Five Things Nathan Myhrvold Taught Us About Cooking
He is one of those people who defies description in a few pages, let alone paragraphs. Sure, Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Microsoft Research and CEO of the Bellevue, WA-based “invention firm” Intellectual Ventures. But besides information technology and business innovation, he’s a renowned expert in such ridiculously diverse fields as astrophysics, mathematics, paleontology, and photography. He’s also one of at least three tech billionaires to speak at the University of Washington this month.
A few weeks ago, Myhrvold spoke to a crowd of students, faculty, and guests about another one of his great loves: the science of cooking. (His resume as a chef includes winning the world championship of barbecue and working at Rover’s in Seattle’s Madison Valley neighborhood.) As part of the computer science and engineering department’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, Myhrvold’s talk covered everything from food safety myths and a tour of Intellectual Ventures’ kitchen lab facilities, to computer simulations of heat intensity above a barbecue grill. He was joined on stage by chef and biochemist Chris Young of Intellectual Ventures, a veteran of the renowned Fat Duck restaurant in England.
Myhrvold and Young have been working on a 1,500-page book on the state of the art in cooking science for about three years, together with a staff of 15. “It’s like a restaurant without diners,” Myhrvold joked. “Unfortunately, it’s also like a restaurant without revenue.”
The focus of the book is to illuminate the cutting-edge science behind cooking techniques, and to stimulate people’s curiosity about food while also being practical for chefs. “There’s a revolution in cooking going on today. If you keep doing the old thing over and over again, you don’t actually need to know why it works,” Myhrvold said. “If you want to do things that are new and different and unusual, it really helps to know why.”
Highlights of the talk included high-speed (6,200 frames per second) video of a popcorn kernel popping and a water balloon bursting; discussion of what happens to food when you subject it to 40,000 times Earth’s gravity (“kind of a cool thing to do to food every now and again”); and the creation of a batch of almond-based ice cream using liquid nitrogen.
Here are just a few things Myhrvold left us with:
1. Cookbooks are like software. Someone in the audience asked Myhrvold when the cooking science book would be available. “A damn fine question,” he replied. “I come from a history of writing software, and that’s always a rude thing to ask about software. And maybe because of this heritage, we’ve produced a large, sprawling book that’s late. But there’s no bugs in it, we drew the line there.” (He said the book would be out in a year.)
2. Everything you thought you knew about food safety is wrong. There’s no need to overcook pork, for instance. That’s because the parasite trichinella is largely gone from the U.S., Myhrvold said, except for bear meat—“if you’re a hunter and you eat wild bear, cook the crap out of it.” Similarly, botulism affects very few people, except in Alaska, which seems to be the botulism capital of the world. “Essentially everything that chefs and most people are taught about food safety is flat wrong,” Myhrvold said. “Not a little bit wrong, it’s massively wrong in almost every area.”
3. Be wary of fancy French terms. Restaurants often say a meat dish, like duck, is “confit” (cooked and preserved in its own fat) when it’s not really, Myhrvold said. The same goes for “caramelized” anything. And stay away from canned foie gras at all costs. Myhrvold said a series of blind taste tests revealed that people could not tell it apart from dog food.
4. Choose your sushi wisely. Myhrvold’s team came across a research paper that found 25 percent of the raw salmon in Seattle-area sushi restaurants had Anisakis nematodes (a type of parasitic roundworm) in it. I’m not sure how dangerous that actually is, but I’d probably rather not find out.
5. Invest in some liquid nitrogen for the kitchen. It’s cheaper than Fiji Water, Myhrvold said, and can be used to make novel frozen desserts, preserve certain foods, and flash-freeze food surfaces during preparation. “There are quite a few companies that sell it here in Seattle. Some of them deliver. When I first started screwing around with liquid nitrogen, I had it delivered to my house. This guy would come every month. When he’d bring the canister of liquid nitrogen, he’d say, ‘You know, I don’t make a lot of house calls.” You can also use dry ice to do things like make smooth and creamy ice cream, or freeze duck skin before cooking so you don’t overcook the meat while making the skin crispy.
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