Food Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Molecular gastronomist Nathan Myhrvold creates culinary oddities and explores food science in his groundbreaking new anthology

"Drippings are the real secret to the unique flavor of grilled food," Nathan Myhrvold insists. His passion for cross-section photographs led to many a flameout. (Ryan Matthew Smith / The Cooking Lab LLC)
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It may have occurred to you that this kind of cooking runs exactly counter to the other dominant trend in dining, the quest for authenticity, traditional preparations and local ingredients that sometimes goes by the name “slow food.” Among its most eloquent advocates is the author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food), whose motto is “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Yet even Pollan was won over by his lunch at the Food Lab, pronouncing the sous-vide short-rib pastrami, a signature dish, “pretty incredible. It’s a realm of experimentation, of avant-garde art. There’s art I find incredibly stimulating, but I wouldn’t necessarily want it on my living-room wall.” For his part, Myhrvold regards Pollan with mild condescension, implying that he has failed to think through his own philosophy. “If everyone had followed his rule about great-grandmothers, recursively back into history, nobody would ever have tried anything new,” Myhrvold says. “Many of the things the slow food people honor were innovations within historical times. Somebody had to be the first European to eat a tomato.”

Yes, and somebody had to be the first person to make a six-foot-long Parmesan noodle, and since I had obtained one of the first copies of Myhrvold’s book, I thought it should be me. I would accompany the noodle dish, I decided, with Myhrvold’s recipe for spherified tomato water with basil oil. In the photographs, these were shimmering, transparent spheres, each trapping within it a bright-green globe of liquid pesto. I could hardly wait to try one.

Right off the bat, though, I faced my limitations as a home cook. Lacking a centrifuge to produce the colorless tomato-flavored liquid the recipe demands, I had to rely on the relatively crude technique of vacuum filtration. Not that I had a machine for that either, but I managed to improvise one with a medical suction device and a coffee filter, which produced, at the rate of about three droplets a minute, a small quantity of slightly cloudy, rose-colored liquid. Also, the brand of agar Myhrvold specifies for the noodles sells for as much as $108 for half a kilogram, which seemed extravagant since the recipe called for only 2.1 grams. Even that amount would make 90 linear feet of noodle. I cut the recipe by three-quarters, and in the process of pouring the mixtures in and out of saucepans and measuring cups, straining and sieving, an awful lot got left behind. In the end I managed to fill just one and a half six-foot lengths of quarter-inch-diameter plastic tubing, which had to be submerged in ice water for two minutes and quickly attached by one end to a soda siphon. Then with one quick burst of carbon dioxide the contents came shooting out in glorious, shimmering heaps that served six people, as long as they were content with three mouthfuls each. I considered this a triumph, especially compared with the tomato spheres, which turned into shapeless, drippy blobs that fell apart as soon as I dunked them in the three bowls of ice water specified by Myhrvold’s recipe.

But everyone was complimentary, and I’m pleased to have played my part in this great culinary revolution. Adrià himself would have understood my impulse to then boil up a large pot of spaghetti and defrost a container of marinara sauce that had been in the freezer since August. As his biographer, Colman Andrews, reports, when Adrià goes out to eat, his favorite meal is fried calamari, sauteed cuttlefish with garlic and parsley, and rice with seafood. In other words, he eats what his great-grandmother would recognize.

Jerry Adler last wrote for Smithsonian about Depression-era art. He says he eats whatever is put in front of him.


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