Four questions for Nathan Myhrvold about 'Modernist Cuisine'

Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:57 AM

Gastronomer columnist Andreas Viestad spoke to Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of "Modernist Cuisine," about the philosophy behind the massive project. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

How important is technology in modernist cooking?

Technology is at the heart of the matter. Yes, you can cook a lot of things that are good and novel using traditional techniques. And there are always ways to expand your horizons by just looking at the known in new ways. But what is going on within gastronomy today is very much driven by technology. Technology allows you to do things that were unheard of - impossible - only years ago.

You compare what is going on in cooking today with modernism in art in the 20th century. But the painters used the same paint, the same brushes and the same canvas.

That is true when it comes to painting. But if you look at photography, another of the 20th century arts, it was totally dependent on new technique. Had it not been for the new technology, there wouldn't have been any photography.

Innovation is one of the most important virtues of what you call modernist cuisine. Isn't it a paradox to even have written recipes? Once it is written down, doesn't it become a sort of orthodoxy for others to follow?

Yes, it is a bit of a paradox. But at the same time, this field is so new. What we describe is not familiar, even to most professional chefs; there is a need for detailed descriptions. And the reception of the food depends a lot on context. In a dinner it may still be quite novel.

How novel does it have to be in order to be described as modernist?

Modernism can mean a lot of different things. It is about the aesthetics but also a lot about the process behind. We have a recipe for a hamburger where the meat has been ground in a particular way in order to get the right texture. It is then cooked sous vide, dipped in liquid nitrogen and finally deep-fried. I would consider that a pretty modern way of cooking. But to the person who eats the burger it can just be a good burger, perfectly cooked on the inside and with a lovely crust.

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