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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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.