Nathan Myhrvold and His Concept of Modernist Cuisine
What do you think about all the international conferences and events these days? Are they also contributing to this progression of cuisine?
Absolutely these conferences like MAD or Madrid Fusion, the Internet, the fact that people can find out about new things so easily and quickly help in this process. If people like Magnus had to wait twenty years before the world discovered him he would have a lot harder time. Though he did have to wait before the world discovered him but probably not as long as Ferran Adria who started cooking in a bar and grill that was part of a golf course in 1983. It took a long time before the world of foodies found him. Other young chefs have been found earlier in their careers because of the media, conferences, the present worldwide interest in food, writers like you covering all of this have got a role in this as well.
You are fond of the term "nerd". Is that the target audience for your books?
I don't want to apply one label to everybody because there are actually a lot of different folks with different ideas. Certainly the biggest set of people we are targeting are those that label themselves as foodies and are into food. They may or may not be cooks or at the level we were cooking at the dinner the other night. Without a lot of such people being interested in food it would not be possible for any of this to happen. There are lot of other segments besides customers consuming food that are important so I don't have a word for "food nerds" but yes I am one. When I use the term nerd I mean that I am a science guy so a lot of my approach to cooking is pretty much about science and technology. There are a lot of people in the food world who love food but they don't come about it naturally from that point of view because they don't consider themselves as science sort of people.
There is widespread perception that when science and technology are applied to food, taste and flavor are lost in the process. Is that a valid criticism?
I think that is untrue, but maybe that's just me. There is this stereotype that if science is involved it somehow takes the soul out of cooking or that it is not about the ingredients any more. In almost every walk of life people will come up with trends, words and ideas which tend to get overused. This is a good example because there is wonderful insight into food that you can get from traditional ideas and ingredients by themselves can be totally wonderful and I agree with that. It's like the pea soup which we served at the dinner where we have taken an ingredient and enhanced the taste and not detracted from the essence of it.
You are often criticized for research into food techniques which do not benefit a broader cross section of society. For example not everyone out there knows of a sous-vide or a centrifuge. You are also researching many other fields that many people are not aware of. Any response to that?
In our case we do the food projects and are famous for the crazy, big cookbook and intense focus on food like you experienced at the dinner. What we are aiming to do with that is just creating the best food experience that we can. We have lots of projects at Intellectual Ventures that are directly aimed at the Third World and at helping people to not starve to death example our projects aimed at food in Africa and that I feel is an important area.
A problem like famine is of course different from trying to make the world's best pea soup which is not going to save the world. We have other projects like fixing the world's energy problem and dealing with climate and global warming. We are also dealing with things in a personal sense like my passion for food and cooking. Other things we are working on are important because they have consequences on people's lives. They are different projects but many of the same people are involved in both.
Talking about your forthcoming book on bread you mentioned an electron microscope that could detect gluten strands, so are you looking into the gluten intolerance that seems to be afflicting a large cross section of people these days?
What we have done is two things in the book. For one we covered what is known scientifically about gluten and gluten intolerance and then we also have a chapter on gluten free bread recipes. To be honest these are two different things because a lot of this gluten intolerance is self-diagnosed and there is potentially no scientific evidence that it's correct. I think people should eat whatever it is they want to eat and I don't like telling people what they should eat. Personally I don't think that is my job.
One of the things that is true about this gluten free movement is that a lot of the people who are in it don't have that point of view. They want to proselytize and tell people not to eat gluten because it's terrible for you. You have to be correct before saying that but unfortunately they are not because there is no scientific evidence to back them up. In our book we provide gluten-free recipes because there is a lot of interest and there are people who do have celiac disease or other medical conditions and should not consume gluten. So we have some of the best gluten free recipes that I have ever tasted. I also think gluten and bread have been unfairly demonized by people who are proclaiming something they believe in or they want to sell books.
You visited the global seed vault in Svalbard, Norway while researching your bread book. Other than the frost nip on your nose what else impressed you about this project?
It is an amazingly cool place and we went dog sledding and it was a fun experience. I think it's awesome that someone has gone to the trouble of making a doomsday seed vault to save us all in case some major shit hits the fan. It's one these places you hope the world will never need and that would be everyone’s hope. It's great that someone actually put the passion, energy, and money into doing it.
I am proud to be part of a society broadly speaking that has the foresight to do that even though I hope that it is totally pointless, a complete waste of money and we never have such a catastrophe and need the seed vault because we have destroyed the planet. It’s great that someone planned ahead just like the building I am in has fire sprinklers which I hope never have to be used.
The other message behind the seed vault is that we tend to take so many parts of our food system for granted and that is one of the reasons our food system is so screwed up. In all the musings over what would happen in case of a catastrophe how many people are thinking about seeds we will need to plant to feed the world? It is a great example of recognizing the importance of something we take for granted.