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.

Since we are talking about seeds, what are your thoughts on the subject of GMO's and the controversy with the seed vault?
I am not sure what the GMO controversy involves in this case but generally speaking throughout history people have been freaked out by changes to food. People were afraid that new things were bad for them and even tomatoes were viewed with skepticism when they first came to Europe from the New World. Part of it was because the leaves looked like deadly night shade family which they were. Tomatoes are not bad for you but very well-meaning people over a period of two hundred years were skeptical about them.

Ironically the place where they were most outraged and took a lot of time to accept them was what is now Tuscany which seems ludicrous now. The food in Tuscany now revolves around tomatoes. A lot of the worry about GMO's is way overboard in my opinion.

Does it stem from a fear of the unknown?
Food particularly seems to freak people out and fear of the unknown about food is worse than in any other case because we actually put it into our bodies. People who are against GMO's are typically not against anything that actually happened. What they are afraid of is that there will be some scenario like the Godzilla movie and suddenly some GMO in the future destroys the world or kills us.

The GMO's that exist today have all been proven scientifically to be safe. It's just this question of "could it be" and maybe it could, that is why this whole issue, I think, is overblown a bit. It is a choice and if someone doesn't want to eat them then they have a right not to do so. What bugs me it when people go out and tell the world and frighten them by saying they are dangerous especially when they have not been proven so.

Do you view food as medicine?
Food is essential for our existence and certainly there are some foods known to have medicinal properties. I am sympathetic to the idea of food as medicine but we haven't focused on that. In our book we have focused on the other aspect of food and health which is foods that are bad for you. We have found that scientific evidence of foods that are bad for you is contrary to the popular conception.

For example lot of people think that dairy products, meats are terrible for you and there is really no scientific evidence of that. In fact in the 1970's and 80's food companies unwittingly promoted poly unsaturated fats or fake fats as being good for us while animal fats were bad. It's turned out that these manufactured fats or trans fats were really bad for us so there is a history of bad stuff being touted as good for us contrary to the facts. If you actually care about fats this is a very troubled history.

What do want your contribution to food or legacy to be?
Personally I hope my legacy does not start for a long time (laughing) and I don't want to think about it for now so I can't say what it will be. All I can say that we certainly have tried to make a book that covered food in a very different way than all other cookbooks out there. By the way it also happens to weigh more than any of them out there!

A lot of people have resonated with that and we have been able to communicate things about food that I think are useful to people regardless of whether they are a foodie or a chef trying to cook simple food, but are yet very curious about it. So hopefully we will continue to make books that people find useful.

Any unrealized dream out there?
(this was responded to by guffaws of laughter)

I will quote Lord Byron: "Man's reach exceeds his grasp what the heaven for".

Incidentally the lines are from Robert Browning's poem Andrea del Sarto

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?

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Whoever the poet, in this instance the words succinctly express Myhrvold's thought.