Gastrophysics

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How a former cosmologist and Microsoft boss is changing cooking.

It’s been described as the cookbook to end all cookbooks. El Buli’s Ferran Adria said, “it will change the way we understand the kitchen,” while Tim Zagat said it was, “the most important book in the culinary arts since Escoffier…” The man behind Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, however, is not primarily a chef.

Nathan Myhrvold is a true polymath. He gained a master’s degree from Princeton in mathematical economics, then completed a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics all before he was 23. Next he went to Cambridge and, under the tutelage of Professor Stephen Hawking, studied cosmology, quantum field theory in curved spacetime and quantum theories of gravitation.

He founded the Microsoft Research division spending over a decade there and currently holds (or co-holds) 115 patents for things he’s invented. Then he turned to cooking. He took leave from Microsoft to train in France, at La Varenne, and after returning to Seattle he spent one day a week for two years assisting in a local French restaurant.

His fascination of cooking, science, physics and discovery has culminated in a staggering cookbook that has just gone on sale. Along with chefs Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, Myhrvold created a six volume 2,438 page tome that is changing how we view food and the art of cooking it. Unlike most cook books, this explains not just a recipe and method, but, crucially, why things work and the science behind it.

It comes from a systematic, and inquisitive, mind. This is a man, after all, who has pondered what dinosaur might taste like (“almost certainly like eating ostrich”). The quality of printing, resolution, illustration and photography in the book is staggering, and it’s printed on waterproof, washable pages. And the information is light years from the “bit of this, drizzle of that, whack it in, bosh!” world of people like Jamie Oliver. Jamie has his place, of course, but this is a forward-thinking take on cooking with new flavours, new textures and techniques, that have impressed the best chefs in the world.

Some recipes are brilliantly impractical. Most homes don’t have centrifuges or rotary evaporators laying about, but learning the science behind the cooking will make anyone a better chef. And there are over 300 pages of practical recipes that show you everything from how to make chips with a light and fluffy interior and delicate, crisp crusts that don’t go soggy, to why plunging food in iced water doesn’t stop the cooking process.

This appliance of science is not only one of the most important cookery books of the last few years, it’s one of the most important books on any subject. Yes, the set costs around Dhs2,250 but that’s about the same as a meal for two or three at Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire, and even Gagnaire himself would be lying if he said there was nothing to learn from this — a cookbook by a scientist and former Microsoft nerd.

For Esquire Magazine – May 2011

For original PDF click here – Gastrophysics

 

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