A conversation with Nathan Myhrvold

What is the difference between Modernist cuisine and molecular gastronomy?

“Molecular gastronomy” is a controversial term among high-end chefs. Dr. Hervé This, who is often named as the father of what he calls molecular gastronomy, feels strongly that the name should be applied only to food science; he thinks it should not be used to describe cooking. Even if you set that aside, most of his research does focus on applying science to understanding traditional cooking.

Nearly all the chefs we have talked to in the field hate the name molecular gastronomy. And from a scientific standpoint, the term is meaningless: all food is made of molecules.

We think that Modernist cuisine is a much better term because it describes the avant-garde approach of rebelling against culinary rules of the past. It is also broad enough to encompass a wide variety of styles.

Some people are leery of the artificial-sounding ingredients used in some Modernist recipes. They gravitate toward foods that are organic or all-natural. Why not just stick to these simpler ingredients?

There’s no such thing as free-range baking soda! Somebody once said to Nathan, “I hate this Modernist stuff, why don’t you make something that’s simple and natural like pasta with cheese and sauce?”

But, good grief, there is no food in the world that is more artificial than pasta. It doesn’t grow on a pasta tree, you know. It doesn’t look much at all like grain. In fact there’s this elaborate, well-figured-out procedure you have to go through to make pasta. Now, pasta is a wonderful food. There’s nothing wrong with it, but calling it natural is just weird. Pasta was an invention.

Virtually all foods you find at a farmers’ market or local butcher have had their genomes modified exten­sively through decades or centuries of selective breeding. What people call genetically modified these days means that some techniques from molecular biology have been used to alter them in very specific ways. But nearly all these genetic modifications have been aimed at addressing the needs of industrial-scale agriculture. Chefs are mainly interested in taste and flavor, and so far little (if any) GM work has focused on improving these attributes. We think that, for maximum flavor, old heirloom varieties are generally still the best. But this is a practical position on our part, not an ideological position.

Much of the world suffers from malnutrition, and GM crops adapted to, say, African agriculture might be able to avoid famine and save millions of lives.

One ingredient that purists love to hate is monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG has been widely attacked, but Nathan searched the medical literature and was amazed to find that in fact there is no scientific evidence that it is bad for you. Lots of people claim to be intolerant of MSG, but in blinded trials, researchers have found they can’t consistently tell whether food contains MSG or not. We cover this research in detail in our “Food and Health” chapter.

As for using refined chemicals to cook, well, if you make muffins, you are going to use some baking powder. The baking powder is a refined chemical; it’s mined, not grown! You’re probably going to use salt as well. Guess what? Your salt is either mined or it’s evaporated out of the ocean. You can go on and on, but essentially there are a whole bunch of refined ingredients that everyone uses without thinking twice, simply because they have been around a long time.

Interestingly, few if any of those traditional refined ingredients have been scientifically tested to make sure they are safe to eat. Decades of experience suggests that they are, but you’re not likely to find careful studies that prove it. Modern refined ingredients, such as hydrocolloids, have been safety tested. And guess what? Pretty much all of them are either extracted from seaweed or made by fermentation. If you’re willing to eat nori and vinegar on your sushi rice, and chase it with a glass of wine, why should you object to this?

We love the idea of farm-to-table advocates who say, “I’d rather have my sweet corn picked 10 minutes before we eat it and barely cooked!” We do, too, because it tastes better that way. The trouble is that some people get too fixated on this ideal, and argue that it should be forbidden to thicken a sauce with agar, even while they have no problem putting baking powder in their muffins.

How did Nathan’s 13 years as chief technology officer at Microsoft compare to writing a cookbook?

They are very different in some ways, but similar in others. At Microsoft, Nathan learned how to manage big projects and how to get the best out of a team, which were both necessary for producing the cookbook.

What do you say when people accuse you of taking the art out of cooking? Is cooking an art or is it a science?

Cooking is an art, but like all art, doing it well requires knowing something about the techniques and materials involved. Cooking is also largely empirical, but there are some theoretical insights from science that really help. We don’t have to guess haphazardly at cooking times, for example: by applying the equations of heat transport, we can estimate them pretty accurately. The book includes several that help readers do this [e.g., pages 1·275–286 and 2·276–279]. Once you understand an area, such as emulsions, you can focus your experiments to find out, say, which emulsifiers work best and at what concentrations [see pages 4·206–210] in a given situation.

So science informs us and lets us cook while knowing what we are doing, but it is not a replacement for the skills of a chef and for some degree of experimentation. Each bit of scientific insight greatly increases the efficiency of the experiments, however. And when people understand the science, that actually gets the creative juices going and gives them more freedom to explore new techniques and new applications of existing techniques. So by using Modernist techniques, you get more control, and that allows you to be more artistic, not less!

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