Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup, Part I (Ep. 19)

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

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!

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the link in box above 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


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.

Ian Kemmish

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?


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.



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.

Anne Halibut

"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.


@ #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.



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.

Michael DeMarco

It's all entertainment.

James Papageorge

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...


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.


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.



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


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

Chez Roget

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.


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.


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.


Peter Piper

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.


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.

E. Fox

Stuff White People Like

Tamara West

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.