Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup, Part I

DESCRIPTIONIntellectual Ventures A new view of how a pork roast roasts, from Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine.
Freakonomics Radio

Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup! (Part 1): The “molecular gastronomy” movement is all about bringing more science into the kitchen. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the organic/locavore/”slow food” movement. In this episode, you’ll hear chieftains from the two camps square off: Alice Waters for the slow foodies and Nathan Myhrvold for the mad scientists. Bon appetit!

Listen Now

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the link in box at right or read a transcript here) is called “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup.” It’s the first segment of a two-parter about food and food science; it’s also about why we eat what we eat, and how that may change in the future. The first episode takes a look at the “molecular gastronomy” movement, which gets a big bump in visibility next month with the publication of a mammoth cookbook called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Its principal author is Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft who now runs an invention company called Intellectual Ventures.

Myhrvold is hardly a stranger to our readers; in SuperFreakonomics, we wrote about his firm’s efforts to stop malaria, hurricanes and global warming, and he’s showed up on this blog frequently, including as a guest writer and photographer.

Myhrvold trained as an astrophysicist and a chef (and a few other things). The long-anticipated book took a few years to produce, and required a team of roughly three dozen chefs, writers and photographers. Its 6 volumes boast more than 2,400 pages, 3,500 color photographs and 1,600 recipes (list price: $625); if you put all the text in a line, Myhrvold tells us, it would be six miles long.

Myhrvold built a unique kitchen at the Intellectual Ventures lab. Using equipment like vacuum dessicators, a pharmaceutical grade freeze dryer and a centrifuge, he and his team worked to develop a new understanding of how food and cooking works. In the process, a lot of wonderful cooking equipment was sacrificed:

Myhrvold: We wanted to show people what happens inside the pot, inside the microwave oven, whatever thing they’re cooking in. And originally we thought we should do some illustrations where we have the artist’s view. Well, actually let’s try to do it in photographs. So we cut a lot of pots in half. We cut a whole microwave oven in half. We even cut a $5,000 professional steam oven in half in order to show people what processes are going on during the cooking process.

DESCRIPTIONIntellectual Ventures The experimental kitchen at Intellectual Ventures.
DESCRIPTIONIntellectual Ventures Left to right, Modernist Cuisine chefs Maxime Bilet, Chris Young, and Nathan Myhrvold.

The book is a combination cookbook, encyclopedia and science text, covering everything from microbiology in the kitchen to a scientific understanding of the relationship between heat and water — which, Myhrvold notes, is the single most important thing to understand when you’re standing over a stove.

In many ways, Myhrvold’s approach is the opposite of the “slow food” movement that has taken certain quadrants of this country by storm in recent years — at Alice Waters‘s famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, for instance. Whereas Myhrvold arms himself with a vacuum desiccator, a blowtorch and a 60,000 RPM centrifuge, Waters doesn’t even own a microwave. (In the podcast, she tells us about the time — the one time — she ate a Big Mac.) As you can probably imagine, Waters doesn’t love the idea of scientists invading the kitchen, or of molecular gastronomy:

Waters: I can’t say that I care a lot about it. I can’t say that.

SJD: And tell me why.

Waters: Because I’m trying to get back to a kind of taste of food for what it is.

SJD: And molecular gastronomy is trying to accomplish what in your view?

Waters: In my view it’s to, you know, make it into something you can’t imagine, surprise you. That’s not to say that I haven’t been delightfully surprised. It’s not that. It’s that I am so hungry for the taste of the real that I’m just not able to get into that which doesn’t feel real to me. It’s a kind of scientific experiment, and I think that there are good scientists and crazy old scientists that can be very amazing. But it’s more like a museum to me. It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together.

DESCRIPTIONEvan Sung for The New York Times Alice Waters, godmother of the slow-food movement.

So the episode explores the notion of science in the kitchen — how much is too much, and what people like Myhrvold may be contributing to society beyond some really amazing photographs of food. I interviewed Jeff Cousminer, a “culinologist” (with training as a chef and a food scientist) who helped found the Research Chefs Association. He’s working on his own book about the art and science of cooking, at the industrial level. He didn’t make it into the podcast, but he applauds Myhrvold’s efforts:

Cousminer: I’m a big fan of knowing what you eat and why, and how its made. I don’t think I’m unique, I think everybody should be more aware of how the food that they eat on a daily basis is prepared, why it’s prepared the way it is, so they have a better ability to judge what they should be eating.

There’s also some sheer entertainment value in the book — like the recipe for the ultimate cheeseburger, which takes about 30 hours (!) to prepare. Here’s one trick:

Myhrvold: You cook it [sous-vide style] to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fry it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it, a blowtorch. And either one will give you this incredible crusty outside, but because you put it in liquid nitrogen that prevents it from over cooking, so you get the perfect medium-rare hamburger.

Here’s how the finished product looks:

DESCRIPTIONIntellectual Ventures Myhrvold’s perfect burger.

In Part 2 of “Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup,” we’ll take a look at how food science has progressed, the problems it has solved and what it might have to contribute to the future — a future in which there will be more and more people on the globe, many of them wanting to eat better and more than they currently do. You’ll hear about a particularly fascinating idea from Pablos Holman, a hacker-turned-inventor who works at Intellectual Ventures. He didn’t work on the cookbook team, but he sits near enough to the kitchen to have benefited from the cookbook project:

Holman: And then they feed me quite often, and I have no idea what I’m eating. You know, it’s always some bizarre thing where they took an entire moose and they distilled it into a coffee bean and infused it with whipped cream. I don’t know. … They made some foamed baked potato. It tasted like baked potato with butter, and bacon bits, and chives, and everything in there, but it was foam. And I took a bite of it and just lit up. I couldn’t believe how good it was.

Bon appetit! Hope you enjoy this podcast; it was a thrill to make. And don’t forget to eat your broccoli:

DESCRIPTIONIntellectual Ventures

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: What’d you have for dinner last night?

“Pasta with mushroom sauce.”

“Grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“Artichokes and cardoons and capers.”

“We had leftovers.”

“I would call it a chicken kiev.”

“Meyer lemon fennel treat.”

“I just got a hot dog on the street.”

DUBNER: So, what did you have for dinner last night? And, more important, why? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what makes it to your plate, and how it got that way? About how this amazing collaboration of agriculture and economics and politics and science -- lots and lots of science -- gets roughly seven billion of us fed, every day? In this episode, you’ll hear from some people who spend nearly all their time thinking about that. It’s so filling we’re serving it up in two courses. So go ahead, grab your fork. We’re going to start you off with the cookbook to end all cookbooks.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio.  Today, uh, “Waiter, there’s a physicist in my soup!”  Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Raise your hand if you really like to eat. Yeah, me too. What’s not to like? Food is awesome. It’s even fun hearing people talk about food...

Alice WATERSSomething that’s timeless, really. Picking, you know, walnuts off a tree in the fall, cracking them open and eating them.

Nathan MYHRVOLDSo with a vacuum desiccator you suck air out, which allows you to dry food at low temperature.

WATERSFirst thing on Monday, call the fisherman and see what happened.

MYHRVOLDWater is a polar substance.  Now what that means is the charge is not evenly distributed.  That’s another way to say they stick together.

WATERSI’m thinking about root vegetables in the fall and in winter, I’m thinking about nuts, dried nuts and berries, I’m thinking about jams and syrups, I’m thinking about dried beans of all kinds, grains like lentils and split peas.

MYHRVOLDSo then you cook it to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fried it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it.

WATERSI’m Alice Waters and I’m the owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. And I’m also the founder of the Chez Panisse Foundation.

MYHRVOLDOK, well I’m Nathan Myhrvold, and I’m both an inventor and a cookbook author. I trained as a physicist, and then I worked with Stephen Hawking on quantum field theory and curved space-time, and the origin of the universe

DUBNER: Alice Waters is the godmother of the slow-food movement, the locally sourced, back-to-nature feeding frenzy that’s epitomized by her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Waters might be the person most responsible for turning “organic” into a household word, for leading the charge to eat slow food, simple food, real food.

Nathan Myhrvold is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft. He graduated from high school at 14 and had his PhD by the time he was 23. Now he’s in his early 50s, and he’s become a bit of a polymath. He’s an accomplished nature photographer and mountain climber; he collects rare books and rocket engines. After leaving Microsoft, he co-founded an invention company called Intellectual Ventures, outside of Seattle, in Bellevue, Washington. The inventors on his staff are trying to come up with a better version of nuclear power, a better way to perform brain surgery; they’re trying to stop hurricanes and global warming.

MYHRVOLDWell, we have a whole diversity of projects and people. Right beside the kitchen is our insectary where we grow mosquitoes. And we grow mosquitoes because we have a number of anti-malaria projects. And you have to know your enemy.  So we grow malarial mosquitoes, and it’s literally right beside the kitchen. We grow thousands of mosquitoes so we can test different ways to kill them, attract them, repel them. Our single most dramatic way of doing it is a device that spots mosquitoes in the air and shoots them out of the sky with laser beams. That sounds like something from an “Austin Powers” movie, but by god it works.

DUBNER: That kitchen Myhrvold keeps mentioning? It isn’t your standard little office kitchen -- a microwave, a fridge, a hot plate. And Myhrvold doesn’t think about cooking the way you or I do.

MYHRVOLDCooking is an example of applied physics; because of course applying heat to food is the key technique in cooking. Obviously there are things you serve cold and you don’t cook, but the single biggest technique in cooking is applying heat. And the physics of heat conduction, or heat radiation and convection -- those are very important to cooking. Chemistry is also important because there are lots of different chemical reactions. That’s why meat browns, for example. There’s a reaction called the Maillard reaction, first described in the 19th century by a French physician. That’s what makes meat brown. But there’s also caramelization reactions; that’s what makes caramel the wonderful color that it is. Most of the time on a menu, by the way, when it says caramelized, they really mean maillardized, but it doesn’t sound as good, so the menu says caramelized.

DUBNER: Nathan Myhrvold is part of a movement -- a strange, fascinating, growing movement -- known as molecular gastronomy. He traces its roots to the mid-1980s, when there were a handful of chefs --

MYHRVOLD-- particularly a guy named Ferran Adria in Spain, started experimenting with techniques that pushed the envelope with what was possible in food.

DUBNER: These chefs brought a lot of science into the kitchen. They used the tools of chemistry, physics, even engineering, to build new textures, new sensations. To do things you might not have thought possible -- or advisable -- with food. So today, in some of the most expensive restaurants in the world, they produce some of the most sought-after dishes. Maybe you’d like to start with the white beet soup with liquid-nitrogen frozen crab-apple spätzle. Then maybe you’d move on to the bison, pan seared with bacon bits and tapioca starch alongside a dehydrated leek ring with a goat cheese sphere and chili powder on foamed carrot juice. And, for dessert, maybe you’d like to smoke our virtual chocolate cake from a pipe,

For his Intellectual Ventures kitchen, Myhrvold recruited some chefs who appreciated molecular gastronomy as much as he did. Who looked at the kitchen as a place to experiment, to have fun. Where you’ll cut up watermelon in a meat slicer, and then vacuum-infuse starch into its cells so you can deep-fry yourself some watermelon “potato” chips. Where you consider the cheeseburger -- the humble cheeseburger! -- a piece of food that’s worthy of a scientific overhaul.

MYHRVOLDThe problem with a hamburger is that you would like to have the meat cooked perfectly, at least I like it medium rare. But you’d also like the outside to be brown and crusty. And it’s very hard to get the outside brown and crusty without having a fairly thick layer of sort of grayish, over-cooked meat. If you’ve ever bitten into a hamburger and looked at, particularly a thin hamburger, there’s only a very tiny amount that’s actually medium rare. It turns out there’s actually a way to solve that, and our ultimate hamburger is you take the hamburger and you cook it sous vide.

DUBNER: “Sous vide,” that means “under vacuum,” when you seal food in a plastic bag and cook it, very slowly, in a warm-water bath.

MYHRVOLDActually you don’t vacuum seal it. You just put it in a Ziploc bag so that it’s not compressed, because it turns out the compression of the vacuum we think hurts the texture. So then you cook it to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fry it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it, a blowtorch. And either one will give you this incredible crusty outside, but because you put it in liquid nitrogen, that prevents it from over cooking, so you get the perfect medium-rare hamburger.

DUBNER: We should make it clear here that Nathan Myhrvold hasn’t been doing all this experimental cooking for kicks, or just to feed the inventors on his staff. He is about to publish a book -- a combination cookbook, encyclopedia and science text -- called “Modernist Cuisine”. It was produced by a team of three dozen people -- chefs, writers, editors, photographers. It covers everything from microbiology in the kitchen to a simple explanation of heat and water – which, Myhrvold, notes, is the single most important relationship to understand when you’re standing over a stove.

MYHRVOLDWell, it is an encyclopedic treatment of the science of cooking, how cooking really works and describes modern cooking techniques that evolved over the course of the last 20 years.

DUBNER: It has many volumes, many pages; give us some of the vital statistics.

MYHRVOLDSix volumes, twenty-four hundred pages, thirty-five hundred color photographs, sixteen hundred recipes.  My favorite statistic is if you took, the text and you put it all in one line at 10 point size, it’ll be six miles long.

DUBNER: Talk about some of the physical acts involved in making the book.  So we’re looking at a photograph here on your screen, traditional cooking.  And it seems to show, if I can tell without knowing, a cross section of a pot with something that looks hammy in it, perhaps.

MYHRVOLDIt’s a pork roast.

DUBNER: A pork roast. OK, and it looks as though there are fire embers, coal embers above and below.  So some kind of Dutch oven-y...

MYHRVOLDIt’s in a cast iron Dutch oven.

DUBNER: But we’re looking into the pot as though we have 3D vision.  It’s a cut-away. How do you make that?

MYHRVOLDSo that was one of the key concepts in the book was wanted to show people what happens inside the pot, inside the microwave oven, inside whatever thing they’re cooking in. And so we cut a lot of pots in half.  We cut a whole microwave oven in half.  We even cut a $5,000 professional steam oven in half in order to show people what processes are going on during the cooking process.

DUBNER: Presumably there’s not a lot of resale on half of it.

MYHRVOLDWell we have two halves of one of the best kitchens in the world now.

DUBNER: Myhrvold is self-publishing the book, in early March. The list price is $625. (You can get it for a little less on Amazon.) If you randomly flip through the six volumes, you come upon some interesting things. Like an entire chapter on foams.

MYHRVOLDWhipped cream is of course a foam, so is meringue. Bread is a foam.  You may not think of it that way, but bread is what we classify as a set foam.  Gas in the bread, which is created either by baking powder, or created by yeast, foams a dough and then we heat it in the oven to set the starches and proteins. So a tremendous amount of cooking is about foams, so we wanted to explain how do foams actually work?

Pablos HOLMANI mean, I laughed out loud! They made me some foamed baked potato.  It tasted like baked potato with butter, and bacon bits, and chives, and everything in there, but it was foam. And I took a bite of it and just lit up. I couldn’t believe how good it was.

DUBNER: That’s Pablos Holman. He’s a renowned computer hacker who now works as an inventor at Intellectual Ventures. But Holman isn’t part of the team that produced the cookbook.

HOLMANYea, my projects have been...I worked on a brain surgery tool, where we’re trying to make helical needles that could spiral into the brain and access regions of the brain that you can’t get to with straight tools. I worked on a system for suppressing hurricanes. Last year I tried to cure cancer, which didn’t work out.

DUBNER: But for the past couple years, Holman did sit really close to the Intellectual Ventures kitchen:

HOLMANThat kitchen is pretty remarkable in that, you know, unlike your kitchen they have all kinds of amazing tools. They have a drill press and a bandsaw in the kitchen, but they also have a rotary evaporator, and a homogenizer, and a centrifuge, and a pharmaceutical freeze drier. And what they do is they make these really elaborate recipes. Some of their recipes their average is like 15 pages or something, and they’ll spend like two weeks making something the size of a grape, which is amazing. I mean, they can really do some amazing stuff. And then they feed me quite often, and I have no idea what I’m eating.  You know, it’s always some bizarre thing where they took an entire moose and distilled it into a coffee bean and, you know, infused it with whipped cream. I don’t know.

DUBNER: Coming up: Alice Waters tells us why she doesn’t like Nathan Myhrvold’s cooking. And she describes the first Big Mac she ever ate. It was also the last.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Nathan Myhrvold points out that about two-thirds of the recipes in his 2,400-page cookbook, “Modernist Cuisine,” can be made in a regular kitchen, as long as you’ve got an adventurous spirit and don’t mind ordering some ingredients online. You should, however, be prepared for instructions like: “drop frozen cherry spheres into hot sodium alginate bath” or “blend in calcium gluconolactate and xanthan gum to fully disperse.”  And, if you’re making gel cubes from concentrated fruit, make sure you know the acidity level so you’ll know whether to use sodium hexamethaphosphate or methylcellulose E4M as your gelling agent.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I’ll tell you one person who doesn’t think it’s fun: Alice Waters. I asked her what she thinks of molecular gastronomy:

WATERSI can’t say that I care a lot about it. I can’t say that.

DUBNER: And tell me why.

WATERSBecause I’m trying to get back to a kind of taste of food for what it is.

DUBNER: And molecular gastronomy is trying to accomplish what in your view?

WATERSIn my view it’s to, you know, make it into something you can’t imagine. You know, surprise you.  That’s not to say that I haven’t been delightfully surprised.  It’s not that.  It’s that I am so hungry for the taste of the real that I’m just not able to get into that which doesn’t feel real to me. It’s a kind of scientific experiment, and I think that there are good scientists and crazy old scientists that can be very amazing. But it’s more like a museum to me. It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together.

DUBNER: I’m just curious, I have to ask, have you ever eaten a Big Mac, let’s say?

WATERSI did one time, actually I did. I went to Kansas and I was on the way to a board meeting at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. And I came in on a plane and hadn’t eaten. And I thought I should get a little bite some place before I went to the meeting. Then I decided I would do this little experiment and went to McDonald’s drive through. And in and out in five minutes.

DUBNER: And? How was it?

WATERSFor me, it wasn’t tasty.  It was soft bread and salty, french fries.  Really objectively, it was kind of nondescript.

DUBNER: So Alice Waters doesn’t like Big Macs at all, and she thinks people like Nathan Myhrvold are mad scientists. Their pyrotechnics might be entertaining if you didn’t have something better to do -- if you didn’t have, maybe, an open hearth where you can fry a free-range egg on a long-handled metal spoon and serve it over a salad of chives and tomatoes, along with some organic bread.  Alice Waters’ idea of advancing the way we eat is to reconnect with the past -- not only how our food is prepared, but how it’s grown, or raised, or caught. What she’s after, above all, is simplicity.

Nathan Myhrvold, for his part, loves Chez Panisse, Waters’s restaurant. But he also loves complexity. And he loves bringing science into the kitchen. Because, he says, it’s already there.

MYHRVOLDWell like it or not, physics happens, OK? So it turns out when you heat a piece of meat there’s a set of physical principles that are at work. Wishing doesn’t make the food hot, it’s the way molecules bump into each other that makes it hot. And if you are going to understand that in a reasonable way, I think it informs how you do cooking.  Now is it possible to cook without understanding? Of course it is.  For people that want to just, in a rote way, to repeat exactly what they were told to do without understanding why it works, hey go for it!  You don’t need me.  If all you want to do is repeat the recipes of the past and you have no curiosity about how or why it works, then you don’t need to have this physical understanding. On the other hand, why does it ruin the experience to understand how and why it works? You drive over a bridge, don’t you hope the civil engineer knows why bridges stand up? Or you go up to the ninth floor of a building here, don’t you hope that all those floors below us were designed by a guy who knows how buildings stand up? I think that informing people, whether it’s chefs, or foodies, or the average person, informing them on some of the ways that stuff actually works, I don’t see how that is a problematic notion.

DUBNER: Nathan Myhrvold and Alice Waters both have an obvious passion for the future of food, but radically different ways to realize that vision. Myhrvold has a pharmaceutical freeze dryer that retails for $50,000.  Waters doesn’t even own a microwave. But the amazing thing is that her ideas have gained so much ground. A few decades ago, the organic-food movement was fringe at best; now, the USDA approves organic foods to be sold at Walmart.

But what about Myhrvold’s experimental approach? Is supercharging your dinner with ingredients that are centrifuged at 60,000 RPM really worthwhile? Cutting a microwave in half is good for grins -- but is that all? Is Myhrvold’s $600 cookbook just a new toy for the Tesla crowd, or is there a chance that all his scientific inquiry might trickle down to you and me? Or, better yet, to the hundreds of millions of people who could care less about molecular gastronomy because they’re too busy trying to scrounge up a bowl of rice so their kids don’t go to bed hungry.

The fact is that there’s already a lot more science in your kitchen, and in your food, than you might think. But...how much is too much? That’s the question we’ll try to answer in part two of this episode. We’ll look at the history of food science -- did you know there was a Napoleonic X Prize that led to a food breakthrough that’s in your kitchen right now?  And we’ll travel from France to a tomato farm in Morristown, Indiana, with a story about the invention that you probably benefitted from just this morning, when you had breakfast.

Philip NELSON: “But a company called Tropicana came to my office and said do you think it will work for orange juice?  And with my fingers crossed, I said,

Well, I think so.’ And so, we actually changed the citrus industry with the not from concentrate orange juice.”

DUBNER: So we’ll look at the history of food science, but we’ll also peer into the food future. Because as far as we’ve come, there are still problems to be solved. Here’s Pablos Holman again, the hacker-turned-inventor who works at Intellectual Ventures:

HOLMANThe way we eat is wildly inefficient. My understanding is about 50 percent of the food we generate industrially doesn’t get consumed. Half of it gets consumed on a caloric basis, half of it gets consumed; the other half goes in the dump one way or another. Every grocery store in America is throwing out 2,000 pounds a week in expired food. Half of the produce, I mean all of this stuff is going in the dumpster, at restaurants as well.

DUBNER: So that’s the problem, as Holman sees it. What we wanted to know is: does he have any solutions?

HOLMANI started at looking at ways to improve all of that. Partly because, being selfish American, I just wanted a faster, cheaper way to eat that was higher quality, better nutrition, better flavor and all that.

DUBNER: I cannot wait for you to hear what he came up with. If you think Alice Waters didn’t like a Big Mac -- well, she’s not going to like this idea either, not one bit. We’ll tell you all about it part 2 of “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup.” For now, bon appétit -- and watch your fingers in that centrifuge!

ANNOUNCER: Freakonomics Radio is a co-production of WNYC, American Public Media and Dubner Productions. You can find more audio at freakonomicsradio.com. And if you want to read more about the hidden side of everything, go to Freakonomics.com.


Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. Sarah says:

    LOVE the quote from Holman. Yes. This is what I feel like on a daily basis. The whole article is a genius life allegory. What does the color of my moose soup distilled into a coffee bean taste like, on a molecular level? Sheer genius.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Ian Kemmish says:

    I’m intrigued. Apart from the PR stunt of sawing stuff in half (he’s never heard of Pyrex cookware or ruggedised cameras?), what makes a “unique” molecular kitchen different from all other molecular kitchens?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. AaronS says:

    Cooking is just fashion with calories.

    Watch a cooking show. It’s no longer about what really tastes plain good. It’s about using “the pureed essence of the rare swamp orchid, lightly distilled into a soup using Indonesian sea salt, ostrich broth, partridge eggs, and select cuts of Canadian kale.” Or some such.

    Same with this sort of cooking. It reminds me of comparing Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to Outback Steakhouse. I can tell you ASSUREDLY that while the atmosphere at Ruth’s Chris is more elegant, THAT is what you are paying for, because there is no way the steak is worth three or four times more than the one at Outback (where I have never received a bad steak).

    Very simply, molecular gastronomy is something to ooh and ahh at, but for all the effort, it doesn’t take us much higher, if at all, than regular, old-fashioned cooking.

    Potato foam? No, thanks. I’ll just have a baked potato, if you don’t mind.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. cresposito says:

    Eh. Projects like this are sort of fun, but they remind me of books on the physics of baseball, or other such topics that distill art into science. Nobody would ever think to learn how to play baseball by first studying its physics, but it’s interesting to know why a curveball curves. The same goes for cooking.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Anne Halibut says:

    “Its principal author is Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft who now runs an invention company called Intellectual Vultures”

    Awesome. Do I have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before I can read the book? Or do we just have to pay Nathan a royalty if we use one of the recipes.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  6. MikeB says:

    @ #2: No cook worth his salt uses Pyrex to cook with. It doesn’t heat evenly. Ever see a professional chef cook with Pyrex (regularly) on TV?

    @#3: There’s a huge difference between a Ruth Chris and an Outback. Yes, both are good. But Ruth Chris uses USDA Prime beef. Outback does not. If I order my steak rare at Outback, more often than not it comes out medium rare if I am lucky, medium if I am not, or worse. Though I tend to frequent local Prime steakhouses rather than chains b/c I think I not only get a better meal, but am helping support my local community. Plus the wine list and sides at the higher-end steakhouses are of much higher quality. Is it worth 3 or 4 times as much? Depends on who you ask. But certainly it is more than just ambiance.

    That being said, the molecular cooking scene is interesting. But I like food to be food. I don’t know how sustainable or widespread this molecular cooking thing can ever become. It is interesting, I would try more of it, but at the end of the day, I prefer classic cooking. There are so many different styles of cooking in the world, so many cuisines that I haven’t sampled… I would rather try those than get baked potato with bacon bits in form of foam. What is the infatuation with foam anyhow? I think I’d take the baked potato over the foam too.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. jp says:

    This kind of “cooking” is thrilling for the chemist/chef, but leaves the consumer flat. Have you ever tried anything cooked sous vide style? It’s completely devoid of texture. It tastes like you’re rolling a nasty piece of fat around your mouth, with every bite. A baked potato foam? How much of that do you need to consume to be equivalent to savoring a real baked potato? It’s all pretty cool once, but the thrill wears off really fast.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Michael DeMarco says:

    It’s all entertainment.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  9. James Papageorge says:

    Yet another attempt to elevate simple everyday procedures to the point where you won’t actually be able to cook for yourself without $10,000 worth of “indispensable” and very expensive equipment. Status and vanity still go hand in hand no matter how you wrap it up in the latest innovation…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  10. masayaNYC says:

    Why aren’t you giving credit to the original modern gastronomic scientist, who’s own work continues to appear in the pages of the Times, Harold McGee? Without his seminal work, “On Food,” it’s doubtful people like Myrhvold et. al. would have even known where to start.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  11. Paul says:

    As to the ‘ultimiate’ cheeseburger memorialized in the deconstruction picture:
    Romaine lettuce infused with liquid smoke? Really? And this is a good idea WHY? And the dessicated tomato? If it is, like now, the season when fresh tomatoes aren’t great, I’d either pass all together or go with an oven-dried one (NOT dessicated, but a restaurant version of a sun-dried tomato-we used to make them in the kitchen at Union Square Cafe. They are delicious and easily made in an ordinary or convection oven)
    Like anything else, there is a good and bad in molecular gastronomy. Foams have reached the level of triteness due to abuse at the hands of the untalented. I’m not saying that Ferran Adria or Myhrvold aren’t talented. But in the hands of a hack, well, there are LOTS of shows on the Food Network that shows the ugly results that can result. In the main, I’m much more with Waters than with Myhrvold.
    It doesn’t, nor should it, take 30 hours to concoct a perfect cheeseburger. I was day grillman at Union Square Cafe when Bryan Miller pronounced our burger (only available at lunch) the best in New York. That day, within four hours of prep time and three hours of service, I cooked 55 of ’em And they were all more appealing than the deconstuction which you showed.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  12. Tony says:

    Myhrvold’s patent troll behavior will wipe away any good karma he generates.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  13. Dan says:

    For another take on food, check out my Food for Thought—and Action at http://www.brook.com/food

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  14. Chez Roget says:

    When a revolutionary concept in introduced, the inertial status quo will always say “I don’t understand it, it is different from what I know and what I know is successful therefore you are doomed to failure”. That is essentially what Ms. Waters is saying about MG. I believe that MG will enable cuisines that will revolutionize food preparation. We just have to get past all the inertia.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  15. Christine says:

    Certainly interesting, in an intellectual way, but people don’t eat this way. Most of us just slap something on a slab of bread or throw leftovers into a plastic storage bowl to chomp down on while on the way to wherever. Fancy food is what restaurants and lazy days are for; the rest of the time, it’s whatever we can scrounge.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  16. Joe says:

    outback steakhouse? REALLY? come to san francisco, and i’ll bring you to izzy’s, or even a good pub or two that’ll make a steak that’ll put outback to shame.

    outback is a chain owned, overpriced, bland spot that deserves none of the accolades it was just given.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  17. Peter Piper says:

    Guilded food for jaded palates. Yes, there are some techniques in molecular gastronomy that make for uniquely delicious dishes i.e. sous-vides or foams, but for example, is there any need for infusing lettuce with a smokey flavor? It goes completely against the nature of the food, for an effect that is completely redundant on a piece of meat.

    Somewhere between Alice Waters and Nathan Myhrvold is the heart of truely inspired cooking.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  18. pvt says:

    Go back in time (Solvent Green), and then zoom into the future as far as your imagination allows. Is “eating” only about finding the most satisfying taste experience possible, regardless of the delivery method (IV, brain manipulators, whatever). Something about this feels very disquieting. Are we just machines/computers/scientific sensors, looking for the ultimate rush? Baby, your culinary future is a pill accompanied by the ultimate 3D media experience.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  19. E. Fox says:

    Stuff White People Like

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  20. Tamara West says:

    This is part of the silly food movement. Foam?? Who wants to eat foam? It’s for shaving with and not for eating. Buy a really nice clear glass pyrex pot with a lid at a yard sale for $3 and watch your broccoli cooking. Or you can put into a clear glass dish with a glass lid and watch it cook in the microwave. You can put your roast beef in a pyrex roaster and watch it in the oven, Who really needs to stare at what they are cooking. Let’s have a few mysteries left in life.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  21. dgvanderh says:

    molecular gastronomy is for people who would rather look at their food than eat it. can we say those who do too much blo-?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  22. Mike From LA says:

    Re SJD and Commenter #1

    I know absolutely nothing about food or cooking (as I sit here, typing, eating my Burger King onion rings). But I’m fairly sure that Holman meant that they distilled a MOUSSE into a coffee bean and infused it with whipped cream.

    As tasty as a Bullwinkle sundae does sound!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  23. Daniel B says:

    “Molecular gastronomy” is not a cuisine. It’s not like saying, “Let’s eat some Indian”, or Chinese, or even something more nebulous like “Contemporary American”. It’s a set of tools that can be used to get textures, flavors, and a level of precision difficult or impossible to get through other means. It is no replacement for good fundamentals, or basic deep flavor and quality ingredients, and (like anything else in the world) has been overused to detrimental effect by those more interested in flair than flavor. Applied properly, though, and with the proper eye towards creating something delicious, it can be transformative.

    Let’s not get carried away with the vehement denunciations of kitchen chemistry. These kinds of techniques and ingredients are merely extensions of the same ideas that have been developed for thousands of years. Baking powder for leavening without yeast. Egg white foams for lightness; adding cream of tartar to the same for better stability. Rafts for making crystal clear consomme. How to make a decent loaf of bread. Some of the effects are flashier or more unexpected, but calling this a radical departure from standard kitchen techniques is to ignore the fact that we’re always looking for different (and sometime better) ways to do the same old things.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  24. Laurie Pfalzer says:

    For us pastry chefs, science abounds in baking. We’ve been considering science heavily our entire careers. I’m not a fan of the molecular gastronomy “movement” but it is fascinating. Just consider it a whole different animal from real food.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  25. JK says:

    Intellectually and aesthetically fascinating. However, do the math on the number of people who have or will have ever ever eaten at El Bulli (or who may, in his next incarnation), plus the number of people who will ever (or will be capable to) “cook” Myhrvold’s “recipes”, against those who have been influenced for the better by Ms. Waters…and I do believe the arithmetic result will be more than substantial. So, hail to you all: Alice, Julia Child, Msr. Pepin, Emerle (sp?), Mario, Bobby, Lydia, Mark (as in Bittman), Food Network (oh, heck, even Wolfgang)…and the list goes on.

    Be well, eat well, live well, do well,

    JK, AZ/USA

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  26. Nick Fortis says:

    Techies will be techies, but Doc Myhrvold amps this techiness to a new (supposedly Gastronomically wonderful) level. Not clear that it is worth anywhere near $600+ to learn just where that level now exists.

    For me, as a retired techie and so-so cook, I’ll settle for “Cooking for Engineers”, a useful and occasionally delightful Site for the semi-serious cook/baker.

    Check it out.

    Nick Fortis; Los Altos CA

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  27. jackcb says:

    Reality is, the number of people who actually get to experience “molecular gastronomy” will be vanishingly small, say one in ten thousand, and then only inhabitants of the first world countries. Far fewer if we count only regular consumers. It’s very difficult to see this taking hold in any real way. Even if some of the tastes, techniques and practices are adopted generally, it’s doubtful they will survive implementation by the food industry. After they finish with MG, that perfect burger will undoubtedly be indistinguishable from the dread Big Mac.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  28. bob weisberger says:

    This is sort of disgusting. It’s the idle smart rich showing off how idle smart and rich they are. Food is wonderful and important and it is perfectly fine to make and appreciate good food, but this seems to cross a line into a realm of privileged self regard that is offensive. There are still too many hungry people in the world eating whatever they can scavenge to countenance this sort of self absorbed use of effort and money .

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  29. Paul says:

    Ultimately, food is about sustenance. Back in the 70s and early 80s, when nouvelle cuisine took flight from France to America, there were plenty of unskilled practitioners with twee, tiny portions of food. The joke was (and sometimes wasn’t) that on the way home from an expensive restaurant there was a temptation to stop off for a slice of pizza to stave off hunger.

    The same thing can happen with molecular gastronomy. The foams and bubbles are probably best used as unusual garnishes. The anecdote about the baked potato with bacon, butter and chives reduced to a foam is instructive. How would that fit into a meal? And the mousse (?, although it would be a much neater trick to reduce a 7-foot Vermont moose to the size of a coffee bean, infused with cream) is really only useful as a comparison note to something, um, shall we say, a bit more substantial.

    Molecular gastronomy is not only not the wave of the future for cooking at home, I would wager that it isn’t going to be a sustained movement in the way that nouvelle cuisine, the new American cuisine, the organic, locavore and slow food movements have been. It requires equipment that is beyond most home cooks, and is far too expensive for most restaurants. Its expression would best be limited to its expert practitioners. Just watch an episode of Top Chef or Chopped and see what happens when this technology falls into the hands of the, shall we say, less than inspired.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  30. Aaron says:

    Why all the hostility in the comments for this?

    True “foodies” should be interested in any form or branch of cooking.

    Creativity is never bad.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  31. k.newton says:

    Maybe science can create flavors that will steer the insatiable human race away from animal products. There seems to be nothing positive about eating and using animals, unless you are in some parts of Africa, the US, or on the show Survivor.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  32. Regina Woolley says:

    Intellectual Ventures is ambiguously described as an “invention company.” A more accurate description of their basic methods of operation is that of “patent troll”, q.v., in Wikipedia.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  33. Shane says:

    Interesting! Reminded of British chef Heston Blumenthal, who is also highly experimental with food. Recently Blumenthal made a seafood feast using kinds of seafood that aren’t usually eaten in UK: sea cucumbers for example. For him it’s a way to take pressure off the overfished cod, etc. and simultaneously to experiment with new and interesting kinds of food.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  34. Max says:

    The relatively cheap blueberry muffins and bagels don’t have any real blueberries in them, and instead have blue bits made of starch, gums, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavor and color. The pinnacle of molecular gastronomy.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  35. Dave D says:

    This is directed to the comment about Ruth’s Chris Steak House. When you buy only the top 2% of meat in this country you have to pay for it. If you can find Real Prime beef at your grocery/butcher you will see it will cost you up words of $23 a pound. You add in Ruth’s 1800 degree broilers and a 500 degree plate that only can be used 5 times before it breaks and that is why you pay $36 for the best peace of beef you will ever get. Prepared perfectly according to Ruth’s specifications a physics and chemistry graduate. This is a small price to pay in my opinion for a piece of art on a plate.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  36. pam says:

    when will part two air on wnyc?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  37. blondee43 says:

    when the stomach and the brain want a hamburger; if what one gets is in another form but tastes like a hamburger then how satiated will you be? you eat visually as well as mentally and with your sense of taste. But all these have to be adhered to in order to make that person not still crave that hamburger.

    It is one thing to enter a dining room prepared for the unexpected; but it will or cannot replace traditionally prepared foods or if you think people are fat now; weight (wait) to see what happens…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  38. Tracy says:

    there’s theater and there’s sitting around a table with simple well grown, well prepared, and well shared food.
    neither is better, but they are decidedly not the same thing

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  39. AaronS says:

    Alright, I see that some of you are having difficulty with my Outback vs. Ruth’s Chris comments. So I’ll make some more….

    I completely agree that Ruth’s Chris makes a nice steak. But it is not 3x better than what is served at Outback. Please do not take me to be saying that RC’s isn’t good–that is not what I am saying. I am simply pointing out that you are paying for brand name, ambiance, fine decor, etc.–NOT a steak that is 3x better than another decent steakhouse.

    Now, charge me 1.5 times what I pay at Outback, and I’ll go to Ruth’s Chris. Otherwise, I’ll leave it to the people who feel the need to eat in–and pay for–fancy surroundings.

    A good steak is a good steak. At some point, the differences become so minute and so subjective, that we start relying on things like–“Gasp! It’s real crystal goblets! This place is just the best place I’ve ever eaten!”

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  40. mark breslauer says:

    Definitely a disappointing podcast.

    More a shill for Mhyrvold’s self-aggrandizing cookbook than anything else. That food preparation involves a lot of applied physics is a trivial observation, and is not excuse for stripping it of all aesthetic value.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  41. Scott says:

    Why all the negativity? Both Waters and Myhrvold are trying to create better food. Their philosophies are different, and it is obvious that Waters’ philosophy is much more appealing to the consumer. It’s classic emotion versus reason, romanticism versus classicism.

    Waters speaks passionately and artistically, but she also makes a great sell, and consumers like that. If I buy a 6-pack of wheat beer and I read on the label that I should enjoy it on a sunny day, that will subtly heighten my experience while I’m drinking it in the sun. This is part of the experience of eating in Waters’ restaurant. People like things steeped in tradition and story. Her philosophy is no doubt more appealing to eaters and home cooks.

    Myhrvold’s approach is not discounting tradition. He just thinks that knowledge can improve a result, and people are getting distracted by the chemical-sounding food and high-tech equipment. I think everyone will object to the practicality of a 30-hour hamburger, but I also think people are missing the point by focusing on how gaudy it is. Myhrvold’s not trying to say foam mashed potatoes are better than traditional mashed potatoes. He just wants to increase the possibilities of food, which I think scares some because it can seem aimless.

    As an art form, new forms of cooking can succumb to the same pitfalls as new art. Traditional ethnic cuisines like the crafts of traditional societies are of high quality because they have been refined over generations. It takes a prodigy to either create something original that’s of equal quality or take a traditional form and elevate it. Myhrvold is a good chef, but I don’t think he’s trying to be that prodigy. His book is more about the tools and the knowledge than the recipes.

    And to #28, who thinks Myhrvold’s idle (just read his bio) or isn’t invested in reducing the world’s hunger or improving it’s health, go check out the kinds of inventions he looks to invest in. Get over the fact he’s making a profit because there is an extremely low chance you’ve done as much for the world as he has. There are plenty of rich executives who aren’t giving back that you can complain about, but Myhrvold’s not one of them. His wealth is infinitesimal to the wealth he’s created in the world.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  42. Paul says:

    @AaronS: Dining out is an inherently subjective experience. How do you hope to quantify the difference between Ruth’s Chris being 3x better than Outback (you won’t go) versus 1.5x better (you WILL go)? You have created an impossible standard for yourself.

    The best meal I ever had in my life cost, due to the then-strong dollar, $125 for my wife and me to have a seven course meal in Paris at the now-departed L’Archestrate (including two bottles of wine) 27 years ago. My dear friend, who is a cardiologist, not a chef like me, had his greatest meal 20 years ago in his adopted home town of Philadelphia at Le Bec Fin, which was also a degustastion with two bottles of (better, undoubtedly) wine that cost $1000 for four. It is IMPOSSIBLE to quantify the differences and even the relative qualities of these two meals. And I think any attermpt to do so would constitute a fool’s errand.

    Sometimes, Aaron, it is worth a large sum of money to experience what the best chefs are capable of. It is merely ironic that some, like Myhrvold and Adria have chosen to use some of the same starches (to different ends, granted) that Taco Bell uses to stretch it’s taco filling to an actual beef content level of under 35%, according to a class action suit filed this week…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  43. JC says:

    Please stop confusing the study of cooking with the technique or style of cuisine. Molecular Gastranomy is the science of what goes on in basic, everyday food preperation and cooking techniques (see Herve This). It’s why we know what happens in an egg when it’s cooked at various temperatures, why we know to let a steak rest after cooking it before slicing in, etc. It is actually the study of all of the “down to earth” everyday cooking techniques that nearly everyone uses. Modern cooking and cuisine is just that, mordern. Modernist Cuisine, perhaps, is a good way to describe the food that Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, and the like are making. Even Postmodern American when referring to someone like Achatz. But please, stop calling modern cooking “Molecular Gastronomy”. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the field and the issues at hand.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  44. MiraUncut says:

    I believe there is a place for each of the 2 styles in a home. I speak from experience. That’s how it is in my house.

    I love MG. I’m also very into what Myhrvold is doing. Granted he’s not the first but he’s pushing it.

    The one thing that bugs me is the claim that its for everyone to learn about food. $600 is not for everyone. Not even close. That’s the one thing that bugs me about all of it. In an effort to bring MG into the kitchen of many, it also excludes itself by being presented as too complicated and elitist. A view I’m trying to change. http://www.mirauncut.com

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  45. Robin says:

    I’m with Daniel B. There is a lot to learn in food preparation and science helps the learning process. I’m pretty sure that with the exception of eating food raw, the molecular structure of all the food we eat has been transformed–Does Alice Waters find baking, boiling, broiling, marinating, tenderizing, canning, smoking, and pickling to be “not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together?”

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  46. AG says:

    This is not food, and Myhrvold is no physicist. And believe me, I know quite a few, from charlatans to Nobel laureates. To turn a basic necessity of life into something so decadent is a cause for shame, not for celebration.

    That said, there is no reason science and physics can’t contribute positively to our understanding and appreciation of food. Harold McGee comes to mind, and I never tire of reading his On Food and Cooking.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  47. nate says:

    To be fair, Alice Waters isn’t a model of civic virtue or sanity, either.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  48. Monica Reyes says:

    Science should focus on projects that allow the world to reduce the hunger and malnutrition. My perception is that foamy food, could be a meal for people that only can eat soft diet.
    Atte. Monica Reyes

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  49. Liz says:

    You might want to look deeper into Nathan Myhrvold. My husband worked for Microsoft in that era and they had to hire people to be between him and everyone else because no one would work with him. I saw him at the company Christmas party and all he could contribute was a loud “F U” into the microphone, that was the last one I attended. He did not really contribute much to the company, he was just a friend of Bill who really is a genius. The question is, how much money does it take for people to put up with truly awful people? What is the economic value to people of good behavior? I stopped listening to this podcast and skipped ahead both because as a former chef (New England Culinary Institute) and food scientist (BS from Oregon State) I am already familiar with the subject matter, and because you could not pay me to listen to that man. Feel free to not post this as it could be considered offensive, but I truly am curious how much people will put up with and what is their breaking point? Perhaps he grew up and is now charming or civil when he wants to be and has stopped making a habit of trying to put grown men into tears.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0