Nathan Myhrvold and His Concept of Modernist Cuisine

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The founder of Intellectual Ventures wears many hats including physicist, inventor, author, scientist, and trailblazer

Myhrvold's encyclopedic "Modernist Cuisine," published in 2011, is the new go to cookbook/reference book for many professional cooks.

You are investigating the science behind cooking and you have considerably weighty books in print. Even your book on bread that is in the works is probably the same if not even more expansive. Why not choose a digital dissemination of information?
I really like books and in fact have always loved books and think there is something wonderful about a physical paper book. We go to all this trouble and do all the incredible work on the books, take these beautiful pictures and then to just stick it on a website comes with two problems.

First that we can't make any money back from it or it would be very difficult to and second it just isn't the same experience as holding a physical book. For the same reason I could say why don't we just take nutrition pills, vitamins and protein powder and we will be just fine. People are doing this stuff called soylent which a disgusting soy milk shake you drink instead of ingesting real food. We could but it wouldn't be much fun!

Is there any particular cookbook that has impressed you during your foray into cooking?
There are tons of good books and I hate playing favorites because for one thing people might get mad at me and the other is that there are too many wonderful books out there. I certainly think those like Rene Redzepi's book and Magnus Nilsson's books are important. Especially Magnus since he has a tiny restaurant out in the middle of nowhere and in order for him to have an impact on the gastronomes and chefs of the world and in light of the fact that most people who would like to eat in his restaurant never will it is significant. That is why it is important for him to publish and that is also an element of our strategy here. We think it is really important for us to write books in order to influence more people and have a bigger impact on the world of cooking than if we tried to have a little restaurant in Bellevue, Washington.

You are also very keen on photography and have come out with a book on it. In fact all of your books have some amazing images. Is such visualization important to stimulate interest in food?
I think that people like looking at pictures of food and part of getting people interested in our books. Some of the images in our books are pure science and that can be scary for people. Some of the things are very technical, especially some cooking techniques that are so advanced that they are meant for professional chefs like Redzepi or Magnus.

In order to make the book accessible to people we used pictures as a universal language. The pictures interest you and then you think about looking up more stuff and pretty soon you have sucked them in. It's a very important point that in order for us to make cooking techniques, ideas and science accessible we make them visual and pretty.

You have so many passions and varied interests ranging from paleontology, photography, history, scientific research, and food, but which particular aspect of cuisine interests you the most? Is it the creation, or the comprehension, the process, or the invention?
You left out my favorite part, consumption because I love to eat! Sometimes I get asked if now since I know so much about food if it's impossible for me to enjoy it anymore. No, I love it, it's more fun because I have the understanding. By the way there are still a lot of things I still don't understand.

It's all important and they are all things that I love and food to me is about all of that stuff. It is understanding and figuring things out. There is a great pride in making food and people like to make food and I like to because it's fun and comes with a feeling of accomplishment. It also feels great to serve food to others and have them appreciate it. 

You referred to the reformation of cuisine. Can you elaborate?
Most fields have gone through periods of trends as well as big new movements. Modern art and Modern architecture are really good examples and it happened even in poetry, literature, and painting. Many schools like the French impressionist school of painting for example came up with their own vision, there were many schools of painting and each one came up with their own new vision. That strangely did not occur in food and most of  the twentieth century was about the emergence of new art forms like bold new architecture and same for other fields, but we did not have a bold new phase in food and cooking. The closest we came to that was as late as the 1970's when the French Nouvelle cuisine movement began and that was a shocking thing within France.

It was considered wacky, bold and horrible because people don't like when you change stuff. Just as the French Impressionist paintings had been viewed as ugly when they first emerged. Everything else in the human culture and aesthetics went through this big revolution and metamorphosis. During the revolution in French Nouvelle cuisine they went from being revolutionaries to winning very quickly and then they stopped there and there wasn't another movement right afterward. In art there was a continual effect of new movements like Picasso bringing Cubism and then came Surrealism and other forms.

This change in food only happened in Spain where chefs like Ferran Adria, Juan Mari Arzak, and Joan Roca rose to the top of the revolution. In the 80's Ducasse and Robuchon were at the top but there wasn't another French chef after them to start another revolution to overthrow them. In Spain the chefs I mentioned wanted to emulate the French but unlike them the Spaniards kept innovating. They developed this new avant-garde, modernist type of cooking in Spain and then suddenly they were at the top of the heap.

Heston Blumenthal started cooking this way in the UK and then it came to the U.S. Then the Scandinavian chefs started cooking this way too so I view all of these movements as modernist. Like modernism in art they are about creating a new thing though inspired by the past. They were not slavishly following the past just like this new movement in Scandinavia which I consider to be modernist even though they might be cooking with old techniques they are still their own and not French. Not that there is anything wrong with French cooking!

So I think this movement has been very powerful just like the reformation in Christianity or art in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Has this change given freedom of expression to people in cuisine?
It has given tremendous freedom and allowed people to create. They get to do what they want and no one can stop them like for example Nordic cuisine which has been embraced. Customers are lining up, it has helped the economy and brought in more tourist trade. It has also prompted other guys to open restaurants. The impact of these Nordic chefs like Nilsson or Redzepi is not just their restaurants but it's also putting their countries on the map and encouraging other chefs to do cool things.

Since you had Magnus Nilsson as your guest of honor and in light of your own heritage, what is your perception of Nordic cuisine?
The important aspect of Nordic cuisine according to me is that they are doing it and I draw the connection back to the Spanish chefs like Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, Juan Mari Arzak . Prior to their work the only way would have been to be French or copying the French. The Spaniards created a model whereby they could be doing their own thing and still create great cuisine.

Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson and then at Maaemo in Oslo along with other chefs set out to make a New Nordic cuisine and it's a fantastic thing. Rather than cook like they were in Paris they decided to cook their own thing though they took inspiration from Nordic ingredients, history, and it's a creative cuisine that is evolving. The idea that anyone would go on a food tour of Scandinavia would have been a joke twenty years ago. You would have eaten rotten shark or herring, and now people are going there on food trips because these guys are cooking up a storm.

Have these Nordic chefs changed direction in recent years and have they begun using more regional ingredients and techniques?
I'm not sure that is true. One of the things about creating your own cuisine is that you can do whatever you want and take your own direction. While it's great to use Nordic ingredients and traditions most Nordic cuisine is not authentic in any reasonable way. It's not about your grandmothers Nordic cuisine it's a totally new thing. I mentioned at the dinner that there are Nordic chefs making fish sauce which is commonly associated with Southeast Asia. Now they are making it with Scandinavian fish, which of course will ferment just as the Southeast Asian fish does since there is no trick to that.

Going back to Nordic ingredients there is an interesting challenge of working with things that are only available in the Nordic countries. There is an ethical challenge but at the end of the day I don't think that some appeal to localism or regional ingredients makes much sense. For example Tim Wendelboe is a Norwegian who by many coffee lover’s standards makes the best coffee in the world. He selects, roasts and brews at his shop in Oslo. This for me is the definition of great coffee and whenever I am even remotely in the vicinity I make it a point to visit. Since coffee doesn't grow there so should he not be doing this? Of course not, because people in Scandinavia drink it and it's a wonderful tradition in the region.

Another example is that as a child I could not figure out why traditional Swedish baked goods have cardamom. I looked it up and found it comes from India and was surprised that these spice cookies were still Swedish cookies. In the Middle Ages all throughout Europe spices were a really big deal and Europeans were fascinated by them. The spice trade was what Columbus and other great explorers set out for on their travels. So the question is: Are cardamom cookies traditional Swedish cookies and I would say they are since they are made in Sweden for a couple hundred years. But is cardamom Swedish? Hell no! And I don't see a contradiction in that.

Is this a current trend with chefs talking about going back to their roots or bringing back lost or forgotten ingredients to their kitchens?
There is an element of this which is very much about being trendy and I totally agree with that. However there are other motivations. I think it fine to rise to the challenge of using these ingredients and it is trendy. Sometimes people wind up fixating a little more on the trend than they do on other things. One aspect is that many people who go to Noma or many other such restaurants somehow fantasize about this and the notion that there is an element of tradition in it. There may be an element of tradition in the inspiration or even the techniques but it is not your grandfather’s Danish restaurant. This is a new wonderful thing and it's novelty is something we should celebrate and not pretend that it doesn't exist.