know, we’ve, we’ve been surprised by the strong, and mostly positive reaction to the book. We’ve had a much more positive reaction frankly than we thought. We’d worked away for, as a team for three years, me for five years, trying to create this book, hoping that the world would actually want it. And so it was quite thrilling to see that at least some folks do. We’ve also had some push-back, where people were concerned. One whole sort of theme is that people will say, “Gee, isn’t this against tradition?” One of my favorite questions is, someone said, “What makes you think you should put science in the kitchen?” And I said, “Hey, science was always in the kitchen. I’m just taking ignorance out of the kitchen.” Cause ignorance of science, and ignorance of how the world works, I don’t think is helpful to anybody. If a chef can understand the physics and chemistry and biology behind what they’re doing, and do so in a real way that’s really relevant to them, it’ll help them inspire new dishes.

Susan Hassler: We’ve been talking with Nathan Myhrvold. If you’d like to get in touch with Nathan, please check out his website, For IEEE Spectrum magazine, I’m Susan Hassler in New York. Thanks very much, Nathan.

Nathan Myhrvold: Thank you.