Nathan Myhrvold is the mastermind behind the Cooking Lab, a Seattle-area science bunker where he and a team of accomplices explore the more quantitative side of making delicious things to eat. They also make books, including the forthcoming opus, Modernist Bread, which — if its footprint is anything like that of its siblings, Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home — will become an essential resource for both professional and amateur chefs and bakers.
Myhrvold’s career in cookbook writing and publishing is a fairly recent addition to his resume; he’s the former CTO of Microsoft, and the founder of Intellectual Ventures — a company that does a whole lot of things, including designing and building components for nuclear reactors right next door to the space where they do all the cooking. But unlocking the science of cooking is his main gig these days; to talk about it (and, okay, also the nuclear reactors) he sat down in the Eater Upsell studios for a freewheeling conversation with hosts Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner. Read on for a transcript of the conversation; for Helen and Greg’s tips on how to have a perfect Valentin’s Day (a.k.a amateur night at restaurant), you’ll have to listen to the audio below.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 3, Episode 1: Nathan Myhrvold, slightly edited for clarity,right here. Note: This conversation was conducted at the end of 2016.
Greg Morabito: Welcome to the Eater Upsell studios.
Nathan Myhrvold: Well, thank you.
Greg: What's your favorite part of this new book? What's your favorite, like, segment?
Helen Rosner: What's your favorite one of the 2,500 pages?
Nathan: Well, you know, every page is our baby and then we sweat over each and every one of them. But we've learned so much, some of which is of huge practical interest to people who want to make bread, and some of the things we learned are just really cool.
Greg: So what I'm curious about is after you published Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home, these huge hit books, I know that this is a lot of work leading up to the publishing of these books and everything. But I would think that you could probably hang up your hat. I mean, these are huge books that everyone really admires. I see these books on kitchen shelves all over New York City and everywhere else. Why did you decide on bread as the next big project?
Nathan: So, yeah, this is a polite version of the "What were you thinking" question.
Greg: I mean I'm stoked, but I guess I was a bit surprised when I heard that it was going to be a bread book as the next installment there.
Nathan: First of all, I love making these books. So we were gonna make another big book. So, what big book to go do? And the world of bread is interesting for the following reasons. One is it's one of the most basic human foods, and at one point in time, it was the primary source of calories for all of our ancestors. These days, it's a side dish, but it's still something that’s wonderful and loved and so forth.
Bread is what I call a technique-driven food. So it's become popular to use the word "natural" sort of as a synonym for "good," like, "Oh yes, it's natural." Well, let me tell you, bread is not natural. Bread looks nothing like grain — just compare the two — in the same way that cheese is really not just old milk, and wine is not just spoiled grapes. In all three cases, humans over a period of at least 10,000 years, maybe 100,000 years, carefully figured out all these techniques to utterly transform the grain into this amazing thing we love to eat.
Now in the case of Modernist Cuisine, there were a bunch of chefs who were sort of determined to break all the rules. And so Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne and a whole variety of chefs were out there. And so what we argued in Modernist Cuisine is we were out there to document a movement that already existed. And strangely in the case of bread, I was attracted to the opposite thing. Which is in bread, there was no nouvelle cuisine of bread. Instead, the bread movement that we're currently in started in the 1970s as the artisanal bread movement. And it was a total reaction to industrial, factory-made supermarket bread. And so people said, "Look, we want quality, not this crap, so let's go back to the old ways."
Now, it was a fabulous thing because they made way better bread, and I'm thrilled it all happened. But because they were focused on "Let's go back to the old ways," the first thing that's interesting is, in fact, the old ways weren't like that at all. That ciabatta bread that every artisan bakery made was from 1985. It's completely ersatz. The wonderful peasant breads that have high hydration with a big open crumb like the fabulous bread that Chad Robertson makes at Tartine? Entirely his invention.
We actually did a study of the trends in bread hydration — how much water you mix in the dough, over time. And high hydration doughs are a totally modern thing, because they're a pain in the ass to deal with. If you're making bread as the main thing everyone eats, you don't make the hard-to-make dough, you make the easy dough.
Helen: Right. You gotta just plow through with efficiency.
Nathan: So the world of bread had achieved a tremendous amount with this artisanal movement, but it'd gone so far as to take new inventions, like the high hydration breads, and pretend they were old.
Greg: In the name of just being kind of rustic and sort of peasant-y or something?
Nathan: Yeah, and the way to one up yourself if you're with a bunch of bakers, you say, "Oh! You mean you buy your flour? I grind my flour!" And the next guys says, "Well, huh! You use a gas oven? I use wood-burning!" And then it finally gets down to the guy who says, "Well! You bought your oven? No, I used stream mud and I grew the trees that I use in the wood!" And it's like —
Helen: Right, I am the Lord, I formed the Earth —
Nathan: Right. The problem with that is that modern technology can help you do a better job. And also, when we looked around at the breads that are offered by artisanal bakers all around the country and around the world, there was a sameness that's a little distressing because people think, "Well, if I'm gonna be an artisan baker, all I can do is my idea of what Europe's greatest hits were. I can do baguettes and batards and I can do my peasant bread and my miche and my” —
It's like, no! You're creative! You should do your own things! And of course, people had been doing their own things. As I said, Chad's bread is totally his invention. It's not some throwback to some bread of yore. And so it seemed to me that whereas with Modernist Cuisine we were documenting a movement, with Modernist Bread we were trying to start one. Or at least to demystify a lot of things and say, "Look, we did a bunch of tests and here's what it is." Or, "We looked up the history and here's what it is." And so it seemed like a really attractive thing to do.
Greg: I'm just curious, Nathan, what was the first food thing you got obsessive about and wanting to take it apart and understand what it was?
Nathan: When I was nine years old, I found cookbooks at a local library. And it was so cool that I could actually learn how to cook and maybe learn how to cook better than mom and grandma. And I decided I wanted to cook Thanksgiving dinner. So I got a bunch of books from the library and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner all by myself.
Helen: For your whole family?
Helen: At the age of nine?
Helen: That's extraordinary.
Nathan: I do a better job now. But I also would say that the job I did wasn't worse than anyone else in my family had done who were adults, that's for sure. And one of the cookbooks I loved — because of course I was a nine-year-old boy then, and somewhere down in deep inside I still am — it was a book called The Pyromaniac's Cookbook. It was about flambéing things. I thought that was so cool, that you could actually light things on fire, but you had to heat it up a bunch first so the alcohol would vaporize, and so I thought that was awesome.
Helen: Yeah. I think I still think that's awesome, right? Like, who doesn't love lighting stuff on fire?
Nathan: For the second Thanksgiving I cooked, I took that a little bit to an extreme and we had a very special course which I had under a cloche so I could reveal it. And the deal was while I did the reveal, I lit a firecracker and handed it to my brother who threw it under the table. So as I did the reveal, the firecracker went off and boy it scared everyone to death!
Helen: You had such a sense of the theatrical!
Nathan: I wish you were around to defend me in the aftermath! That's an excellent argument!
Helen: What we think about when we think about food, we think about the food itself, but that is presentation and context and this is some proto-Heston Blumenthal stuff that you were doing! You've got an audio element, you're using the element of surprise, all of this contributes to flavor.
Nathan: So then, one of the things about me as a kid is I had heard that steam injected in the oven makes the crust crisp. Now this bugged the hell out of me because —
Helen: And you're still nine at this point, right? Ish?
Nathan: Yeah, that's right, I started making bread around then. And I was like, really? Steam? Really? How does that work? Shouldn't water make it soggy? So it turns out now, many, many, many years later, people still didn't know why. There are two dominant theories and they were both easily disproven. So we set as one of our goals, we were going to figure out why — and I think we have actually figured out why — injecting steam makes crust crispy.
Helen: Are you gonna tell us?
Nathan: Well, it's a little complicated. But here's the clues to it: bagels and bao. Now, if you've had a good bao, the Chinese steamed bread, it's got a kind of a sheen on the outside, and it's got a very thin skin. It's not crispy of course, ‘cause it was steamed. Now, bagels also have a very thin skin but they're very chewy. You'd never call a bagel crispy — that would be like a weird bagel. Bagels are steamed or boiled up front. And the main theory up to this point was that when you put the bread into the oven, and there was steam there, a thin layer of water would would condense, and it would be like boiling water on the outside so it's like you were boiling the outside and that would cause starch in the flours to gelatinize and that would make it shiny, and it would make it crisp and chewy. But if that theory was true, then actually bao and especially bagels ought to be really crispy.
Now, bao and bagels are shiny, so the shiny part of that was right, and it turns out that you have to — it's a more complicated explanation that we're still working on the pages to try to explain — but the way heat transfer works in the bread actually keeps the crust super thin once you've formed that skin. So a baguette that goes into an oven...you would instantly inject steam when you put baguettes in the oven, and for the first minute or two or three, it's actually like a bao, it's being steamed. And it forms a skin very much like that thin skin you see on the bao. There's a whole reason why, but I can get into that, but it's — well, fundamentally, it's hotter. Believe it or not, steam in the oven makes the oven seem hotter to the bread than if it was just air.
Helen: Is this related to why you slash baguettes before you cook them? Does that help break that skin that forms?
Nathan: Well, so yes, you have to break the skin. In fact, there's a whole set of breads that you score or slash. And the reason you do that is that as the bread is cooking or baking, it continues to expand, and bakers call that oven spring. And oven spring is quite substantial. Now, as it makes that expansion, if there's a completely hard or impermeable membrane, that will either limit the expansion, or it will do what's called a breakout, where it will all of a sudden explode off in one direction and look really weird. So bagels you steam for much longer than you would a baguette. And that makes an impermeable membrane which doesn't get broken cause you don't slash the bagels, and that's why bagels are so dense and have such a dense crumb.
Helen: Because they can't expand.
Nathan: Correct. You constrained them.
Helen: This is blowing my mind right now. Everything is making sense.
Greg: Yeah, I never thought about that before. That’s very interesting.
Helen: The world of bread just became so much more understandable to me.
Nathan: Well, good!
Helen: It's working already.
Nathan: Well, that is our simple goal. Admittedly, because we did this on essentially everything, that's why the book is 2,500 pages long and of course we also have 1,800 recipes and on and on and on. But all of these things have really basic, simple explanations once you get down to it, and understanding that then really helps to say, "Okay, I get it, I understand why that's true."
A brioche you don't slash, generally. You can, but you don't have to because the crust, because of the fat in there, is more pliable. So we think of bread as being a little fluffy, right?
Nathan: How dense is it compared to other things?
Helen: It floats, right?
Nathan: Very good.
Helen: Bread floats, that's about as far as I go.
Nathan: So what do you think has a higher density, bread or whipped cream?
Greg: My guess would be bread, but because that's my guess, I'm gonna assume that it's actually whipped cream, right?
Nathan: So the most dense, heaviest thing, is whipped cream by far. It depends on the variety of bread. If you have a super dense pumpernickel or those Danish breads that they make the open-faced sandwiches on, that stuff's pretty heavy. But a brioche or sandwich bread is half the density of whipped cream.
Helen: Like good whipped cream, we're not talking Reddi-wip which floats away like a balloon, right? Like heavy cream, real whipped cream, right?
Nathan: Even Reddi-wip.
Nathan: Whipped cream has got some variations in, if you have fully whipped whipped cream, it tops out at a certain —
Helen: Because otherwise it becomes butter, right?
Helen: It separates.
Nathan: [At a] certain point it will separate and become butter. If you do it earlier than that, very soft whipped, then it's quite dense.
Nathan: So in fact, whipped cream generally has a density of about .49. Water has a density of one. So fundamentally, whipped cream is about half air. Interestingly, most ice cream is too.
Helen: Is this why it's creamy instead of like an ice cube or something? This is why you can stick a spoon in it, right?
Nathan: Yeah. So ice cream makers call this overrun. And most ice cream is about a hundred percent overrun. That means it's 50 percent air. So that's the other thing. Bread is way lighter than ice cream. Because we think of ice cream as being heavy, that doesn't impress people, but ice cream is a lot like whipped cream actually. And one of the reasons this fools you is bread is more solid. You need a knife to cut bread; you don't need a knife to cut whipped cream. But that has nothing to do with the density, because the bubbles in bread are bigger. That's why. There's more bubbles and they're bigger, and that's because the structural stuff of bread, the walls of those bubbles, is stronger than in whipped cream. That's why you can make it work.
Helen: It's making bigger bubbles.
Nathan: Right, otherwise the bubbles would collapse, which happens if you try to over-whip cream and then it churns into butter as you said.
Helen: I really love what happens inside my head when I start thinking about science.
Greg: So when you finish one of these books, do you feel a sense of relief, or are you nervous about how people are going to receive it? I know that there are people that are critical of your work sometimes. How do you understand that process?
Nathan: Of course the pressure starts even before you're finished. We're not totally finished with the book yet, but it'll go on pre-sale, so we'll see. [Editor’s note: It’s now available for pre-order on Amazon.] If no one orders it we'll be a sad, crying lot as we finish the last pages and send it off to the printer.
Greg: People are gonna order it, though. People always order, people go crazy for your books.
Nathan: I hope so. I hope so. You never know. In terms of critics, I've found in general that the people who are most critical of my books are people who have never read them. There was a guy in the UK who went by this pseudonym and he had this blog. And when the book was first announced, he wrote these blog articles, and then he did a whole series, this guy was really worked up. "No book could be worth that!" And all this.
I remember talking to him on the phone and I said, "Look, this kind of pisses me off.” It's fine if you say my book is not worth that, that's your opinion. You might want to actually see it first before you make that? But when you say “no book,” you're insulting all knowledge. You're saying that knowledge is not valuable. And by the way, why don't you price the textbooks that your doctor bought in medical school? Those weren't cheap, and thank god, he needed to know that shit or she needed to know it to treat you!
Greg: Did you reach out to that blogger, just say, “I want to talk to you.” Ar did they reach out to you?
Nathan: Somehow we talked on the phone a couple of times and he wasn't mollified. So then the book actually came out and I was in the UK and we were doing some things and this guy comes up to me at one of the events and he says, "Hi. I'm that guy. I was wrong!"
Greg: Wow. That doesn't happen very often, that you get that moment.
Nathan: It's true. But the idea, the notion that a cookbook could be $625 — which is the list price of Modernist Cuisine, and the bread book is gonna be similar ‘cause it's a similar size — that offended some people. But then I say, wait, you look at what a meal at one of the great restaurants on planet Earth costs, and it's expensive.
We have a thing in a sidebar in the book somewhere that talks about this thing, that we want more expensive bread. And there was a lot of press that a restaurant in New York got for having a bread course that was $15. And people were scandalized and outraged and there's a woman in San Francisco that started artisanal toast for, like, $5 for a slice of toast. Again, people were outraged.
And to me this is just so silly. You know, if you look at pasta, noodles, that was once considered really cheap food. But today in New York City, we could go and we could pay any amount of money for a plate of pasta — we could pay a couple dollars or we could pay a hundred dollars. Well, the hundred dollar pasta would have lobster and it would have sliced truffles and some other stuff on it, but it's still that. Risotto, the same thing. You could pay $50 for a plate of risotto, but it's just rice.
No, we've decided as a society that if you do a good enough job — and we'll get really picky if the job isn't good enough and so lots of restaurants go under — but if you do a good enough job, hey, we're cool with that. But bread, we have this funny feeling that bread ought to be really cheap.
Helen: Or free.
Greg: It should be free, yeah.
Nathan: Well, here's the part that kind of is, I view as almost scandalous, which is, in almost every part of the food system, quality means two things. It means, A) you have to pay a little more for it. And B) that someone has figured out how to get that quality all the way from the person who grows it.
So when I was a kid, mom bought Folgers coffee. You can still buy Folgers coffee, but we could buy, I'm sure there's somewhere in New York that has $500 a pound Kopi Luwak coffee.
Helen: Almost certainly. That's the coffee that is extracted from civet cat poop, right?
Nathan: Yes. But we'd find coffee at every price point, and that's a wonderful thing. And some would be from Ethiopia, some would be from Guatemala, some would be from this place or that place. Wine, the same thing. So wine has been on that track for a long time, where the famous vineyards that have the best grapes and the best varieties and the best climate get to charge a lot for their wine. But we still can buy Two Buck Chuck, or things of that sort if that's what we want. Chocolate, same deal. Chocolate when I was a kid was always Hershey's. Now we've got all kinds of single origin specialty chocolates. Well, bread is something that our society relentlessly tried to get to be cheap. And oh my god, did we succeed. Wheat is cheaper than dirt.
Helen: Like, literally.
Nathan: Okay, it's 10 cents a pound. So if you take a loaf of bread, whether it's artisanal bread from your local thing or supermarket bread, the amount of your money that went to the farmer is about five cents. And that farmer is making the very best wheat that five cents can buy. Now that's screwed up. Okay? I can buy fancy butter from organic things, duh blah blah blah blah blah blah. I can get all of the rest of my foodstuffs, or all of this, but the way we've structured the agriculture system, if a guy wants to say, "Well I'm gonna make better wheat and I'm gonna charge 15 cents," it's very hard for that guy to survive.
That hasn't happened yet and that's something that I would love to see happen is that we broaden the varieties of bread all the way back down to the farmer. And if we don't...even if we buy from the local artisanal guy who's got a lot higher costs than the big industrial guy, so that loaf is gonna cost us two or three or four times as much as a supermarket loaf, but the chances are he's buying the same flour, or pretty close to the same flour.
Helen: So are you gonna tackle the Farm Bill next? I mean, these are huge, institutionalized governmental, cultural issues that I think once anybody starts looking at it for any amount of time they realize how broken this economic and production structure is, but —
Nathan: It is, but the part that I don't subscribe to is blaming a conspiracy of others because we didn't get better single origin chocolates because the government gave them to us. We didn't —
Helen: But chocolate's not a staple, right? Flour underscores so much and I think maybe it's not a conspiracy in the sense of a small group of people making directed intentional action towards this outcome, but it is something that is the result of many, many decades of cascading policy.
Nathan: Oh, of course, absolutely! But if we demand better and we demand better of our bakers and bakeries that we get our bread from, and they demand better of the millers, and the millers demand better of the flour, and instead of buying commodity flour or commodity wheat we'll seek out the things — that's what happened in wine and coffee and chocolate — we can absolutely make it happen. And I think it's way more practical to think about how we can create a great bread movement and a great wheat movement than it is how we can change the Farm Bill, which is so mired in so many decades and centuries of bizarre politics and institutionalized semi-corruption and blah. That's so hard to try to fix that all at once. But, hey, we've gotten much better food in every other part of our diet by taking some personal action and some personal responsibility, and I think that's what's important here.
Helen: See, this is activism. What you're talking about is bread and sort of returning to bread and thinking of bread in a clearer and truer way as something that if you do it right it inevitably results in something that is effectively activism.
Nathan: Most of our efforts to date in food activism or in foodie-ism or demanding better food have been at the top of the pyramid. Wine and chocolate and coffee.
Nathan: Well, coffee's kind of a staple, but —
Helen: It's an addiction.
Nathan: And wheat, this is tackling the biggest of the big. Okay, this is the base of the food pyramid. It is this ginormous industry, and look, they should keep making, I'm not trying to say, "Oh, we should stop having wheat farming,” or any of those other things. But I'm sure there are farmers who would like to grow better varieties. Steve Jones in Washington State, by coincidence the guy doing the most interesting wheat breeding the world is like an hour and a half from us. And so we've collaborated with him quite a bit. You can use modern selective breeding to make better varieties of wheat that taste better. Why should I go and have my special organic small farm-made butter and spread that over bread made with utterly commodity wheat?
Helen: That's a good question.
Nathan: We also have to release bread from being a staple.
Helen: That’s interesting.
Nathan: Yeah, part of that thing is that if you insist and you say, "Ah yes, bread is a staple and it's something we have to do for everyone, bah dum bah dum bah dum." Well that's part of what draws it into this political maelstrom that it can't get out of. And if you say, "No, actually, bread is an important food, but it's a side dish."
Greg: And it's not great to eat a lot of the bad stuff. It's not great for your body.
Nathan: No, well, we found this great...I love going on eBay, finding old ads. It gives you some insight into the mentality of not only ancient times but just a few decades ago. We found this great ad from a flour company. I think it was the 1940s. And it said, "Eat more bread! Consider making it 50 percent of your diet."
Helen: Oh my god!
Nathan: 50 percent of your diet?
Greg: And the other 50 percent is cigarettes!
Helen: Maybe if you're a quarry laborer. I mean that's huge!
Nathan: Well, but all of our ancestors did at some point in time, depending on exactly who your ancestors were — that could have been relatively recently or could have been 200 years ago — but they did live on bread and porridge and other kinds of foods as the bulk of their calorie consumption. So if we release bread mentally from being this pillar of all these things and say, "Yes, I'm willing to spend more for it," if I can spend $25 on a plate of risotto or pasta — which is not expensive by New York standards at all — well, I ought to be able to be willing to spend that for an equal serving of bread.
Greg: Yeah, that's so interesting, coming back to the restaurant thing about places that are charging for bread or, what is it, places that have fancy butter preparations with bread. We assume that we're paying for the butter, but the bread doesn't grow on trees, you know?
Helen: It's the emotional thing, I think? It just really is —
Nathan: We have a strong emotional —
Helen: We can't decouple from it.
Nathan: Absolutely. But I think we have to if we care about bread.
Helen: Yeah. So working in the Cooking Lab and working on this bread cookbook is not your full time job.
Nathan: Well, no. It's only like 80 hours a week or something.
Helen: Which is like nothing!
Nathan: It's just a little part-time deal!
Helen: There's so many other hours besides that. But you work on a lot of things. So the Cooking Lab is part of Intellectual Ventures, right, which is your, is it a company? What's the —
Nathan: Yeah, it's a company!
Helen: Okay! Which does a lot, including, what was it I was just reading about the other day, nuclear reactors, right?
Nathan: Well, so we actually design and build nuclear reactor components, just in the next space over from our Cooking Lab.
Helen: Sure. It's another form of cooking.
Greg: Yeah, it's all one complex.
Nathan: So I like working on interesting, cool things and in this case we've invented a fundamentally new type of nuclear power reactor which is fundamentally safer and way more scalable. And it's one of the things that I think society has to look at if we want to tackle global warming. To date, the world has made essentially zero progress on global warming. The Co2 level in the atmosphere keeps going up year after year.
And it's great to talk about renewables, it's great to talk about a bunch of these other things, but one of the things I think you have to consider in the mix is nuclear. And that's not the only thing — we have other energy projects at our company. We also encourage the whole world to have other projects. But the technology industry that I've come from is about doing impossible things. The progress we've made in hardware and software and networking is so shocking, it's crazy. And we've all been the beneficiaries of that to a very large extent.
To solve problems like our huge energy problems, which are even more mired in politics and things than...I mean, imagine a world where we didn't actually care about oil. That would release tensions in all kinds of places. Imagine a world where China didn't have to worry about it. I mean it's not just us worrying; it's all the rest of the world worrying. Americans have, on average across the whole population, we use about 11 kilowatts. That means it's like we had 10 or 11 toasters running 24-7.
Helen: Per person.
Nathan: Per person. That's your total energy. Now you might be on the low end, somebody else might be on the high end, but as a society that's what it is. And it's all forms of primary energy. If you look at the world average, it's about 2,500.
Helen: Per person.
Nathan: Yeah. And if you look at China, China happens to be right at the world average right now, they're about 2,500. And the thing is this century China wants 11,000 like us, they want our lifestyle. Meanwhile, our lifestyle is going up. Not hugely quickly, but right now there are millions of hard disks at Facebook and Google and Microsoft and other places, all spinning, waiting for one of us to type in a query or post a thing. And that takes a lot of power. So we continue to add more power to our lives. But if you think about the world in terms of saying, "Well, the 2,500 is gonna go towards 11 or 12,000,” we're not talking about just today's energy system, we're talking about taking the energy system up by a factor of five.
Helen: Which requires thinking about it differently.
Nathan: It does. In the very short run you can say, "Oh, put in LED lights and shut the lights off and unplug your cell phone charger!" Meanwhile, China and the rest of the world is trying to get our lifestyle. They're making great progress. We can't stop them. Morally, you could argue whether we ought to try or not. But we're not gonna stop them, so we have to solve that big energy problem. That's where I think nuclear comes in, but we also do lots of research for things in the third world. Literally across the hall from the kitchen, we have work on new diagnostics for polio and TB, we have a big disease modeling program. We make containers to keep the vaccines cold in Africa. So, it's a cool place to work!
Helen: So you personally have been, I guess I want to say a man of obsessions. I think you first crossed my radar — is that the right metaphor? What do you do to a radar? You first came onto my radar when I was reading about your interest in dinosaurs, this was maybe a decade or so ago that I think I was reading something about this. And then resurfaced again with Modernist Cuisine. And so how do you go from dinosaurs to cooking to nuclear reactors to — are you still deeply involved in dinosaurs?
Nathan: In fact, just last week, I got news from a scientific journal that my latest really big dinosaur paper had been accepted for publication. So in the next few weeks, I'll have another big dinosaur paper.
Nathan: So I keep working on dinosaurs.
Helen: And now also asteroids, right?
Nathan: Yes, I've done a lot of work on asteroids lately. In a couple weeks I'm speaking at two conferences the same week and it's a little awkward to shuttle back and forth. And one is the American Astronomical Society Division on Planetary Sciences, where I'm talking about asteroids. And the other is the Vanity Fair Conference. And I think I am the only person speaking at both.
Helen: So what's the thread? What is it in your head that...are these things all sort of scratching the same itch? Are these lines of inquiry all kind of turning you on in the same way? Or is it a variety of intellectual stimulation? That was very sexual. I'm sorry!
Nathan: Okay! Well, yeah, you're asking what floats my boat. I love all the things I do. If I didn't love them, I wouldn't do them.
Helen: But what's the difference between something you love and something you don't love? Is there something all the things you love have in common?
Nathan: Well, there's some big differences. I mean, the way I do cookbooks is as a team. We have a team of people and I feel you do a much better book as a team. Now that's weird because in general for novels, the quality of a novel goes down dramatically if there's more than one author. There aren't any novels that are great that are written by four people. It just doesn't seem to happen.
Well, software's a little different. And so I've always argued within the world of software that the best software is written by a small team. When you get a really huge team, like you have to for the giant programs that are around, it gets unwieldy and it gets a little cumbersome. But if you have a small team of great people, each one tries to make their area and their expertise great.
And so our team, there are people trying to make their part of the book not only great but maybe better than I would, even better than I would even want. But oops, they already did it and so, okay, that's really cool, we'll do that. And so my books are that way. They're a team thing. The research on some of the stuff is usually only me and another person or two. But I love the collaboration, I love the team, and that allows us to do stuff at this scale. I do scientific collaboration with my science papers, but they tend to be much smaller things. They tend to be things where I'm doing a huge amount of the primary work. So I did not bake every loaf of bread for this project.
Greg: Wait, what?
Nathan: Yeah, I know, I know. Isn't it? Now comes the —
Helen: The hard truth, man.
Greg: The ugly truth.
Nathan: During the core part of the bread development, so for most of those three years, we went through a pallet of flour every three weeks. That's a thousand pounds.
Helen: My goodness.
Nathan: Yeah! But that's what it took.
Greg: So do you guys have any immediate plans after this book is released at the lab or are you gonna start working on another book or are you just gonna keep —
Nathan: Oh, we'll probably spend a few days sleeping, because the very last files to go out, we have all of...we work very hard. But of course we'll do another book.
Greg: You haven't decided what that book is going to be about yet?
Nathan: No, we usually, we'll throw some ideas around. It's not lost on us what everyone else has realized, that we didn't do pastry and dessert in Modernist Cuisine, and so everyone thought that was gonna be our next book. And poor Francisco Migoya, who's head chef and my co-author on the project, Francisco is a pastry chef, so he'd love to do pastry. And I'm sure at some point we'll do pastry, but exactly what we do next...we like to have a little bit of kick the tires time and figure out what to do about it time.
We've also evolved over [the course of this project]. When we first did the book, I remember when we first started to slip the schedule and we had to sort of publicly announce on Eater and other places we were slipping and I remember having a little bit of an attitude about it and I said, "Well, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's the first 2,500 page cookbook that we've done." And then it's like, of course, it's the first 2,500 page cookbook Earth has done too, but hey. But this is now our second and we've done a couple other books in between. We're getting to understand it better and understand all the process of what we have to go into. But there's still surprises. We had a huge surprise on this book quite late in the process, which is to me scandalous. There's no good rye bread in the United States. No true rye bread because there's no good rye flour in the United States.
Helen: Is this the scandal?
Nathan: This is the scandal. We are going to rip the lid off this rye conspiracy! Bah-ha-ha!
Helen: There's that evil laugh!
Greg: Where did you have to go to get the good rye bread?
Nathan: Rye doesn't have gluten in it. It's got some other proteins that will upset some celiacs but they're not like gluten; they don't form these nice balloons that make bread rise. So rye bread fundamentally works a different way. It works because of a set of molecules called pentosans, which absorb lots of water and they swell and they make it sticky and that makes a rye dough. Well, because of that, virtually all fluffy breads that are rye are not rye breads. Those are wheat breads that are rye-flavored, and that's what we've taken to calling them.
Helen: But they have a little bit of rye, right?
Nathan: A little bit of rye.
Helen: It's not artificial rye flavor.
Nathan: No, but most American rye breads...if you ask for rye toast in the morning at some diner —
Helen: Yeah, you get a soft, fluffy thing that has that slight nutty flavor.
Nathan: 20 percent.
Nathan: Traditional New York Jewish deli rye, maybe 30 percent. And when I traveled in Europe I would see these rye breads that were great, that were darker. I assumed that's what they were. I'd also see some really dense rye breads like you find in Denmark that I basically call a grain pâté. It's a bunch of coarse grains stuck together. And it's wonderful, I don't mean to denigrate it, but it's not fluffy bread.
So we had an Austrian baker who was passing through Seattle, he said, "Hey, could we stop for a couple days and show you guys how to make our bread?" And we said, "Oh that'd be great!" They were so mad. They couldn't make their bread. They couldn't make their bread. And they kept saying it was the flour. And they made bread that we thought was actually tasted pretty good, but they were like, "Oh my God, this is shit, we would never do this. This is horrible."
Helen: So it turns out that this is a U.S. rye flour problem.
Nathan: So two years went by between them going there, and we were corresponding back and forth and finally I was in Germany for something and they said, "We will ship you some of our flour to Berlin if you will take it home." So I had to go through customs, through a whole series of reasons, in Miami with 250 pounds of rye flour.
Nathan: Hey, it worked! The dog sniffed it, they —
Helen: You were just like, "I swear to you this is not weird brown coke."
Greg: Well on that note, Nathan, it is time for us to move to a thing we like to call the lightning round.
Helen: Woo-hoo! Insert lightning sound effects. So for this lightning round, we are going to be turning it over to Matt Buchanan, our features editor.
Matt Buchanan: Hey Nathan, this is Matt Buchanan, the features editor at Eater, and I have some lightning round questions for you. What food or food related thing would you un-invent?
Nathan: Huh, what food would I un-invent. Boy, I'm gonna be so terrible at this. This is like lightning and there's no thunder. I'm not helping.
Helen: We have faith in you. You can bring the thunder. Bring the thunder. Let's rephrase this to be lower stakes. What is your least favorite food?
Nathan: Bad food. Crap.
Helen: That's not fair.
Nathan: I know it's not fair, but I don't eat very much highly processed food. I don't want to say you should un-invent it because I'm also aware that, like, my mom was a single mom and she was working and I did eat a lot of that growing up and I couldn't have said, "Ah yes, Mom, you should stay home and make organic wonderful meals for me!" That would have been absurd and elitist and crazy. To me, some of the critiques of our food system that forget convenience, particularly for people who aren't terribly affluent, it's sort of the "Let them eat cake" thing. Which, by the way, Marie Antoinette probably didn't say, but what it was written in French that she said was, "Let them eat brioche."
Helen: Which is not cake.
Nathan: But it got translated by some early Brit to cake, ‘cause they didn't have brioche in England.
Helen: Well, it's a much more cutting burn of the lower classes if it's cake, so the narrative is stronger now.
Greg: Let them eat brioche!
Helen: Okay, let's move on to Matt's third —
Nathan: Artificial vanilla.
Helen: Really? Artificial vanilla?
Helen: Artificial vanilla, we got something!
Helen: Okay, artificial vanilla. Why?
Nathan: Because it gives vanilla such a bad name. It winds up getting people to think they know what vanilla tastes like, and they don't, because real vanilla is just so much better.
Helen: Yeah, synthetics are weird. We could probably spend another two hours on synthetics here. But all right, let's go on to the next lightning round question from Matt.
Matt: How would go about making a fake meat product today?
Nathan: Hmm, well —
Helen: 30 seconds to answer — no, I'm kidding.
Nathan: I've tasted all of the current crop or all the ones I know about, and they always say, "Oh, you can't tell!" Bullshit, you can totally tell, oh my god. And I have a quarrel with the whole idea of fake meat. Okay? In a sense, it would be great if you could relieve people's cravings for meat with something else, but throughout all of history people have invented many fake meats.
Okay, the first fake meat is called sausage. Now, of course it's still meat, but it was taking inedible parts of meat, the fat and the stuff that was too tough, and turning it into something that was sort of like an artificial filet mignon. It was tender, it was fat, it had flavor. Cheese was for many societies an artificial meat. Tofu was an artificial meat. And guess what? The way each one of those things found its success was not as an artificial meat — it was as its own thing.
So when I was a kid, tofu was unknown outside of Chinese restaurants, and not even all of them. It was hard to get. It was this weird, exotic, crazy food. We all eat tofu now. But we don't eat tofu thinking, "Oh, I'm gonna tuck into that tofu filet!" No, we eat it ‘cause it's tofu and it's its own thing.
So the philosophical question I have for the fake meat people is: Until they're essentially perfect, they should give it the hell up and stop doing it. Like the most recent fake meat which had been heavily promoted to me...a friend of mine, very famous technology guy, had tasted this [and said], "Oh, I couldn't tell the difference!" And I said, "Okay, well" —
Helen: Maybe there's a problem with you.
Nathan: "I love you, I love you, but I'm gonna bet..." And if you told me that it was a sweetbread burger, I actually might have believed you. Sweetbreads are very mild flavor; there's not much flavor to a sweetbread. They have this kind of a weird texture.
Helen: They’re the tofu of the cow.
Nathan: Pretty much. So this fake meat product seared nicely. They got a nice sear as you can get on some stuff, and if you told me it was a sweetbread burger, I might have believed you. But the thing is, and I discussed this with a chef in the Bay Area who's worked with it extensively, we both agreed, oh my god, just put it in a different dish and call it something else and and it would be fine. It would be great. But you kind of set it up to fail when you go to that goal.
And, I talked to the founder of one of these fake meat companies and he has...oh my god does this guy have invective against the meat industry. I mean it's like this torrent of negativity. It's like, okay, good luck with that. Because until you can make it perfect, or a whole lot closer than you currently have, you're fooling yourself. And yet, I totally agree that we need as both for our own health but also for the health of the planet, moving away from meat as as large a component of the diet as it is in some places would be a great thing. So are you doing it a disservice by saying it's fake meat, telling people they can't tell the difference, and then having them be disappointed? Is that a good thing for the planet? It's very unclear.
Helen: I like that answer. That's a very good answer.
Nathan: Okay, this is hardly lightning round, but keep going.
Helen: Yeah! It's very slow lightning. It's a leisurely lightning.
Greg: It's rolling lightning. It's like a quiet storm.
Helen: It's 6,500 FPS lightning. So, okay.
Matt: If you open a Modernist Cuisine restaurant, how much would you have to charge for dinner in your best estimates?
Nathan: So we actually do dinners at our lab. When the book first came out, we had this sort of a street cred problem where lots of chefs said, "Yeah, well, where's their restaurant?" And then when chefs saw the book they stopped saying that because when they saw the book, it was, "Oh shit, you couldn't do a restaurant and write that thing — oh my god is that a lot of work!" But people still asked that, so we started doing a set of dinners where we would invite some of the best chefs in the world, some food writers. Helen, you've been to one!
Helen: I went to one back, way back when —
Helen: It was amazing, it was really incredible.
Nathan: So we cook a 29-course dinner for that. When we cook for civilians, that is to say people who are not chefs or food writers. We usually cook only like 15 courses. I'm doing a dinner on Wednesday night, which is for a bunch of people from Silicon Valley and around the world, not food people particularly. And we do all kinds of science demos. It's kind of a cool thing.
Helen: Dinner and a show.
Nathan: Pretty much. My usual answer, though, is as a producer of cookbooks, I'm already familiar with one capital intensive, labor intensive, money losing industry. I don't need to go into a second!
Nathan: And there are wonderful chefs out there that make modernist cuisine; make dishes which I would classify as modernist cuisine. That doesn't necessarily mean they learned it from my book, but, and at all price points. I was at a barbecue joint in a food court in Hawaii and I got this barbecue and the texture was such I knew it wasn't cooked normally. And I asked the person at the counter, he said, "Oh yeah, the chef, um, he does this thing called ‘sous-vide’?" So you can do it at anything, but if I actually did a restaurant, I'm afraid it would make it as over the top as I make my book. It's kind of what I do.
Helen: Sorry, I think it's one of those, like, if you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can't afford it. All right, let's go on to our next question.
Matt: Have you ever cooked for Bill Gates? If so, what was it and what did he think?
Nathan: I've cooked for Bill many times. In fact, he's coming Wednesday for dinner. He likes all of our food. I think he particularly likes the pastrami dish. He also really likes the carrot soup.
Helen: The carrot soup is the one with the baking soda in it, right?
Helen: This is the Modernist Cuisine recipe that I actually make all the time.
Nathan: The origin of that was a kind of bread.
Nathan: Pretzels. So pretzels get really brown on the outside because you dunk them in a solution of lye. And the browning reactions, they're called Maillard reactions, that make food brown, happen at a lower temperature in an alkaline environment.
And so that's how pretzel are made, only we've come up with a vastly better way to make them, but that's another side. So I was wondering: Well, if it works for pretzels it's got to work for other stuff. So we started pressure cooking things with baking soda instead of lye in them. And oh my god, the carrot soup came out great!
Helen: It just makes it so incredibly intense and savory and rich in a very —
Nathan: The classical French chefs would make soups by starting with a chicken stock, and it's delicious, okay. So they would make a carrot soup by starting with a chicken stock and then putting some cream in and then eventually some carrots would get in. Our carrot soup is carrots and butter and a little salt and a little baking soda. We don't actually put water in, even, ‘cause you don't need to. And we pressure cook that and, oh my god!
Helen: So if we need to make soup for Bill Gates, we'll make him the Modernist Cuisine carrot soup.
Helen: Is he a picky dinner guest or is he sort of a —
Nathan: No, he's a great dinner guest.
Helen: All right, cool. Let's go on to our next question.
Matt: Would you barbecue a cloned dinosaur?
Nathan: Absolutely! I mean, first I'd make friends with them and I'd study them and I'd do everything else.
Helen: Let's assume a sufficient population that you could —
Nathan: Well, so, I already have in a sense.
Helen: This is so corny!
Nathan: What, so, no, it's true! Many years ago I read about this guy who had won the world championship of barbecue a bunch of times, a guy named John Willingham. And he had this special cooker. And so I called him up and I negotiated to buy one of his cookers. Well, it was this whole procedure. He interviewed me for three hours on the phone ‘cause he said, "I don't sell a cooker to someone I don't like! In fact, I don't sell a cooker to most of my friends!"
So I eventually get him to sell me a cooker. And it comes and I make the best ribs I've ever made, but they're not as good as his. He'd sent me some by FedEx, of his. So I went out, I was like, "John, I have to come and watch you do it ‘cause there's something I'm not getting." He says, "Okay, there's a little contest down here, why don't you come down for that?" And he lived in Memphis at the time.
I thought, this is great. I'll go down there and I'll spend a couple hours learning that and then maybe I'll go over to Beale Street and Graceland and then I'll go home! It'll be this little mini-stopover. Well, what I didn't understand was the little contest was the World Championship of Barbecue, which is this giant deal. There was 300 teams competing when I was there. And I got there and he gave me one of the logo aprons and I said, "What's this for?" He says, "You're on the team! It’s the only way you're gonna learn!"
Well, I worked like a dog for three days. You know, 14 hours a day. I trimmed and trussed a whole hog. John said, "Nathan, there's a hog on ice under the trailer, would you get him up here and truss him good?"
So I'm up there hugging this giant dead cold pig and, oh my god. Well, along the way, I learned a tremendous amount. But they wound up putting me in charge of two of the dishes, because there was like the main dishes that you compete in, this is a contest called Memphis in May. And it's ribs, which is pork ribs, pork shoulder, and whole hog. Those are the main things. But then they always have two other categories. So there's a category called "Anything But," which is anything but pork. And there's a category that was a special category that year because Modena in Italy is the sister city of Memphis.
Nathan: So a pasta company had gone and had said, "Oh, we're gonna have a pasta contest." Now all these fabulous barbecue chefs are incredibly accomplished, but they're also a bunch of good old boys, and pasta wasn't their thing. So they said, "Nathan, you know how to cook pasta?" And, sure. So I did the pasta dish. And then they had decided for their "Anything But" to cook ostrich. Now, ostrich is about as close to a dinosaur as you are going to find. And if you doubt that, next time you're at a zoo look at an ostrich or an emu's feet, and they're these big scaly feet and they look just like a T. Rex feet.
Helen: That's so true.
Nathan: In fact birds, from a scientific perspective, birds are descendants of dinosaurs and we are discovering more and more feathered dinosaurs. So we thought only birds had feathers, nope, dinosaurs had feathers too.
Helen: How many cloned restored dinosaurs would you need to have existing in order for you to feel comfortable selecting one and killing it just to eat?
Nathan: Well, you don't have to select it and kill it. You could wait till it died or you could, if you have a couple kinds of dinosaurs, they may provide you with some dead ones by their lonesomes. That kind of a happy family version of —
Helen: Like farmed dinosaurs!
Nathan: Well, the whole issue with Jurassic Park was they wanted to be free range, dammit!
Helen: That's true.
Nathan: And free range T. Rex? Not a good idea.
Helen: Well, you don't want to eat predators, right? Like you only want to eat herbivorous animals anyway. They have more tender meat and they have less disease things and they —
Nathan: Oh, that is such a land-based idea.
Helen: As opposed to sea-based?
Nathan: Well, all the fish you eat are predators, honey.
Helen: That's true.
Nathan: Well, mullet is the only commonly eaten fish that is a vegetarian.
Helen: But we don't eat predator land animals.
Nathan: In this country we don't eat predator land animals, but in plenty of places they do.
Helen: I guess that's true.
Greg: Well on that note, we're gonna say, Nathan, thank you so much for coming to the Eater Upsell studios. I've learned a lot and I think it's gonna take me a few days to process this between all the kneading and the dinosaurs and all this great stuff.
Helen: No, it's been great having you by the studio. Thanks for coming by.
Helen: And everybody, you can pre-order your copies of Modernist Bread if you have your spare 600 or so bucks lying around. And it will ship at some point in 2017.
Helen: Cool! Thanks guys!
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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin
Transcription editing: Adam Callaghan