Man of the Millenium? Nathan Myhrvold and His “Modernist Cuisine”
- April 18th, 2011
- Posted in Cooking . Dine . Dine . Experience . Experience . Savory . Seattle-ing . Sweet . Traveling
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The book that launched a thousand one-eyed salutes in the pants of food geeks across the globe was the literal elephant in the room during dinner at the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory (IVL). This lab nee motorcycle machine shop is where every parametric recipe and epic image present in Modernist Cuisine was developed, created, tested, replicated and documented by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet along with a team of dozens of stagiares.
I should say every image was created in the lab save the one of ballistics gelatin, which was shot in the forest at night. Picture a gaggle of lab coat-clad boy-men traipsing through the dark woods armed with sheet pans of gel and a wildly expensive camera with which to capture the quivering nuances of goo as it shimmies through space. And yes, for those of you considering bellying-up to the standing-room only bar that doles out volumes of the book for the not inconsiderable sum of $466.62 (current price on Amazon), you WILL get the recipe for ballistics gelatin.
The price, by the way, does not deserve the infamy it has thus far received. After all, it is composed of five separate books. Modernist Cuisine has been lauded, maligned and coveted from here to Timbuktu. I’m not going to wax on like a bilious moon about the particulars contained within the books; if you want poncy and thorough accounts look here or here. Instead, I’m going to talk about the man whom I have grown to immensely respect and his primary research on food at the IVL.
In looking over the 30 pages of hieroglyphics I jotted into my Moleskine over the course of the dinner, I discovered that I wrote seven caricaturizing descriptions of Myhrvold, ranging from Doogie Howser to Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. Perhaps the most universally-relatable is that of Willy Wonka. When I first walked through the lab toward the meeting room that would be the setting for a too-short Powerpoint presentation joyfully narrated by Myhrvold, I was temporarily paralyzed by the fear that I might meet the same fate as Violet, and so I resolved not to touch any of the various unrecognizable doodads- including what I am convinced is a time machine- within terribly-tempting reach.
The identifying signage on the exterior of the lab is as physically unassuming as the man himself. The only indication that you are in the right place is THIS small placard:
After the evening I experienced behind the curtain, however, I suggest that they augment the placard with this one from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf:
I say this because the only way to truly appreciate, to ultimately savor, this style of cuisine is to suspend the typical constructs of normalcy. To my mind, it doesn’t matter that a sphere of yolk-colored passion fruit puree is meant to trick the diner into believing it is a quail egg. It matters that it bursts on my tongue in such a way that it transports me to my fifth summer- my earliest memory of chewing through an entire pack of Juicy Fruit gum in the span of three minutes. It matters that it is delicious in a way that is both familiar and affronting.
The fruit sphere tinged with chili that I feel on the back of my tongue after I have experienced the messy pleasure of the sweet burst is the girl next door whom I haven’t seen since we were teenagers making out on the sprinkler-drenched grass at midnight in the park. The fruit sphere is the same girl next door, but I see her now at 30 and she has transformed into a modern-day Helen of Troy, arresting in her beauty. I want to make her mine. I want to possess that burst, somehow make it last in my mouth, but it is ephemeral. It slips down my throat as though I am an hourglass that will never tip again.
The lab itself is in an unassuming no man’s land of Bellevue, WA, Seattle’s posh yet poorly-dressed suburban sister. It’s a mere mile from Microsoft’s main campus, where Myhrvold cut his teeth as Chief Technical Officer under Uncle Bill. Microsoft is where he amassed enough of a pot of gold to be able to divvy out an unspecified number of ducats on this three-year, four-pound of ink journey. When I gauchely attempted to corner Myhrvold on the exact amount he allocated to this project, he replied with an anecdote about the famously-silent US president Calvin Coolidge. A guest at a White House dinner made a bet that she could get Coolidge to say at least three words. When she told him about her wager, he replied, “You lose.”
Myhrvold has mastered the art of deflection as well or better than Julia mastered French cooking, but then, there are not many arts this man would have trouble mastering. He began college at age 14 and earned his PhD by 23 in theoretical and mathematical physics. Myhrvold is not afraid to tackle onerous endeavors- he even has a solution for global warming. It involves suspending hoses 15.5 miles from the earth using helium balloons. The hoses emit sulfur dioxide which scatters light. He believes this could “easily dim the sun by one percent, and even do it in a way that wouldn’t be visible.”
On paper this may sound crazy, but to hear him explain his ideas with blatant zeal is to believe that not only are they achievable, they are also sensible. Myhrvold possesses a man-child quality unlike any I have ever seen. Anyone who conquers college as a prepubescent is grown up by intellectual definitions, however I cannot help but wonder whether he is so “mature” as to wisely retain the calculated frivolity of toddler-hood.
He is a man who, by his own admission, likes to “support stuff other people don’t. Giving to the usual suspects has little impact.” Because of this, he is an easy media target. The fact is people want to hate Modernist Cuisine because of the idea of it rather than the physical manifestation. It is by many accounts elitist, expensive, theoretical and soulless. Well so is a hard copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and more than a few of the critics of Modernist Cuisine could stand to revisit that book surely languishing on their shelves.
In the same lab where Modernist Cuisine was created, Myhrvold is also researching cures for malaria and streamlining the pasteurization of milk in developing African nations. The pasteurization project is a good example of the fact that there is a practical point behind all the science and, more importantly, reveals that this genius among men has a heart.
While it may seem that Myhrvold casts a net so wide he would be hard pressed to reel it in with anything but driftwood and tin cans, he seems to catch a mermaid with every voyage. Perhaps it is because he dabbles so haphazardly that he collects so many trophies. After all, “if you worry too much about blurting out a stupid idea, then you don’t blurt out any idea at all. Some ideas that may seem stupid at first turn out to work.”
Throughout the presentation, lab tour, and dinner, Myhrvold drank canned soft drinks. After his third beverage (at this point we were several dishes into our 26 course dinner), our table made the observation that no soda was the same. Myhrvold started with Pepsi Zero during the presentation, which I found ironic as he was simultaneously discussing the health-implications of fake foods such as margarine. In an egalitarian shift, he moved to Coca Cola. We confronted him, however, when he opened a third can of an unfamiliar Coca Cola product. A fleeting look of bemusement crossed his face before he indulgently shared with us that he is one of only two people on the planet to whom Coke ships this phantom cola.
I am not going to infantilize the patience of my readers by laboring through ad nauseam descriptions of all 26 courses. Suffice it to say that Myhrvold believes “any dish is worthy of great attention and refinement.” Therefore everything presented- from the re-imagined Mexican street tacos to the Indian thali- lies firmly in the strata of food produced by the finest kitchens in the world. Further, some items such as the rare beef broth present in the “Beef Stew- low temperature extraction, cured, sous vide marrow” were more transcendental than a peyote-fueled quest through the Sedona desert.
I will not soon forget the “Cocoa with Sea Urchin”, for reasons other than its indulgent flavor. I will remember it because I was seated next to Francis Lam, who quietly proclaimed upon seeing the uni in the bowl- “These uni are the size of human tongues.” I finished the dish, but not without feeling like I was playing tonsil hockey with an anthropomorphized sea urchin.
Myhrvold purports to make the perfect roast chicken, which is nearly a weeklong process involving hand-massaging the flesh under the skin of the birds, target-specific brining, mid-air suspension, a proprietary combi oven roast program, and more. When a guest asked him why he would even attempt such a thing, he replied, “Because we can’t.” He is in the business of turning can’ts into cans. He addresses life’s unanswerable questions, which in turn paves the way for the greater good of future generations. We, the food obsessed, should consider ourselves lucky that he has decided to apply some lobe real estate of his giant brain toward culinary matters.
One of the most startlingly-gorgeous dishes was the “Snail Custard.” The snails had been fed a diet of basil leaves to purify their system, which lent sweetness to their sous-vided flesh. They were flanked by healthy dollops of foie gras custard- one of the many items served that demonstrated the practical brilliance of Modernist Cuisine’s parametric recipe chart of custardization. The real emerald, however, was a verdant jus made from ramps. Our table wondered- how did they get the jus so green? We tossed out ideas- was it centrifuged, sous vided, combi-fied, de and then re-hydrated, vacuum reduced, or roto-evapped?
The simple, musical answer came from the kitchen- no, we just blanched the ramps in salted water. It preserves the color. This is the unseen beauty of Modernist Cuisine. The naysayers believe it is a book of spells containing alchemical potions of the future and food fit for George Jetson. It is, in fact, a study of the true history of cuisine in order to define the present and future. A poet can play with the syntax of a sentence in a clever, harmonious way only because he understands the existing blueprint of his language. Modernist Cuisine provides both the core curriculum and the ability to leap beyond.
Some say this style of cooking is better left to those with demonstrable culinary knowledge. A careful read and practice of the words in these volumes will impart that and more, and it that way it is the opposite of elitist. The price of this book plus a few necessary kitchen tools is downright populist if you compare it to a culinary school education.
I don’t think modernist cooking is at all vacuous or sad, nor does it bode ill for the fate of food to come. No one is debating the perfection of Thomas Keller’s roasted chicken. Modernist chefs are merely adding a very sleek, sophisticated socket (or 20) to the cooking toolbox. To early man, fire was modernist cuisine. The discovery of it catapulted food into a new epoch. I am sure there were plenty of Cave Janes and Toga Toms who dismissed fire as a passing fad and continued to gnaw on mastadon crudo. Luckily, greater minds prevailed. Food is a language through which everyone communicates. In the case of Modernist Cuisine, Myhrvold successfully maps that conversation.