Nathan Myhrvold — the former chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) — opens a bottle of wine and pours it into a kitchen blender.
"Decanting is about doing two things," Myhrvold, 52, says before flipping on the power switch. "It’s about mixing oxygen in with the wine and about taking dissolved gasses out of the wine. So, if a little bit of decanting works, why not a lot?"
We’re in an industrial unit in suburban Seattle, the home of Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures. He’s giving a PowerPoint presentation before a 30-course dinner made up of dishes from "Modernist Cuisine, The Art and Science of Cooking," the six-volume, 2,438-page book he’s produced.
(Myhrvold is also a columnist for Bloomberg View.)
To say the dishes are unusual would be an understatement. The first consists of watermelon chips with spicy pickles. Thin slices of fruit and pickle are mixed with modified starch slurry, compressed in vacuum bags and then deep fried.
"I figured that if I could make chips out of watermelon, I could do it for anything," Myhrvold explains as we sip hyper- decanted wine. (I wouldn’t have guessed it was from a blender.)
Next up? Corn and green-pea butter spread on brioche and walnut-bread toasts. Run through a centrifuge, the corn and peas yield three distinct layers: juice, starch and a small quantity of a substance that has 20 times the flavor intensity of the raw ingredient and the texture of soft butter, Myhrvold says.
Fifteen people from around the world are attending the dinner. My table includes a journalist from Germany, an academic from New York, a food technologist who works for Mars Inc. and Alvin Schultz, a Houston-based contestant from chef Gordon Ramsay’s Fox TV show, Masterchef. Myhrvold divides his time between providing a commentary and helping prepare the food.
We’re sitting in the laboratory with chefs working along one side. Heading the kitchen is Maxime Bilet, co-author of "Modernist Cuisine." He graduated with highest honors from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and also worked at the Fat Duck, outside London.
The courses keep coming: Puffed Chicken Skin, Peking Flavors involves the skin being cooked sous vide — in an airtight bag in a water bath — then puffed in oil with hoisin sauce, scallion oil emulsion, cucumber and shaved scallions. Liquid Caprese is a cold, emulsified soup of olive oil and tomato water. The equipment required? A rotor-stator homogenizer, a pressure cooker and a centrifuge.
Baked Potato Soup consists of wafer-thin potato ravioli filled with shallots melted in bacon fat, and dressed with an intense broth of potato juice infused with roasted potato skins.
The recipe for the Hot-Smoked Spare Ribs, Barbecue Sauces from Kansas City, South Carolina, requires an Enviro-Pak cold smoker, an ultrasonic bath, centrifuge, liquid nitrogen, vacuum sealer and a water bath. The ribs are cooked sous vide for 48 hours, then dry rubbed, smoked and vacuum sealed. The chefs then warm then in a bath and "cryofry" by dipping them in liquid nitrogen and then deep-frying them. This process creates an intense crust without overcooking the meat below.
You may be asking by this stage: How does the food taste? The answer is great. The flavors are intense, the textures distinct, the aromas enticing. Many courses evoke memories of childhood, when a simple strawberry may be a mouthful of heaven and chocolate more fun than playing in the park.
Yet somewhere in multicourse modernist meals — and 48 dishes at El Bulli was my limit — I tend to tire of perfection. I want a piece of meat that hasn’t been cooked for days, I don’t need my vegetables uniform and I might even accept the occasional lump in my gravy. It’s hardly a fly in the soup.
Myhrvold is such an entertaining host, sharing funny stories and being completely un-precious about his food, that an evening at his laboratory is a delight. Even the food has wit. The waitresses said that one dish, Raw Quail Egg, came from birds kept on the roof of the building. The yolk turned out to be passion fruit, the white a gel of lemongrass.
Myhrvold was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University in the U.K. and worked with Professor Stephen Hawking on research in cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space time and quantum theories of gravitation. He doesn’t keep all his eggs in one basket.