Ever dream of a cookbook with an entire section devoted to crispy skin, including a sidebar for food nerds on the science of crackling fish skin and a high-res gastro-porn centrefold featuring seven different preparations of Finger-Lickin' Chicken?
Now imagine that same attention to detail focused on countless other corners of the culinary universe, from the fastest way to decant red wine (a blender, shockingly) to the best way to cook meat (sous vide, of course).
If you're Nathan Myhrvold, eager for another challenge after four graduate degrees, postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking and a king's ransom in earnings as Microsoft's chief technology officer, you don't just dream it, you do it. Of course, Dr. Myhrvold's culinary bona fides aren't too shabby, either: He's a graduate of La Varenne, a prestigious French cooking school, and a former champion at the Memphis in May barbecue tournament.
The realization of his dream, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, has fuelled debate over whether Dr. Myhrvold is a modern-day Escoffier or a culinary supervillain. At six volumes, more than 2,000 pages, almost 50 pounds, and up to $656.50 at online retailers, it may well be the definitive guide to the history, science, ingredients and technique of the culinary style formerly known as molecular gastronomy, as well as the most important text on food and cooking in decades. Dr. Myhrvold talked with The Globe and Mail.
Modernist cuisine has traditionally been known as molecular gastronomy. Why the new term?
There just wasn't any good term out there, so I decided that I'd come up with one. I wanted a name that would reflect the issue of what the cuisine means intellectually. I argue that it really is the intellectual peer of modernism in art, architecture, literature and other aspects of aesthetic life. This current phase of cooking is that modernist revolution.
Is cooking art?
It can be art, but mostly it's treated as craft. It's very common for modern art to have as an explicit goal to make you feel uncomfortable, or to challenge your assumptions, or to be intellectually or emotionally challenging to you. That is a bizarre thing for most food lovers. To the degree that people can say music is art, or that painting is art, or that architecture is art, absolutely cooking ought to be.
So why is there so much resistance? One of the primary arguments against modernist cooking is that it's soulless.
I completely disagree with this point of view. The simplest example is: It's possible for an experienced chef to judge the temperature of things by poking meat with his finger or by putting a metal skewer in it and holding it up to your lips to judge the temperature. That's a silly skill to have. You'll never be as good as a thermometer. What's soulful about being a bad thermostat?
Do you buy the criticism that modernist food is inaccessible restaurant food?
Of course there are many things where innovation occurs at the high end. Race cars develop a lot of the things that are in ordinary cars, but it takes a while for the things to trickle down. Very high-end traditional food is equally inaccessible. What we're trying to do is to take the ideas and techniques that were first developed in high-end restaurants, have since trickled down to a wider set, but still small set, of places, and bust them open for everybody.
Do you think there's a battle going on for culinary hearts and minds over the future direction of cooking?
No, I don't think that's the way things happen in life, particularly in cooking. An analogy I use in the book is architecture. Architecture is both an art and a very prosaic craft.
If you went down the street in Toronto you would see some architectural masterpieces of the present (and maybe some monstrosities), you'd find some architectural masterpieces of the past, but most of the buildings in Toronto are there to put a roof over somebody's head. It's not particularly artistically great. I'm sure there's a block in downtown where you'd find old and new buildings sitting side by side. That's what restaurant food is going to be. There are going to be traditional restaurants forever. The idea that that goes away is just silly. Of course there's going to be different styles and varieties, often sitting side by side, just like those buildings. And some are going to be high art and some are going to be refuelling. Modernist cuisine is not going to put Tim Hortons out of business.
Given its encyclopedic scale, Modernist Cuisine is unlikely to be read cover to cover. How do you recommend someone read the book?
Although we're informed by science, I don't want to turn people off the book by thinking it's all about science. Part of what you are describing as a scientific approach I would argue is a technique-oriented approach. Now, we do try to tell you when those techniques are motivated by science, but in a way where someone who says, "You know, just give me the techniques," can dive in. Other people will start at page 1 and just go straight through. Some people will say, "Just give me the recipes," and just cook from it. We tried to design it in a way that each of those approaches to consuming the book was equally valid.
You completed your PhD at the age of 22. Which took you longer to complete: your doctorate or Modernist Cuisine?
It's almost exactly the same: four years. In some sense, you could argue it was three years for my PhD because I was four years at Princeton and I got both a master's degree and a PhD.
Are you surprised or upset by critical reception of the book?
One guy wrote and then told me in person, "No book is worth that." I said, "Well, that makes me mad because you may say my book isn't worth that, but if you say no book is worth that you have a very bizarre idea of the value of knowledge." And, by the way, have you been to a textbook store lately? They're a lot more expensive per page than my damn books are.
I had another person tell me, without a trace of irony, "Okay, I hear you about this food, but why can't you focus on good, simple, natural food like a bowl of pasta with some wine and cheese?" I said, "Natural? Those are the most unnatural, highly processed foods in all of cooking." Pasta doesn't grow on a tree. Pasta is a human invention and it's highly processed. The reality is, what they had done is that they had taken this idea of processed food or technique and they had demonized it to mean processed food is bad.
Should home cooks use this book? What can they get from it?
The book is for people who are passionate about food. I think probably half the recipes in the book you could easily cook at home. Since we have 1,600, that's about 800 things. If you're willing to buy sous vide equipment, I think you can cook 80 per cent of the recipes in the book.
What do you normally cook at home?
For the last three years, I've done very little cooking per se. I've done lots of experiments. On the other hand, our scrambled eggs recipe has changed my life. There are two aspects to the scrambled eggs. Throw one egg white away, so if you're making a three-egg omelette or scrambled eggs, two whole eggs and one yolk. Oh my God, just that alone makes the texture so much better. The second idea is that we like to cook it at an exact temperature.
What do you think is missing from Modernist Cuisine?
We deliberately decided not to do pastry making or desserts in the book and that was because we had to draw the line somewhere. And I know there's not much evidence that I drew the line anywhere else, but I had to draw one line in the sand and that was it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail