Inside a Microsoft millionaire’s newest experiment: The most ambitious cookbook of all time
interviewed by Daniel Duane
Nathan Myhrvold, 51, took the long way around to becoming a pioneering chef. At age 16 he began to study mathematics at UCLA; then he got a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton and studied cosmology under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, founded a computer company, sold it to Microsoft, and became Bill Gates’s chief technology officer. Along the way, Myhrvold also became an award-winning wildlife photographer, a million-dollar donor to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and a member of the first-prize-winning team at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis. He found time to attend culinary school, too, which ultimately led him to create the 2,420-page, six-volume Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a $625 encyclopedia of science-driven technique. Chief among these: sous-vide (“under vacuum”) cooking, in which food is heated at low temperatures for long periods of time in airtight plastic bags submerged in water. The books are due out from his own publishing company on March 14.
MJ: What the hell did you make to win the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest?
NM: Kangaroo — with a special side dish of smoked fettuccine with Alfredo sauce and barbecue seasoning.
MJ: There are two chapters in the new books on the “ultimate hamburger.” What’s your secret?
NM: I experimented with different cuts of beef — short rib, hanger — to find the ideal fat mix, and learned a technique of how to grind the meat to align all of the grains, which makes the burger noticeably more tender. Then you cook it sous-vide in a ziplock, plunge it into liquid nitrogen to freeze the outside of the patty, and drop it into a deep fryer — which gets the outside superseared but, because of the liquid nitrogen, doesn’t overcook the inside.
MJ: What about the toppings? Apparently you decided to reinvent them.
NM: I vacuum-infused lettuce with liquid smoke — and you know how American cheese will melt perfectly and not get greasy? That’s because it has an emulsifying salt that was invented by James L. Kraft in 1916. I used his technique to make a perfectly melting cheese out of Comté and Emmental.
MJ: Which I’m guessing is why your kitchen looks like NASA’s Mission Control Center.
NM: Well, I’ve got centrifuges, computer-controlled humidity ovens, dough proofers, high-pressure homogenizers. I’ve got a smoker two people could sit in.
MJ: You’ve single-handedly made 30-course meals for your guests. What’s the most unexpected dish you’ve served?
NM: A lot of chefs make a mock egg, so I made one that looks like a raw egg. You open a plastic Easter-egg mold, and then you fill it and put it back together. Then when you break the “raw egg” onto the plate and tell people to eat it, of course it’s not a raw egg at all. With the one I made recently, the white was ham-flavored and the yolk was cantaloupe.
MJ: As a scientist, what do you find most surprising about traditional cooking methods?
NM: People believing that searing meat seals the juices in — that kind of thing. There’s a whole belief system at cooking schools: Just pick a topic and someone will say, “Thou must never do this!” and another will say, “Thou shalt always do this!” There are people who believe you should turn a steak once, others many times. But what you’re really trying to do is cook the meat to about 125 or 130 degrees over a surface that’s 300 or 400 degrees. If you really want to cook it properly, you should cook it slowly, sous-vide, at low heat so it won’t overcook, and then use high heat — not for sealing in juices but because that makes it look pretty and taste good — with an oxyacetylene blowtorch hot enough to melt pans.
MJ: Are you serious? I should slow-cook my steaks underwater in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag and then nuke them with a welding torch?
NM: Absolutely. That’s exactly what you should do.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.