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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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In the race to be France's next president, keep an eye on Arnaud Montebourg

Today's Morning Call. 

Good morning. As far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the least important voters are here in Britain. Whether UK plc gets a decent Brexit deal depends a lot more on who occupies the big jobs across Europe, and how stable they feel in doing so.

The far-right Freedom Party in Austria may have been repudiated at the presidential level but they still retain an interest in the legislative elections (due to be held by 2018). Both Lega Nord and Five Star in Italy will hope to emerge as the governing party at the next Italian election.

Some Conservative MPs are hoping for a clean sweep for the Eurosceptic right, the better to bring the whole EU down, while others believe that the more vulnerable the EU is, the better a deal Britain will get. The reality is that a European Union fearing it is in an advanced state of decay will be less inclined, not more, to give Britain a good deal. The stronger the EU is, the better for Brexit Britain, because the less attractive the exit door looks, the less of an incentive to make an example of the UK among the EU27.

That’s one of the many forces at work in next year’s French presidential election, which yesterday saw the entry of Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, into the race to be the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Though his star has fallen somewhat among the general public from the days when his opposition to halal supermarkets as mayor of Evry, and his anti-Roma statements as interior minister made him one of the most popular politicians in France, a Valls candidacy, while unlikely to translate to a finish in the top two for the Socialists could peel votes away from Marine Le Pen, potentially allowing Emanuel Macron to sneak into second place.

But it’s an open question whether he will get that far. The name to remember is Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister who quit Francois Hollande’s government over its right turn in 2014. Although as  Anne-Sylvaine Chassany reports, analysts believe the Socialist party rank-and-file has moved right since Valls finished fifth out of sixth in the last primary, Montebourg’s appeal to the party’s left flank gives him a strong chance.

Does that mean it’s time to pop the champagne on the French right? Monteburg may be able to take some votes from the leftist independent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and might do some indirect damage to the French Thatcherite Francois Fillon. His supporters will hope that his leftist economics will peel away supporters of Le Pen, too.

One thing is certain, however: while the chances of a final run-off between Le Pen and Fillon are still high,  Hollande’s resignation means that it is no longer certain that the centre and the left will not make it to that final round.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The government began its case at the Supreme Court yesterday, telling justices that the creation of the European Communities Act, which incorporates the European treaties into British law automatically, was designed not to create rights but to expedite the implementation of treaties, created through prerogative power. The government is arguing that Parliament, through silence, has accepted that all areas not defined as within its scope as prerogative powers. David Allen Green gives his verdict over at the FT.

MO’MENTUM, MO’PROBLEMS

The continuing acrimony in Momentum has once again burst out into the open after a fractious meeting to set the organisation’s rules and procedures, Jim Waterson reports over at BuzzFeed.  Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, still owns the data and has the ability to shut down the entire group, should he chose to do so, something he is being urged to do by allies. I explain the origins of the crisis here.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE  BEFORE

Italy’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi, may need a state bailout after its recapitalisation plan was thrown into doubt following Matteo Renzi’s resignation. Italy’s nervous bankers will wait to see if  €1bn of funds from a Qatari investment grouping will be forthcoming now that Renzi has left the scene.

BOOM BOOM

Strong growth in the services sector puts Britain on course to be the highest growing economy in the G7. But Mark Carney has warned that the “lost decade” of wage growth and the unease from the losers from globalisation must be tackled to head off the growing tide of “isolation and detachment”.

THE REPLACEMENTS

David Lidington will stand in for Theresa May, who is abroad, this week at Prime Ministers’ Questions. Emily Thornberry will stand in for Jeremy Corbyn.

QUIT PICKING ON ME!

Boris Johnson has asked Theresa May to get her speechwriters and other ministers to stop making jokes at his expense, Sam Coates reports in the Times. The gags are hurting Britain’s diplomatic standing, the Foreign Secretary argues.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here’s Anna’s top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

MUST READS

Ian Hislop on the age of outrage

The lesson of 2016: identity matters, even for white people, says Helen

Why I’m concerned about people’s “very real concerns” on migration

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