One man's quest to create the perfect chip

A dizzying story of money, obsession and the world's biggest cookbook.

I've recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas, home of the 1,000-item breakfast, 6lb burrito challenge and a dish called "fried chicken Benedict". So perhaps it's not surprising that I ended up reading two lengthy magazine articles about food on the flight home.

The first, from the US edition of Wired magazine, covers the quest of the former Microsoft chief technical officer Nathan Myhrvold, 51, to create the world's most comprehensive cookbook. It's 2,400 pages long, has 1,600 recipes, weighs nearly 50lb and costs £375.25. (Effortlessly besting Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a snip at £84.49, and even trouncing Ferran Adria's El Bulli 2003-2004, at £215.15.)

Why the need for all those pages? To accommodate Myhrvold's incredibly detailed instructions, of course. Listen to how he cooks his chips:

Myhrvold cuts his potatoes into batons and rinses them to get rid of surface starch. Then he vacuum-seals them in a plastic bag, in one even layer, with water. He heats the bag to 212 degrees for 15 minutes, steaming the batons. Then he hits the bag with ultrasound to cavitate the water -- 45 minutes on each side. He reheats the bag in an oven to 212 degrees for five minutes, puts the hot fries on a rack in a vacuum chamber, and then blanches them in 338-degree oil for three minutes. When they're cool, Myhrvold deep-fries the potatoes in oil at 375 degrees until they're crisp, about three more minutes, and then drains them on paper towels. Total preparation time: two hours.

You'll be pleased to know that, after this process, "the outside nearly shatters when you bite into it, yielding to a creamy center that's perfectly smooth".

It's a fascinating article, particularly as a portrait of one man's obsession -- for Myhrvold has built an entire laboratory in his backyard, with all manner of high-tech gizmos to realise his dream of turning cookery into a science. As the writer notes, he has "the lifestyle flexibility of a multimillionaire and the mental discipline of a world-class researcher".

But if all this talk of affluent people faffing around with vacuum chambers just to make lunch leaves you a little nauseous, then I suggest reading instead this piece from the current issue of The Atlantic, which asserts that "gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony".

The contributing editor B R Myers attacks the "gloating obsessiveness" of those who write professionally about food. While I can't say I agree with him entirely (a world where journalists were only allowed to write about Big Important Things would be a brutally dull one), some of his barbs do hit home. There is, after all, something distasteful about one part of the world fetishing food while another part struggles to get it at all.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Commons confidential: Putting on the Ritz

Turns out, the young ’uns give even thirsty MPs a bad name.

Smoking is banned in enclosed workplaces including hotel bars and reception rooms but the prohibitions are, in the finest Leona Helmsley tradition, for the little people rather than the Pol Roger Brexit elites. The one-time City speculator Nigel Farage and the gruesome gathering of tycoons untroubled by the costs of an EU exit were, a witness informed me, puffing away on fags at the glitzy anti-establishment establishment bash at the Ritz on the night that a £59bn Brexit bill was presented to the nation.

The backslapping soirée was hosted by the billionaire twins Sirs David and Frederick Barclay, the mock-Gothic-castle-owning habitués of tax havens and proprietors of the five-star Piccadilly boarding house. My snout recalled how Freddie announced ever so grandly: “This is my house and people can smoke if they want to.” I trust that Fred’s hostel is well versed in the smoking ban law.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reincarnated chief whip, Nick “Newcastle” Brown, believes that he is the first Labour bigwig since Arthur Henderson to hold the same party post multiple times in three decades. Brown did the enforcer’s job for Tony Blair in 1997-98, Gordon Brown in 2008-10, Harriet Harman in 2010 and now Jezza in 2016. Uncle Arthur was Labour’s chief whip in 1906-1907, in 1914, in 1920-24 and in 1925-27. Tickled to learn that Henderson was awarded the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize, Newkie Brown was overheard musing: “Perhaps they’ll give it to me if I bring peace to the Parliamentary Labour Party.” Do that, and he’d be invited to run the UN.

The charm of Justin Madders is the shadow health minister’s easygoing nature. Which is probably just as well. The agreeable Ellesmere Port MP and former lawyer received a thank you note and photograph after attending a cancer charity’s event. The picture was of Tories. A high-profile Corbynista could learn from the mild Madders. She asked a paper to use only flattering snaps of her.

I may start an occasional series on jobs that haunt MPs decades after they made it to Westminster, after the shadow cabinet member Teresa Pearce recalled her experiences as a gym receptionist in the days before Lycra was fashionable. “I did it to get free gym use,” explained the Erith MP, “but I also had to clean and monitor the sauna on naked pensioner Tuesdays, so it was not worth the grim sights I had to witness.” Some things once glimpsed can never be unseen.

Westminster staff whisper that empty Tesco wine bottles have been found on the terrace. The finger of suspicion points at drunk and disorderly young researchers, particularly Tories, preloading before piling into the bars. The young ’uns give even thirsty MPs a bad name.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor(politics) of the  Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage