Where art and science intersect is where you'll find Nathan Myhrvold -- in his test kitchen pioneering all kinds of new techniques and encouraging the rest of us to consider cooking in a whole new light. Read on to find out more about this fascinating guy.
It’s hard to decide how to introduce Nathan Myhrvold. Some people know him as the original chief technology officer of Microsoft, others have heard he holds hundreds of patents. This is a man with two masters degrees and a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton. Face to face, you notice his twinkly eyes and an infectious laugh. Oh yes -- and this is a man with a serious a passion for food. He conceived and masterminded “Modernist Cuisine,” a five-volume work that combines science and technology to explain numerous culinary phenomena, the smaller “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” and most recently “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” which showcases the stunning photography that has come to define the Modernist Cuisine genre.
When you meet someone and need to introduce yourself, what do you say?
I never know how to describe myself. Sometimes I will say I’m a cookbook author, which is true, but it’s not the total picture. Sometimes I’ll describe myself as an inventor -- I've applied for like 500 patents. I recently passed Thomas Edison. Yeah, that qualifies. So I’ll say I’m an inventor. That’s a great thing to say at a cocktail party because it’s so weird. When you tell somebody you're an inventor, everyone thinks of either Thomas Edison or the guy in the "Back to the Future" movies -- the crazy doc guy with the DeLorean that goes back in time. Of course, I’m neither model, but that’s something that I sometimes say. I might say I’m a physicist or a scientist. Cookbook author works wonders; it’s much more approachable.
Martha visited your workspace a while back but not everyone knows how unique it is, can you describe it for us?
Ah, my little test kitchen. It’s pretty hard to describe: It’s a 20,000-square foot facility in Bellevue, Washington. Real estate is not quite so precious there (as in NYC). We have a full machine shop, a chemistry lab, a biology lab -- it’s where my company does all kinds of invention work. We happened to be building the lab at the same time we were starting the cookbook project, so I thought, Let's take a corner and we put in a state-of-the-art kitchen and state-of-the-art lab with most of the equipment you’d find in the best-appointed restaurant kitchen in New York and a lot of equipment you’d find in the best-appointed medical lab in New York. And we use both of them because we have a scientific edge to cooking and we also like using some of the lab equipment to cook in an unusual way.
You have a lot of equipment that's beyond the reach of the home cook, are there some tools you'd recommend for every kitchen?
We love blow torches; they're great for cooks. Hey, they can get a little dangerous, but so can gas stoves. The kind of blow torch we love is not from a fancy kitchen place; we get ours from Home Depot -- I think Benzomatic is the brand. They have one where you just pull a lever and it automatically lights. And we love digital scales. Everyone should use a digital scale -- they’re $20 at Costco. And even the fancier ones too, of course. A digital scale really lets you cook with precision. Another thing I tell every cook is they should have a digital thermometer. That’s another $20 item. Knowing what the temperature is can make a huge amount of difference when you’re cooking.
When you come back from a trip, what do you like to cook at home?
One thing I make all the time for myself at home is scrambled eggs. It sounds really simple, but I have two tricks. One of them anyone can do and that is to throw one egg white away. So if you make scrambled eggs with three eggs, use two whole eggs and one egg yolk. Separate the egg and toss the white, or use it for something else.
Changing the ratio of yolks to whites improves the texture and the color and the flavor. No matter how you cook that, it is going to be better. I cook my scrambled eggs in one of my combi ovens, cooking the egg at a very low temperature so it sets and is perfectly cooked all the way through. I don’t stir, I beat them up and put them in this little convection oven – then give them one little stir at the end. There’s no fat, no cream, just egg but you took one egg white out, and once you do that you don't need fat or cream.
You have said, "Failure is always an option." So do you eat your failures? How drastically wrong can it go?
Oh, stuff catches fire sometimes, ends up spilled on the floor sometimes. When you take pictures with stuff cut in half, it makes a mess. We don’t eat the stuff that goes on the floor, but pretty much we eat everything else. We really like our food. [laughs]
The reason I say failure is an option is that you have to be creative. To us they [science and art] are very related, and in fact one enables the other. If Martha was coming over for dinner, we would cook stuff that we knew was going to work.
What are you working on now?
We’re always working on other projects. “Modernist Cuisine at Home” is now available in electronic form, it’s our first ebook. We didn't rush to that because we wanted to do a really quality job, and we found a fantastic company called Inkling that has a great way of doing an ebook; one that’s just pictures of pages isn’t as interesting as one that has video, that lets you scale recipes, lets you do really interesting searches. And we’ve had a museum show in Seattle. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like that. It will travel to other cities. As an outgrowth of the museum show, we’ve made these kits for gel noodles and spherification, little things that look like caviar made out of fruit juice and all kinds of other stuff, with a liquid center. They’re very cool.
Watch Nathan give Martha a tour of his cooking lab.
Buy "Modernist Cuisine" and Nathan's other books.
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