By By Dwight Garner – Photographs by Kyoko Hamada
15 June 2014
Nathan Myhrvold, the Mad Hatter of modernist cooking,
invited the movement’s leading chef, Ferran Adrià, over for a 50-course, lab-prepared meal.
It was a lot to digest, sure, but what does a feast like this mean for the future of eating?
Ferran Adrià and Nathan Myhrvold are an odd couple. Adrià, the Catalan chef, is compact and handsome in an Antonio Banderas-meets-Leonard Cohen sort of way. When he tastes something he likes, he closes his eyes and says, “Fantástico.” Myhrvold, the Microsoft multimillionaire and inventor turned cookbook writer, is a gentler presence. Redheaded, he resembles a cartoon chipmunk, the kind that laughs when you poke its tummy. When he tastes something good, his cheeks glow as if his heart’s pilot light has been ignited.
The pair, both in their early 50s, are at the top of the culinary movement that’s become known as modernist cuisine, one that’s pushed chefs and intrepid home cooks to master a new batterie de cuisine (sous-vide vacuum sealers, ultrasonic homogenizers, centrifuges) and to fill their pantries with staples like xanthan gum and liquid lecithin. Cheerful rule-breakers, they are self-consciously in league with narrative-fracturing modernists in other disciplines — James Joyce in fiction, the Bauhaus school in architecture, Martha Graham in dance. They talk about food the way other people talk about novels or paintings, using terms like “whimsy,” “satire,” “nostalgia” and “trompe l’oeil” as often as “crispy,” “fat,” “salty” or “al dente,” usually without sounding obnoxious.
Adrià is the master in this long-distance relationship, Myhrvold his eager pupil. “I’m to blame for him,” Adrià said, laughing. Between 2005 and 2011, Myhrvold flew halfway across the world to eat as often as possible at El Bulli, Adrià’s avant-garde restaurant on the Costa Brava, which closed in 2011 so that the chef could devote himself to culinary research. El Bulli is where Myhrvold first discovered many of the techniques he’s come to champion, and the sort of playfully deconstructed dishes he prizes.
Myhrvold was so inspired by what he ate that he took many of Adrià’s ideas back home and ran amok with them. Cooking out of a sprawling, busy lab on the outskirts of Seattle that also houses Intellectual Ventures, his patent-generating company, he and a team of chefs produced the six-volume, 2,438-page masterwork “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.” The book, published in 2011, has been deeply influential in the food world — it’s the first thorough explication of sous-vide cooking, among other things — and has gone through four printings despite its $625 price tag. Myhrvold is proud of “Modernist Cuisine” and of his more approachable cookbook, “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” but there’s still a speck of angst in him. “No one has said to my face, ‘Who the hell are you to write this book?’ ” Myhrvold said. “But we want people to know that we can actually cook.”
Two years ago, he began to host dinners in his lab. Bill Gates celebrated a birthday here. Thomas Keller, David Chang and other chefs have flown to town just for Myhrvold’s meals, which comprise as many as 30 small, inventive, labor-intensive courses. Many others are clamoring to get into America’s most elite pop-up restaurant, where almost no one can get a reservation.
The one person whom Myhrvold has most longed to cook for is Adrià. A few months ago, when he learned that his idol would be in Seattle, an invitation went out. He proposed 50 courses in homage to a similar meal he’d had at El Bulli. Adrià eagerly accepted. I was invited to sit in, and eagerly accepted as well, after jumping up and down for a bit like the kid who unwrapped the final golden ticket in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” But then trepidation set in. Fifty courses, plus nine wines and two cocktails? Would this be the best meal of my life, or a long jolt of high-minded food-aversion therapy, like something out of “A Clockwork Orange”? Was any of this even about food?
WE SAT DOWN at Myhrvold’s white-clothed table, under fluorescent lighting, at 1 p.m. on a gusty Friday afternoon. “You’ve got to be prepared physically and mentally for a meal like this one,” Adrià said, patting his potbelly and giving me the once-over. At each place setting was a copy of Myhrvold’s menu, with dishes that ran down the pages like the technical credits at the end of a James Cameron movie. The 50 courses were listed under nine headings: “Cocktails and Snacks,” “Mexico,” “Vegetables,” “Asia,” “France,” “Italy,” “America,” “Cheese” and “Dessert.” “Ferran can dish this kind of meal out,” Myhrvold said, “but now we’re going to see if he can take it.”
The first two courses, served by a professional wait staff hired for the event, were wildly deconstructed cocktails. Myhrvold’s “Bloody Mary,” a stick of celery with a bit of mayonnaise piped on top, arrived looking like a canapé. Popped into the mouth, however, it expanded. The mayonnaise, it turned out, was alcoholic — Everclear and milk emulsified into oil. On top of this were balanced microcubes of clam-juice gel, as well as tiny juice sacs from a lime that had been cryo-frozen and then shattered. The cocktail was dusted with tomato powder, horseradish, salt and pepper.
Myhrvold, a man of science, likes the intensity of complicated food, to which he applies the same principles, and occasionally the same equipment, as his other tech projects. He enrolled in college at 14, and did postdoctoral work on quantum theories of gravity at Cambridge University under Stephen Hawking. He started Microsoft’s research division, departing from the company in 1999 with hundreds of millions of dollars. In his lab, not far from where we ate our meal, a laser was aimed at a wire box swarming with live mosquitoes. To fight malaria, the lab has invented a “photonic fence” device that identifies, tracks and zaps female mosquitoes (only females bite humans). An inventor with hundreds of patents under his belt, from surgical staples to nanoelectromechanical devices, who also has a way with oysters, is a rarity in our world.
The oysters in question, Kumamotos, had been “cryo-shucked,” or plunged into liquid nitrogen for 15 seconds to pop open their shells like automobile hoods. Muscles that attached the bivalves to those shells had been trimmed away. The shells themselves had been sandblasted, to polish them, in the lab’s shop. The oysters were served, two nestled in each half-shell, along with pearls of a puree made from sunchokes, oysters and brine. For acidity, a sprinkle of lemon gelée was added. We were off and running. The dishes began to come, each as small and lovely and complicated as a flower, some served as single bites on white Asian soup spoons.
We traveled to “Mexico.” A dish called “Milagro al Pastor” arrived with tortillas laser-cut with an image of Adrià’s face. During the “Asia” course, two types of fish, escolar and ahi, had been combined to make a chessboard, and silicone molds were filled with either ponzu or passion fruit to create chess pieces. Faster than Jules Verne, we moved to “France.” Here, a dish caught Adrià off guard. What appeared to be caviar was actually a cluster of pressure-cooked mustard seeds with squid ink and other ingredients. “Fantástico,” Adrià said, when he learned what he’d eaten.
A common critique of Myhrvold’s food is that it’s pedantic and soulless. His recipes can be so scientific that they seem self-defeating, like a sex guide on how to achieve the perfect orgasm that instructs its reader to stop every 45 seconds during intercourse to check his pulse and pupil dilation. Yet, when Myhrvold employs a centrifuge, for example, to whir the essence of peas or carrots for his dishes, the results are straightforward and remarkably powerful.
The “America” portion of the menu, which included “Baked-potato Soup,” “Salmon,” “Roast Chicken,” “Rye” and “Pastrami,” were demonstrations of farm-to-table on a high level. It also included “Wine,” which he likes to salt. He does this because it balances the wine’s flavors, especially those that are harsher and more tannic, but also because it’s a lively way to flush out the snobs. “Doing something like this is such a strong cultural taboo that it freaks people out,” Myhrvold said. “The way we treat wine is governed by an implicit set of rules and strictures that rival fundamentalist religions in their severity and intensity. It shocks people to put salt in wine. But why? It’s just food!”
By the time we’d eaten our way through “America” we’d each put away 38 courses. I was full. After 45 courses, I was lowing like a cow. In my food- and wine-altered state, I began to meditate on the notion of death by senseless beauty. By the fifth hour, Adrià was openly taunting me. He called out for second helpings while I groaned. “The kind of people who mock long tasting menus,” Adrià said, “are the same people you see lining up at the hotel breakfast buffet, dumping 30 different things on their plates.” Adrià’s future plan is to begin cooking only about 20 nights a year. “Cooking at this level is like giving a concert,” he said. “No one in their right mind gives 300 concerts a year.” The one piece of advice he has given Myhrvold: “Never open a restaurant.”
The final dish, an absinthe cocktail topped with a swirling sugar mold made with a 3D printer, arrived after 6 p.m. Adrià downed his absinthe and, in his playful way, began to wonder where he might go out to dinner later that night. “Listen, the world is very big,” he said to me, leaning in. “But there are only seven of us, right now, who are finishing this meal. We are very lucky.”
Indeed, we were. And yet well after midnight, I ducked out of my hotel room for a greasy cheeseburger at Dick’s, the venerable Seattle burger joint. I would return to Myhrvold’s table in a heartbeat. But that burger? No amount of brainiac twiddling could improve upon it. It was an uncomplicated revelation.