Incredible Edibles

The mad genius of “Modernist Cuisine.”

by John Lanchester 

Nathan Myhrvold and his culinary colleagues love to cut things in half

Nathan Myhrvold and his culinary colleagues love to cut things in half—like this traditional pot roast—and show cross sections.

In 2004, Nathan Myhrvold, who had, five years earlier, at the advanced age of forty, retired from his job as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, began to contribute to the culinary discussion board egullet.org, on the subject of a kitchen technique called “sous vide.” The French term means “under vacuum,” and it refers to a process that has been around since the nineteen-seventies but has, in recent decades, become a favorite technique of the cutting-edge professional kitchen.

In sous-vide cooking, ingredients and flavorings are prepared and put in a plastic bag, from which all the air is subsequently extracted by suction. The food is then cooked in a circulating water bath at a highly precise temperature—and this precision is what chefs love. A sous-vide steak, for instance, is not cooked rare or medium rare; it is cooked to 126 or 131 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. At these low temperatures, cooking times can be as long as seventy-two hours, and the results are often extraordinary. As David Chang puts it in his cookbook “Momofuku,” “If you know what temperature you want the thing to be, just cook it at that temperature for long enough to bring the whole thing up to that temperature and presto! It’s like magic: you’re not sitting there poking or prodding the meat or worrying that it’s rare or raw or overcooked.”

Myhrvold is fascinated by invention and innovation. He is the founder and C.E.O. of the company Intellectual Ventures, which has developed hundreds of patents. He is also a serious amateur cook, trained at La Varenne cooking school, in Burgundy, and a member of a team that won several prizes in a 1991 world barbecue championship. He is the “chief gastronomic officer” of Zagat Survey, the company that publishes the eponymous restaurant guides. At the time he grew interested in sous vide, there was no book in English on the subject, and he resolved to write one, incorporating primary research on the science of the technique, especially as it bore on the question of food safety.

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