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Profile: Nathan Myhrvold

  • Posted 10.31.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Nathan Myhrvold may be the ultimate Renaissance Geek, but the child prodigy and former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft has always maintained his obsessive passion for food and the science of cooking. In his kitchen at Intellectual Ventures, he and a team of chefs are using advanced lab equipment to cook up dishes that look and taste like nothing else, revealing in dazzling visual detail the physical and chemical changes that take place in food as it cooks.

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Launch Video Running Time: 09:46

Transcript

Can I Eat That?

PBS Airdate: October 31, 2012

DAVID POGUE: Meet Nathan Myhrvold. He makes his living as a technology business mogul, but this is where he comes to indulge his real passion.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD (Author, Modernist Cuisine): I've been interested in food my whole life…very enthusiastic eater, and interested in all aspects of creating it.

DAVID POGUE: And now he wants to revolutionize the way we cook, by bringing cutting-edge science into the kitchen.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: We aren't just trying to do our grandma's recipes. We're trying to focus on understanding the scientific basis for what is this thing we call cooking.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan is making wild, new concoctions, like cotton candy that tastes like grilled cheese; or butter made, not from cream, but from peas; and short ribs that he cooks in warm water for three days.

SCOTT HEIMENDINGER: Some people call him Willy Wonka. Some people call him mad scientist.

STEPHEN COLBERT (The Colbert Report/TV Clip): Please welcome Nathan Myhrvold.

DAVID POGUE: And his Wonka-esque flair has made Nathan a regular on the talk show circuit.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: We've been cooking this pastrami for 72 hours, just for you.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Am I going to die from eating this meat?

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Let's find out.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Why don't we find out?

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: I got into this by trying to understand it myself.

DAVID POGUE: So he's become a gourmet evangelist, writing his own cookbook, one that's really, really big: 43 pounds of science that's so heavy it comes with its own Plexiglas bookcase.

JIMMY KIMMEL (Jimmy Kimmel Live/TV Clip): Was the idea to publish something that you couldn't possibly shoplift?

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: That was it.

DAVID POGUE: Its 2,400 pages lay bare just about every aspect of cooking, like what makes meat tough or tender? How does a microwave work? And what's the best way to cook broccoli?

It's all the culmination of Nathan's lifelong love affair with food.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: When I was about nine years old, I announced to my mother that I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner. And I went to the library and got this whole pile of books. I'd love to say it all turned out great. It didn't. But, sort of, from that point on, whenever there was serious cooking at home, I was the one who did it.

DAVID POGUE: But Nathan soon fell under the spell of another passion.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: I remember once I saw an episode of Doctor Who, the British science fiction series. The doctor is being asked by this guy, "What are you?"

VILIAN (Doctor Who/TV Clip): Are you some kind of scientist?

(Doctor Who/TV Clip): I'm every kind of scientist.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: I thought that was so cool. So, I wanted to be every kind of scientist.

DAVID POGUE: So Nathan went on to earn degrees in economics, math and physics.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Ultimately, my Ph.D. is in mathematical physics, focusing on quantum field theory and curved space-time, and I worked with Stephen Hawking.

DAVID POGUE: And Nathan taught himself about even more topics by obsessively reading about them, every book he could find.

CONOR MYHRVOLD: For a while, he was Amazon's number one individual customer.

CHARLIE ROSE (Charlie Rose/TV Clip):Since the '80s he has been at Microsoft, where he's in the advanced technology group. What we're talking about is all the world's computers connecting to each other.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: It's all the world's people connected to each other, with the computer simply as the means.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan was a visionary in the hottest field of the day, computers, but he never forgot about his first love, food. He still wanted to understand the science of cooking.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: I thought, "Well, there must be some big textbook that says all this." Not only was there no single book, there was no stack of books.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan decided he would find answers on his own. He would use science to push the boundaries of cooking in the form of a book.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: I'm writing the cookbook that I wish I could have just bought.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan started by hiring a team of experts and turning a warehouse into a Wonka-esque playground.

SCOTT HEIMENDINGER: It's one of the best-equipped kitchens in the world. We've got a rotary evaporator, freeze drier, combi oven. We've got an industrial jewelry bath that we use to make our ultimate French fries.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: A whole variety of homogenizers.

SCOTT HEIMENDINGER (Modernist Cuisine, Business Manager): Blowtorches, liquid nitrogen.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: A centrifuge is fantastic.

Normally, you'd never get this special layer that we call "pea butter." Oh, my god, does it taste good.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan wanted to figure out exactly what's happening, from a scientific perspective, when we put flame to food.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Our goal was to show people a vision of food they hadn't seen before.

So, I had this idea of …let's cut all these things in half, and show a picture of the food in the pan, in the oven.

DAVID POGUE: So they revved up their table saws and began hacking open every appliance they could find and every type of meat.

PHOTOGRAPHER: We want both of the holes through the muscle.

DAVID POGUE: This junkyard of cracked open grills, microwaves and gas ranges gave Nathan new tools to show how heat moves through food and irreversibly changes it.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: They're all things that happen so fast that when you look at it, it's like, oh, it just, it happened. If you slow it down, you see how and why it happens.

DAVID POGUE: One recipe Nathan was determined to dissect: how to cook the perfect steak.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Here we're looking at what happens when you sear meat, to see what that structure is inside that crust.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan became obsessed with the Maillard reaction. That's the one I learned about in the test kitchen, in which high heat releases amino acids and creates delicious flavors.

Meanwhile inside the steak, other forces are at work.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: The physics of water is central to cooking, because food is mostly water. All steak that you cook is actually boiled on the inside.

DAVID POGUE: The problem is that the boiling interior cooks more slowly than the edge of the steak near the flame. So chefs have to make a choice: do you undercook the inside or overcook the outside?

Nathan searched for a way to have it all. And he heard about chefs who were experimenting with a technique that was first used in the most unlikely of places: hospital kitchens.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: So they invented this technique in France, where it's called "sous vide," where you vacuum-seal food into a plastic bag, then you cook it inside that plastic bag.

DAVID POGUE: And here's how it works.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: This is a chamber vacuum machine. When I close this, it's going to start pumping the air out.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan then drops the sealed meat in a computer-controlled bath, which will heat the whole steak to the exact temperature of the water. So you can make the entire cut of meat 130 Fahrenheit for medium rare, no part over- or undercooked.

SCOTT HEIMENDINGER: Sous vide cooking recognizes that when you have two goals— perfect doneness on the inside and a nice crust on the outside—that you should treat those two goals with two different cooking methods.

DAVID POGUE: When the meat reaches the exact temperature Nathan wants, it's Maillard time! Nathan's weapon of choice? A blowtorch or a new technique: "cryo-frying."

SCOTT HEIMENDINGER: Cryo-frying means that we make something very cold and then we fry it. We want to protect the interior of the food from overcooking as we fry, and you're left with beautifully brown, crispy exterior and perfect interior.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan had cracked the code for the recipe for a perfect steak.

And sous vide wasn't the only page that Nathan lifted from the industrial cookbook. He went back to the supermarket to peruse the aisles of ice cream and chocolate sauce. He wasn't looking for a guilty pleasure, he was joining other avant-garde chefs who were questioning the widespread fear of chemical ingredients.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Lots of folks think of this as, "Oh, my god, there's chemicals in my food!" Well, I'm here to tell you that food is made of chemicals; those chemicals are made of elements; and that's the way it is here on planet Earth. Everything actually is a chemical.

SCOTT HEIMENDINGER: Nathan uses chemicals the way a composer uses notes. It's about building something. Just because an ingredient has a lot of syllables or your grandmother didn't cook with it, that doesn't make it bad.

DAVID POGUE: Nathan studied how these chemicals could give him even more control in the kitchen, like how you can use agar to create hot fruit gels, or how xanthan gum can thicken your sauce. And it all went into the book.

This culinary bible grew into the encyclopedic Modernist Cuisine, which requires four pounds of ink to print.

Determined to spread his message as widely as possible, Nathan soon wrote a follow-up book.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: We then decided; "Hey, let's make one for the home." We call it Modernist Cuisine at Home, and that book has got a whole new set of recipes that are all designed, that anybody can do them at home.

DAVID POGUE: These science-based recipes don't require an industrial strength kitchen; rather they tell you how to make the perfect mac and cheese by using a pinch of sodium citrate or how to sous vide a steak using a cooler of lukewarm water and a really hot grill.

But the question remains, can all this science actually create food that tastes good?

JIMMY KIMMEL (Jimmy Kimmel Live/TV Clip): It's cold!

DAVID POGUE: Nathan shared his cryo-fried hamburger with Jimmy Kimmel, his 72-hour short rib pastrami with Stephen Colbert,…

STEPHEN COLBERT (The Colbert Report/TV Clip): Oh, my god!

DAVID POGUE: …and salmon cooked in a Ziploc® bag with Martha Stewart.

MARTHA STEWART (TV Clip): Oh, my gosh!

WOLFGANG PUCK: This is a new beginning of science and technology and creativity all mixed together to really create great flavors.

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: We're trying to show people what's possible. If you understand how cooking works, and you understand these great techniques, you have a much wider range of possibilities.

Credits

Can I Eat That?

HOST
David Pogue
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Doug Hamilton

Nathan Myhrvold Profile

WRITTEN BY
Jesse Sweet
PRODUCED BY
Joshua Seftel & Jesse Sweet
DIRECTED BY
Joshua Seftel

NOVA scienceNOW

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Julia Cort
PRODUCTION MANAGER
Stephanie Mills
BUSINESS MANAGER
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INTERSTITIALS PRODUCED BY
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ORIGINAL MUSIC BY
Christopher Rife
SENIOR RESEARCHER
Kate Becker
CAN I EAT THAT? EDITED BY
Geoff Gruetzmacher
Rob Tinworth
NATHAN MYHRVOLD PROFILE EDITED BY
Jawad Metni
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Jill Landaker Grunes
ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS
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SPECIAL THANKS
Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology
Yale University
FLIR Cameras
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Gilbert Pilgram
Monell Chemical Senses Center
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Sarah Pilkenton
The Cooking Lab / Intellectual Ventures
Whole Foods Market, Bellevue
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NOVA scienceNOW is a trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation

NOVA scienceNOW is produced for WGBH/Boston

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0917517. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Image

(Nathan Myhrvold)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Scott Heimendinger
Modernist Cuisine, Business Manager
Nathan Myhrvold
Intellectual Ventures

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