Thursday, October 18, 2012

Interviews with BIG Food Stars – Part One: Nathan Myhrvold Shocks And Amazes Me

I suppose I should tell you right off the bat that it wasn’t MY interviews that I'm reporting on, but I did watch hours of them over the weekend and they were wonderful.

Some big names in the food television and cooking world took part in The New York Times “Times Talk” series. This event was in collaboration with the The New York City Wine And Food Festival, which benefited the Food Bank of New York City and Share Our Strength. Tickets were available for sale and the interviews were also streamed on Livestream. (Whew! That’s a lot of organizations to name in one paragraph!)

Actually, I’m not sure if it was because I’m a subscriber to the NY Times that I could see them or if anyone could. Click on this link - - and tell me what happens.

If you see a bearded guy who looks like a crazy scientist talking to food writer Jeff Gordinier, then you’ve got it! This was the first of four conversations on Saturday with chefs or food personalities with short breaks in between.

The guy with the beard is Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine. He attempted to explain molecular gastronomy in a very down to earth way and, largely, he succeeded. We saw pictures of his “kitchen”, which is actually a huge laboratory with equipment that would make a rocket scientist happy.

Myhrvold is famous for having been Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer, where he took a break to go to cooking school. Then he left Microsoft to pursue many other interests including cooking, inventing and lots of other things that I don’t really understand.

This conversation was about food, and afterwards I felt as if I had been to Food University. If you’re able to, listen to it. I’m not enough of a genius to report on all that they talked about, but here is some of what was covered:

Nathan: “Science is always in the kitchen, I’m just taking the ignorance out.” He explained that cooking by sous vide or centrifuging are methods of “informed cooking” and that they actually bring out the best of the ingredients. He talked about “respecting peas as an ingredient” when they are put in the centrifuge. It really coaxes out the essence of their flavor.

When asked about organic food, Nathan said it was the hypocrisy of many elements in the organic movement that bothered him. Starting out, there were only 10 non-organic additives or ingredients that were allowed to be added to food that was considered organic. Through heavy lobbying and pressure from food producers (and probably anyone with a stake in the profits), there are now TWO HUNDRED items, which are clearly not organic, but are allowed to be added to “organic food”. He thinks we should be informed on the label that some organic foods include these ingredients. I definitely agree.

Myhrvold also said that Genetically Modified Food (GMO’s) can’t be considered all bad. He gave corn as a perfect example of a food that has become sensibly modified (genetically) over the ages. On another point, “healthy” food chains claim that their bacon is nitrate free. It’s actually cured with celery juice, which is full of, guess what?, nitrates. There didn’t seem to be an area in the entire food world in which he wasn’t conversant.

Gordinier asked if Modernist Cuisine makes us lose out on the wonderful aromas of different foods, like roast chicken, for example. Nathan’s answer was startling to me as a longtime cook: “If your kitchen smells good, your food lost something. You’ve taken something out of your food.”

Gosh, that is an interesting thought. “I feel like the Grinch just stole Christmas,” said Gordinier.

Actually, that entire idea really blows my mind. I can’t stop thinking about what a world without food smells (good ones) would be like. It does make sense that wonderful smells leeching out of food means that part of the flavor is going with it too.

But eating is about so much more than taste. I’m not sure that getting the most intense flavor you can out of a single item can make up for it having NO SMELL as it’s cooking. Isn’t the inviting aroma of roast chicken or sautéed onions part of the pleasurable experience of eating? I’m really conflicted about this aspect of Modernist Cuisine.

What will I do with all this new found knowledge? Truthfully, probably not much. Modernist Cuisine requires quite a bit in the way of new equipment, but, more importantly, it totally turns on its head so much of what I thought I knew. I would love to investigate it further.

One thing I WILL definitely do is to seek out some of these temples of molecular gastronomy. I have a new appreciation for what they’re trying to accomplish, which is actually the task of every dedicated cook – to make the best things they can out of the best ingredients they have.  

Next time – a dynamic duo is joining forces in the kitchen and out.

1 comment:

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I don't get the no smell thing at all. Smell and taste are so interrelated with each other.

Then again, if I never knew what fish or peas smelled like, would I be more likely to eat them?