Ask Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz or even our own Paul Qui who has changed food more in the past decade, and they’re likely to say Nathan Myhrvold.
Myhrvold doesn’t run a restaurant. His former bosses include Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, and he has spearheaded paleontology expeditions to unearth Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons.
And soon, this man of multitudes will be in Austin to talk about food.
He’s one of the featured speakers at South by Southwest Interactive, which has ramped up its food programming to include more than two dozen sessions on the future of technology and how we eat. (See the box about SouthBites highlights.)
In 2011, Myhrvold self-published “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” one of the most comprehensive (and expensive) cookbooks the world has ever seen. The six-volume, 2,438-page set, which cost more than $500 when it went on sale, covers the history and science of food in a way that no one had done before, but it is most noted for its breakthroughs in molecular gastronomy, or modernist cuisine.
That’s the science-driven form of cooking that uses everything from the relatively common techniques of sous vide and liquid nitrogen to centrifuges, extractors and lasers that can produce a bright red rare beef broth or apple juice caviar.
The former chief technology officer of Microsoft who now runs the patent investment firm Intellectual Ventures will bring his decades of innovation to SXSW for a session on Sunday called “Cracking Cuisine: Breaking a Few Rules (and Eggs)” with Yahoo Food editor and Cherry Bombe magazine co-founder Kerry Diamond.
Sous vide machines are available in just about every high-end cooking store in America, but are we really ready for robots in the kitchen?
You’re already using them, Myhrvold says.
“The dishwasher, that is one hell of a good kitchen robot, if you ask me,” he said by phone from his Seattle office last week. “And I am thrilled with the washer and dryer, to be honest.”
We’ve had machines in our homes to automate drudgery for decades now, and we’ve seen them tackle more skilled tasks, like baking bread.
“There’s absolutely nothing about a bread machine that you couldn’t call a cooking robot,” Myhrvold says. “It doesn’t look like a robot from the movies, and it doesn’t replace all things that a human does, but it’s a robot.”
Smart appliances will take up more space in our homes, but Myhrvold, an avid photographer whose images in “Modernist Cuisine” garnered nearly as much attention as the recipes, says that science-driven food isn’t any less artistic or soulful than traditional cooking.
“Most art historians and theorists would define art as a way to creatively engage people’s thoughts and emotions, and food absolutely fits within that realm,” because you’re expressing yourself through an intentional combination of flavors and textures, he says.
The tools, no matter if it’s a wooden spoon or a million-dollar centrifuge, are merely a means to that end.
“It’s like saying, ‘Oh, those old masters, they painted with oil paint or egg tempera. That acrylic stuff, that’s not painting,’” he says.
Few of us might go to the extremes pushed by the self-proclaimed “lunatic fringe” like Myhrvold, but we’re all enjoying the benefits of scientific innovation, from new food products or microwaves that can cook a baked potato at the push of a button.
One clear example of where science has played a huge role is in the gluten-free craze. “If you want to make a bread-like substance without gluten, you really have to get out the chemistry book and start working,” he says.
High-end restaurants such as Next in Chicago or Qui and Uchi here in Austin implement some of the principles outlined in “Modernist Cuisine,” but so are chains like Umami Burger, which uses sous vide, or the liquid nitrogen ice cream shops that are popping up in cities from coast to coast.
Myhrvold says that not even the sustainable food movement is exempt from the progress of technology: “You might think that just because something is natural means it’s not scientific, but that’s not true.”
Although the concepts might baffle beginning or even advanced home cooks who aren’t used to wearing their proverbial lab coats in the kitchen, Myhrvold says that it was important from the beginning to give away all the “secrets” of how they create a dish or a photograph. (Since the release of “Modernist Cuisine,” Myhrvold and his team have published “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” and “Modernist Cuisine at Home.” After releasing a Modernist Cuisine at Home app last year, as well as a series of DIY molecular cooking kits, their next project is an exhaustive set of books on bread.)
Removing the veil enhances the work and builds interest by enabling and empowering the reader and, in this case, the cook and photographer. “It’s not this high priesthood. That Beethoven’s music exists in sheet music doesn’t take away the mystery of the music or the joy of listening to it. Looking at a recipe does not take away the joy of consumption.”
Myhrvold was a guest judge on “Top Chef: Texas” when the show rolled through Austin. There he first met Qui, when he was a contestant who went on to win the show.
Now, he calls it a “huge honor” to cook alongside him at an exclusive dinner on Saturday night at Qui’s eponymous restaurant. Myhrvold says he’s making a carrot soup and short rib pastrami from a rib that meat guru Steve Raichlen has called the best barbecue rib he’s ever had.
While in Austin, he also plans to eat as much barbecue as he can. After all, he won the World Barbecue Championship in Memphis in 1991 and can explain the science behind the stall that our local pitmasters face every time they smoke one of their famed briskets.
Myhrvold has spent his life figuring out the why, but it doesn’t make him — or any of us — enjoy it any less.
SXSW food panels
Food has long been part of South by Southwest Interactive’s programming, but this is the first year they’ve really gone all out to bring in dozens of speakers to cover the subject in a more comprehensive way. (As with all the South by Southwest events, these sessions require a badge to attend, but many who don’t attend follow along through hashtags on social media. The food hashtag to follow is #SouthBites.)
On the chef side, we’ll hear from Andrew Zimmern, David Chang, Sean Brock, Michael Chiarello and Odd Duck’s Sam Hellman-Mass, as well as food trailer owners from both Austin and afar, who will discuss how that method of food delivery has evolved since the initial food truck boom. The IBM team behind Watson will return to talk about some of the discoveries they made with their computer-driven food truck at last year’s SXSW Interactive.
The sessions will also feature Central Texas food advocates and entrepreneurs, including Andrew Smiley with the Sustainable Food Center, Edible Austin’s Marla Camp, UT Food Lab founder Robyn Metcalfe and Confituras owner Stephanie McClenny, as well as high-tech foodies from MIT, Yummly and Urban Spoon.
I’m excited to interview Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert about the future of the grocery store on Sunday morning, which I’ll recap on my blog next week. I’ll also be tweeting and blogging from as many panels as I can; follow along at food.blog.austin360.com.
— Addie Broyles