‘Culinary History Has To Be Analyzed Like Art History’: Nathan Myhrvold on Modernist Cuisine

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SPIEGEL: The underlying theme of “Modernist Cuisine” is that we are witnessing a revolution in cooking. What does it entail?

Myhrvold: The book is about pushing the boundaries of cooking using science and technology and laying the foundations for 21st-century cooking. Most of it has its roots in the mid-1980s, when people realized that science was important to cooking and that technology was relevant, too. My friend Ferran Adria of the restaurant El Bulli, in Spain, started very early on to experiment with these new techniques. My co-authors, Chris Young and Maxim Billet, and I document this revolution. And we did invent some new dishes and techniques.

SPIEGEL: The book features, for example, recipes of faux eggs made with parmesan cheese, “caviar” made from melon and “cherries” made of foie gras. Is this sheer childish curiosity?

Myhrvold: The new revolution in cooking can be viewed in two ways. One is that you can take any traditional food and apply modern techniques. In the book, for example, we have some very traditional American food, like maccaroni and cheese. They taste better but basically look the same. The other approach is to create food that is quite different than anything that has existed before. That's what I call cooking in a modernist aesthetic. Let's do a risotto made with pinenuts instead of rice, for example. Pinenuts are a traditional Italian ingredient, but they have never been used this way. By doing so, however, you make something that is delicous, fresh and new and that has an interesting culinary reference.

SPIEGEL: You are a mathematician and a physicist. Does your enthusiasm for cooking stem from the fact that it is reminiscent of experimenting in a laboratory?

Myhrvold: Food, like anything else, lives in the physical world and obeys the laws of physics. When you whisk together some oil and a little bit of lemon juice — or, in other words, make mayonnaise — you are using the principles of physics and chemistry. Understanding how those principles affect cooking lets you cook better. And I was fascinated by this very early on.