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