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Nathan Myhrvold interview: “If music can be art, why can’t food?”

Nathan Myhrvold was Stephen Hawking's researcher and Bill Gates's right-hand man at Microsoft. Now, he aims to reinvent the cookbook. 

How's this for a CV? Nathan Myhrvold graduated from high school at 14, finished a physics PhD at 23, got a job as a postdoctoral researcher for Stephen Hawking, broke off to found an internet start-up that was bought out by Micro­soft and rose up the ranks to become its chief technology officer, before retiring from that role at the grand old age of 40. Oh, and he is an award-winning nature photographer and won the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in 1991.

There has been one constant in the broad sweep of Myhrvold's life: food. He is obsessed with it. Now, at last, he has the time and money to indulge that obsession. So what does a retired multimillionaire foodie do? Write the world's biggest, most expensive cookbook, of course.

You might not think that there's much of a market for the six-volume, 2,438-page Modernist Cuisine, which costs £395, but you'd be wrong. The first print run sold out and a second is under way. The book is also being translated into French, German and Spanish.

The world's top chefs are in ecstasy. "This book will change the way we understand the kitchen," Ferran Adrià of El Bulli swoons. "If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, he would write a book called The Codex of Cooking. This cookbook exists at last," Edouard Cointreau, president of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, gushes. Both Adrià and the Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal have written a foreword.

I meet Myhrvold, now a genial, bearded and well-padded 51-year-old, for a cup of tea at the Lanesborough hotel in London. He has brought Modernist Cuisine with him. It's so heavy that he has to trundle it through the inches-deep carpet on a little trolley.

Everything about it screams "labour of love": a team of 50 photographers, writers, editors, scientists and designers was involved in producing its 1,522 recipes and 3,216 images. The photographs seem almost magical, using saws, clear plastic and a healthy dose of Photoshop to take you inside a saucepan of boiling water or to deconstruct a burger into constituent parts.

There are five main sections in all -- History and Fundamentals, Techniques and Equipment, Animals and Plants, Ingredients and Preparations and Plated-Dish Recipes -- plus a wipe-clean "kitchen manual". Each is sprinkled with nuggets of trivia. Did you know that the plated meal was a 19th-century invention? That you can use a centrifuge to make butter out of peas? That it is technically illegal in the US to serve lamb cooked pink?

Yet this is more than a quirky how-to book, a coffee-table companion or even a philosophical treatise. It has been compared, with tongue only slightly in cheek, to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy in its attempt to summarise all the accumulated knowledge in a single field at the moment of its highest achievement. It looks like a lifetime's work, but Myhrvold conceived it just five years ago.

He says that the first meal he can remember cooking is a Thanksgiving dinner for his family, at the age of nine. He went to the local library and borrowed all the books he could find -­ including one by Auguste Escoffier, which you can't imagine racked up many loans in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

A maths prodigy, the young Myhrvold left school for UCLA four years early and went to Princeton for graduate study (he now has "more degrees than a thermometer", including two PhDs). His ability in theoretical physics led him to a post with Hawking in Cambridge in 1983, working on quantum theories of gravity. All that time, he was experimenting in the kitchen. Whenever a new cookery book came out, he would test all the recipes, applying his researcher's eye for detail to the notoriously woolly commands of food writers.

The Cambridge posting was supposed to be for a five-year term but then came one of those moments when a carefully planned life is derailed. The software project that Myhrvold and his friends had been working on at Princeton took off and his collaborators asked him to return to the US. "So, at the end of the first year, I told Stephen that I was going to take a couple of months off," Myhrvold says. "I never returned from my 'temporary leave of absence'."

Blast off

The start-up was soon bought by Microsoft -- then an upwardly mobile proto-giant -- and Myhrvold ended up as the company's first chief technology officer, or CTO. In those heady days, working at Microsoft demanded 80-hour weeks. "It pretty much consumed our whole lives. People had hobbies but we worked so incredibly hard -- I didn't take any vacations for the first five or six years I was there." Not that he regrets it. "We had caught the wave perfectly. This enormous set of possibilities was opening up -- computing power was getting cheap and powerful and there were new ways that one could find to use it. It was incredible to know that everything you did was going to affect millions of people."

I tell him that it sounds as if he was born at exactly the right time. After all, if he'd arrived ten years earlier . . . "I'd be richer!" he interjects, eyes twinkling. "Malcolm Gladwell wrote this book, Outliers, and one of the things [it says] is how the people who are successful and have made a lot of money in technology are about the same age. And I'm the youngest of all of them. But when you correct for how I was early in school, it lines up!"

By his mid-thirties, Myhrvold had achieved career success beyond most people's wildest dreams but he still couldn't shake off his longing to work with food. In 1993, he tore himself away from talking about CPUs and told his boss -- yes, Bill Gates -- that he wanted to go to France for a summer to learn to cook professionally. Or, as he puts it: "I said: 'Hey, I want to take a bunch of time off.'" Gates took the news well; the French chefs at the cookery school were less enthused. They tried to fob him off with a course for amateurs and when he refused, they made him submit to an oral exam over the phone. They were sure that he would never be able to answer their arcane questions on the cooking times of veal v chicken stock.

“I got them all right. Every question," Myhrvold says with some satisfaction (he has many admirable qualities; modesty is not one of them). "It pissed them off no end. They were so hoping they could dispose of me as some rich dilettante." All those years of experiments in his kitchen had paid off.

It took him another two years to get the work experience that the Cordon Bleu course demanded, spending one night a week cooking in the best French restaurant in Seattle, Rover's. Then, after his summer of sautéing and braising, he returned to Microsoft, just in time for the internet explosion. But his heart was no longer in it and he decided that the day job was getting in the way of his cooking. (His permanent departure from Microsoft in 1999 was initially announced as a "leave of absence", prompting a sarcastic email from Hawking, who recalled Myhrvold making a similar claim a decade earlier. "Oh, shall we clean out your office?" the physicist asked.)

So began the next phase of Myhrvold's life. You could call it retirement, except that he now runs a patent portfolio firm, Intellectual Ventures (IV), with a multimillion-pound turnover. "I swore we'd never have more than 20 people -- and we're now at 800," he sighs. Like his old boss Gates, he is involved in the fight against malaria: one of the products that IV is developing is a "photonic fence", which uses lasers to repel mosquitoes.

He lives in a house on the ribbon-like Lake Washington, on the outskirts of Seattle, complete with "cooking lab" in the back garden. Many university research departments would kill to get hold of the equipment there: an ultrasonic bath (for cooking chips); a centrifuge (for the pea butter); a rotary evaporator, a freeze-dryer and an autoclave. There's even a liquid nitrogen bath that can be used to make burgers and fries extra crispy. It's also great for party tricks -- on the US television show The Colbert Report, Myhrvold plunged his arm into a vat of the stuff (the way to avoid severe injury is to take it out again pretty sharpish).

All these hi-tech gizmos have allowed him to apply scientific principles to cookery. It is a source of great disgruntlement to him that many chefs are uninterested in the technical aspects of what they do. "I naively thought that all this stuff had been figured out but I just hadn't found the definitive book," he says.

He started asking around about one technique in particular -- sous vide, in which ingredients are sealed in a vacuum pouch and placed in a temperature-controlled bath. It allows the cooking process to be controlled precisely. In 2006, he announced to the online chefs' forum eGullet that he would write a book on the subject. "I thought it was going to be 600 pages," he says. "Many great projects have a certain amount of naivety built in." The title of Modernist Cuisine came from his belief that food in the 21st century needed the kind of revolution art and literature underwent in the 20th. We shouldn't just do things because they seem to work, he believes; we should try to understand why. More provocatively, he says that we should start thinking of great food as art.

“If music can be art, why can't food? If visual things can be art, why can't stuff on a plate?" he says. "It has every opportunity to be art but, through the bulk of the 20th century, it wasn't [thought of that way]. Or, if it was art, it was in the sense that you'd find a Chippendale piece of furniture in the Met in New York. It was craft that was so damn fine that, after the fact, we've called it 'Art' with a capital A."

Irish cream

Myhrvold says that, just as you enjoy T S Eliot's The Waste Land more deeply if you understand the references to Heart of Darkness, so food has reached the stage where chefs can allude to each other's dishes or to their earlier creations. "This is the first point at which chefs have started self-consciously to think like artists," he says. "If you eat at El Bulli -- which I did the night before last -- there are things that are references to other dishes. There are abstract ideas being expressed and that freaks people out, because they're so mired in the idea that food is a craft."

One of the keys to enabling this kind of allusiveness is increasing our knowledge of culinary history. "Even those who are very into food are -- and I don't want to sound arrogant -- ignorant about the history of food," says Myhrvold. He points out that the molten-centred chocolate cake, star of those near-pornographic Marks & Spencer adverts, was invented within our lifetime. More surprisingly, it isn't just the rich who eat foreign food: "Africa survives on maize and cassava -- those are the number one and two staple crops -- and they are both from South America."

Myhrvold is a font of odd facts such as this. Mark McClusky of Wired likened talking to him to taking several graduate seminars all at once. My favourite anecdote is the history of Egypt's national dessert, Om Ali. "It is clearly not an Egyptian dessert," he says, "because it is puff pastry with nuts and heavy cream poured over the top. It's bizarre -- puff pastry cannot possibly be Egyptian. The story is that it was [thought up by] an Irish chef at the British embassy named O'Malley." He laughs, loudly.

He isn't worried about being seen as elitist. "Somebody already wrote Cooking Basics for Dummies, so I don't need to. It is much easier for people to popularise this than it is to create it in the first place." He thinks that in ten years' time, burger chains and coffee shops will be using many of his cutting-edge techniques.

I am fascinated, but I have to confront him with the foodie's dilemma -- how do you justify spending so much money on food when some people have none? How can you find 30 ways to cook foie gras when there are people who struggle to find enough rice?

His brow furrows; it's an odd look on his usually cheery and enthusiastic face. "How can you justify art -- and the Tate galleries -- when there are people who cannot find rice?" Then he comes out with an answer that, while true, I feel only an American would dare to utter: "And, by the way, I do spend a bunch of my own time trying to cure malaria and do a whole bunch of other stuff. I do not feel bad about indulging my passion for cooking."

One question remains: is he a good cook? "I think so. I'm not a great cook but I'm good."

“Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking" (£395) by Nathan Myhrvold is available on taschen.com or amazon.co.uk

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.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.