Five Things Nathan Myhrvold Taught Us About Cooking

10/26/09Follow @gthuang

He is one of those people who defies description in a few pages, let alone paragraphs. Sure, Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Microsoft Research and CEO of the Bellevue, WA-based “invention firm” Intellectual Ventures. But besides information technology and business innovation, he’s a renowned expert in such ridiculously diverse fields as astrophysics, mathematics, paleontology, and photography. He’s also one of at least three tech billionaires to speak at the University of Washington this month.

A few weeks ago, Myhrvold spoke to a crowd of students, faculty, and guests about another one of his great loves: the science of cooking. (His resume as a chef includes winning the world championship of barbecue and working at Rover’s in Seattle’s Madison Valley neighborhood.) As part of the computer science and engineering department’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, Myhrvold’s talk covered everything from food safety myths and a tour of Intellectual Ventures’ kitchen lab facilities, to computer simulations of heat intensity above a barbecue grill. He was joined on stage by chef and biochemist Chris Young of Intellectual Ventures, a veteran of the renowned Fat Duck restaurant in England.

Myhrvold and Young have been working on a 1,500-page book on the state of the art in cooking science for about three years, together with a staff of 15. “It’s like a restaurant without diners,” Myhrvold joked. “Unfortunately, it’s also like a restaurant without revenue.”

The focus of the book is to illuminate the cutting-edge science behind cooking techniques, and to stimulate people’s curiosity about food while also being practical for chefs. “There’s a revolution in cooking going on today. If you keep doing the old thing over and over again, you don’t actually need to know why it works,” Myhrvold said. “If you want to do things that are new and different and unusual, it really helps to know why.”

Highlights of the talk included high-speed (6,200 frames per second) video of a popcorn kernel popping and a water balloon bursting; discussion of what happens to food when you subject it to 40,000 times Earth’s gravity (“kind of a cool thing to do to food every now and again”); and the creation of a batch of almond-based ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

Here are just a few things Myhrvold left us with:

1. Cookbooks are like software. Someone in the audience asked Myhrvold when the cooking science book would be available. “A damn fine question,” he replied. “I come from a history … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Emeril

    Tell Mr. Myhrvold that I am coming out with a book on software. BAM!

  • http://www.kfchomedelivery.com Richard

    The book on the state of the art in cooking science sounds like a really good read.The topics that caught my interest the most were Everything you thought you knew about food safety is wrong,Be wary of fancy French terms and Invest in some liquid nitrogen for the kitchen. Great article!

  • Larry

    The emperor parades his new clothes.

    Probably the most self centered epic of our modern times.
    Wall street was revealed to be greedy and excessive beyond America’s wildest dreams.
    Meanwhile in no where town this guy was working on a cookbook to match.
    Just a little late getting it out.

    You know what most Americans want?
    The want to be able to afford to buy food.
    They want be able to eat everyday.

    No one wants a $625.00 cook book filled with equipment and ingredients that are completely out of touch with main stream America.