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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: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
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We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.