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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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle